All Fired Up (and Down): Urban Chefs Reinvent BBQ with Rural-style Wheel Grills

by Nicholas Rummell
Shannon Sturgis Nicholas Rummell
June 2012

Wheel Grill Facts

Leading U.S. Manufacturers:
J&R Manufacturing
(972) 285-4855
820 W. Kearney
Mesquite, Texas 75149

Beech Ovens
(714) 961 2400
2650 Orbiter Street
Brea, CA 92821

Varies. J&R Manufacturing sells theirs starting at $8,300 for the 3-foot version without the frills (customization can bring prices upwards of $12,000). The larger Parilla grill from Beech Ovens (which uses chain pulleys, giving it a medieval look) costs roughly $25,000.

Options include:
Landing shelves, cutting boards, robata grill, basting pan cutouts, and back/side splash guards

The wind blows away the oppressive heat of midsummer. Heat waves rise from the ground. And there's nothing you'd like more than to watch a simmering flame lick at some freshly charred meat as it's lowered down into the fire. So you take a step off the dusty road and into the nearby grill house in … Bed-Stuy?

Tired of being relegated to second-class grilling status, many urban restaurants are now plunking down big bucks for advanced wood-fired grills with manual wheel cranks, taking a page from idyllic Basque country bistros and backyard Texas meat shacks.

Wedged between portraits of thoroughbreds and old coil test and tachometer gauges, the wheel grill at Brooklyn's Speedy Romeo is the centerpiece of the open-air kitchen, adding a bit of rusticity to the restaurant's urban setting. Each day the grill is stoked with oak, flames raging, but because of the wheel crank the brave souls manning it—the pastry chef and garde manger cook—can lower or raise the grill to get either a hard sear or just a touch of smoke on their dishes.

The grill is also an absolute necessity at Speedy Romeo, which is situated in what used to be an auto parts store. When it opened earlier this year, Chef Justin Bazdarich made the decision to go gas-less, refusing to install any ranges or stoves and choosing instead to cook nearly every dish the old way. "Everything [on the menu] comes from a wood-burning fire or a wood-burning grill. No gas here," he says.

Wheel grill at Speedy Romeo — Brooklyn, NY

Wheel grill at Speedy Romeo — Brooklyn, NY   View More Photos

Bazdarich admits the grill, while definitely cool, has its drawbacks. "It kind of limits [our] prep and our creativity," he says, adding that he keeps a few induction burners for some of the pastry dishes and to boil water. It was also a hassle to get approved by city regulators. "Originally we were told by New York City [officials] that we couldn't have a wood-burning grill," he says. "Eventually we figured out the right permits to sign, and we got it going."

Today, Bazadarich uses the grill for more than half the meat and fish dishes on his menu, and even for some of the pizzas and desserts. The inspiration came from a similar wheel grill used at Jean Georges Steakhouse at the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas, which Bazdarich helped open. "I just fell in love with the grill. The subtle smoke flavor it would give to anything you put on it, the char you can get … you cannot get [that] from a gas grill."

The Grand Grillardin

Bazdarich is not alone in his love for the wheel grill; a number of other chefs have found inspiration in wood-fired cooking, taking the oldest form of cookery in brave new directions.

Grilled Rhubarb Tart: Almond, Lemon, and Semifreddo from Pastry Chef Anne Christianson of Speedy Romeo — Brooklyn, NY

Grilled Rhubarb Tart: Almond, Lemon, and Semifreddo from Pastry Chef Anne Christianson of Speedy Romeo — Brooklyn, NY  View More Photos

In recent years visionary Chef Victor Arguinzoniz has helped bring these antiquities back into vogue. At his farmhouse-setting Asador Etxebarri in Spain's Basque country, where tasted in 2010, Arguinzoniz is like some like some shy, benevolent Torquemada; few proteins or vegetables are safe from "his workhorse."

Self-taught, Arguinzoniz is not just an amazing cook, but also a visionary creator of metal and wood. A wood purist, he won't use industrial charcoal (he considers it unhealthy and a flavor-killer), instead making his own from various woods. He also helped engineer his wheel-and-pulley grill, as well as an armory's worth of cages, pans, and tongs to cook such items as oysters, caviar, and egg yolks.

