At its most basic, grilling means cooking things directly over fire. At a deeper level, it is a way to connect you to your cooking.
There is this drive to be the best right from the beginning in barbecue. This is why I named my book Serious Barbecue: Smoke, Char, Baste, and Brush Your Way to Great Outdoor Cooking. There is just something about conquering a high-cost item, such as steak or a roast, over a flame, and just being a boss.
It is you versus the fire—there is nothing in between.
There is no protection and for a brief moment, you have this amazing relationship with your cooking that you wouldn't normally have when you are on a range controlled by knobs. All of a sudden, you are not completely in control anymore. The wind strength, the outdoor conditions, and what you are cooking are now the crucial factors—not you.
My cooking career started gradually moving toward cooking with live fire 16 years ago. Back then, cooking with things like immersion circulators was really becoming in vogue, but that wasn't the answer for me. While the majority of the industry was drifting away and going toward more predictability and control in cooking, I was trying to go a little bit out of control to see what would come out of letting loose a little bit. Also, there is a whole socialization factor that I really, really like when cooking outdoors. You don't have people gathering shoulder-to-shoulder for a cooktop, but people are automatically drawn to an open fire.
As people approach barbecue and cooking outdoors this season, I have a few general pointers to give you. First of all, don't be afraid and don't be intimidated by it.
Every single thing that you cook has a window where the flavor is maximized and then it eventually diminishes with every minute that goes by, or even every second.
You can compensate for your lack of experience with an intense amount of preparation and organization. Sure, everything is happening and you will not be able stop a fire and have it wait for you, but you can have everything ready and be prepared for whatever happens.
Think about using naturally rendered fats as opposed to canola or olive oils. If you are cooking pork, render the fat and use it later! For thin steaks, I love skirt steaks and chuck flap tail. For thicker cuts, I love bone-in New York strips. I naturally gravitate toward beef but there is an exception: I really love a pork shoulder steak cooked over direct coals. I also love cooking pork ribs directly over heat. I prefer wet-aged when it comes to cooking directly over wood or charcoal. When I'm in a restaurant environment, I choose dry-aged stuff.
One of the most important things to understand while grilling for friends is: Don't try to serve everything hot. A lot of the times, American-style steaks are grilled and best eaten right away. However, if you let the meat rest too much, it really changes the flavor for the worse. This really applies to steak and other burnt and bloody cuts, as my chef David Waltuck from now defunct New York restaurant Chanterelle used to say.
My big thing when cooking with fire is knowing your windows. Every single thing that you cook has a window where the flavor is maximized and then it eventually diminishes with every minute that goes by, or even every second. For example, lemons. I cook with lemons all the time and the window for them is right at the end before you serve it. I wouldn't be the same if you squirted some on the meat in the beginning before grilling.
Look at ways to piggy-back or layer flavors. I recommend using a fortified salt instead of just salt and pepper, even if it is as simple as a garlic or onion salt. I always try to see how many times I can incorporate garlic into my barbecue, if I want to accentuate it—grated garlic on the cutting board, in the basting liquid, in the marinade, and in the garlic salt. I call this "3-D cooking." Though, at the end of the day, you can get away with generously using salt and pepper if you absolutely must. I look for distinction not just acceptable.
Like I mentioned earlier, I'm just naturally drawn to fire. I still have a-ha moments all the time; I am still learning. That is the beauty of why grilling will forever be exciting for me.
As told to Javier Cabral
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Adam Perry Lang is a chef who has been cooking for 25 years. He occasionally makes an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live and previously worked at Le Cirque, Daniel, and Restaurant Guy Savoy in France, until he left his pursuit of reviewer's stars to follow his passion for barbecue. He is currently working on opening up his first restaurant in Hollywood, California. It is slated to open next year.