Limitations aren't in Arguinzoniz's vocabulary. Growing up on a farmhouse, often without electricity, his family often had to make due just the fire in the hearth. From that upbringing he learned the intricacies of fire—and how certain items need to be kept far from the flames, while others can be immersed in them—which makes the wheel grill an essential tool.

Reinventing the Wheel Grill

Today, Etxebarri is largely credited with giving barbeque a glaze of respectability among on the world's culinary stage, despite it's primitive, simple approach to food. The restaurant is currently number 31 on San Pellegrino's "top 50 restaurants" in the world list. It's success has also inspired a new legion of sophisticated grilling chefs.

Australian Chef Lennox Hastie, who for years recently had been Arguinizoniz's partner-in-flame at Etxebarri, is one such protégé. Although the two no longer speak to each other, Hastie, who has returned to Australia to start his own venture, says his mentor taught him that grilling is not just basting meat over a raging, fiery pit. "It's about controlling the fire," he says.

Other chefs have been similarly wowed by Arguinizoniz's fervor. "Yeah, he's such a fanatic. He takes it to the extreme," says 2011 Chicago Rising Star Chef Ryan Poli, who saw Arguinzoniz's grills firsthand during his travels throughout Spain. At his Tavernita in downtown Chicago, Poli decided to follow Arguinzoniz's lead, charging local steelworker Alex Morales to engineer and weld together a customized wheel grill.

"We ended up making it out of solid steel … basically a big cage," says Morales, whose company Smartmouth Designs had designed backyard residential grills but never a commercial wheel grill before Poli came calling. "A lot of the grills in Spain and Argentina are massive—you know, the centerpiece of the restaurant. But [Poli] wanted something smaller. Plus, I think the fire department requirements in those countries aren't as strict as in the United States" Morales and Poli put their heads together, scrapping designs and coming up with a compact version of the wheel grill by welding cast-iron grills to industrial-grade steel shafts.

House-made Lamb Sausage, Chickpeas, and Spicy Giardiniera

House-made Lamb Sausage, Chickpeas, and Spicy Giardiniera  View More Photos

The final grill at Tavernita has a cabinet to collect embers (on which Poli sometimes cooks vegetables) and a makeshift flat iron insert, which acts like a plancha. "When we started, I showed [Morales] pictures of Etxebarri and [there was] a lot of back and forth on what we wanted," he said. "Now my grill weighs 8,000 pounds. The whole restaurant could burn down, but that grill wouldn't go anywhere."

Not all chefs want to make their own grills, though. Many prefer to buy theirs from large, international restaurant equipment purveyors like J&R Manufacturing. But even in those cases, customization is not unheard of and is even encouraged. A chef doesn't just buy a wheel grill without tinkering with the design to fit his or her restaurant's particular needs. Chef Tom Colicchio tailored the "Gramercy Grill" at Gramercy Tavern to include a smoker. Jamie Oliver recently tweaked the grill he recently purchased at Barbacoa to allow meats to dangle above the flame.

In one variation or another, J&R's "Woodshow Broiler" is used by corporate chains (Chevys Fresh Mex), high-end restaurants like Gramercy, and roughneck steakhouses. But like wrought-iron snowflakes, no two grills are exactly the same.

"Our customers get involved in the manufacturing side … they help us create these grills," said Keith Stewart, a sales representative at J&R. In Oliver's case, he reportedly wanted to be able to shovel embers in and out of the grill more easily, and asked for a larger detachable door. The new "breach stop" door is now a fixture on many of the wheel grills sold by J&R to other restaurants.

Back at Speedy Romeo, the grill is nearly always burning, the wheel spinning up and down, and ideas to use it constantly churning in Bazdarich's brain. "We just got snap peas today," he told us during our visit. "I was thinking of maybe using a perforated sheet tray or a hotel pan on the grill. Have it searing hot, and then throw like a wok the snap peas in there to get the smoke on the peas."