Designed by the Grillmaster
Russ Faulk is not only Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet's resident grillmaster and barbecue cookbook author, he is the Chief Product Designer. Here Russ discusses what went into creating some of our most distinctive product lines, including his design philosophy, and his commitment to performance and innovation.
Q: What is Your Favorite Thing About the Hybrid Fire Grill?
I truly believe our Hybrid Fire Grill is the best gas grill on the planet. That makes me, and our entire design team very proud. This is easy to overlook because the hybrid capabilities usually get all of the attention.
Q: What were your aesthetic goals when designing the Hybrid Fire Grill?
I wanted to create an overall aesthetic that would be at home in any number of style or design vocabularies. Our grills are installed in outdoor kitchens that span the design spectrum, from sleek to Tuscan, from transitional to traditional American. Our grill needed to be distinctive but also a bit chameleon-like. It needs to feel like an extension of the design of the home. The way we achieved this was by emphasizing visual cues that are very prevalent in architecture. The attractiveness of our grills is rooted in balanced proportions. I think we have achieved a high level of visual interest without resorting to extraneous decorative adornment. We chose to visually emphasize horizontal lines by using a series of overhangs or “architectural reveal lines.” Take a look at how the major vertical lines of the shape of the grill are all interrupted by horizontal structural elements that extend beyond the vertical planes – the flange at the base of the hood, the ledge above the control panel, and the horizontal handles – these are all key elements of embracing that architectural design language. And none of these design choices are pure embellishment. They all serve a useful purpose as well. That ledge above the control knobs, for example, shields the control valve stems from any ash that could fall from the Hybrid Fire Grilling Drawer above them.
Q: The Hybrid Fire Grill has changed over the years. How do you determine what improvements to make?
It has evolved quite a lot since the 1990s. We’re on our fourth generation design right now. Some changes have been major steps forward, while others are just the result of our commitment to continuous improvement. We do a lot of experimentation, lots of trial and error. The nice thing about building everything by hand is that we have more freedom for research and development. We are free to try different things. There’s no need to invest in expensive tooling or shut down a line. We just build our test pieces by hand like we do everything else.
There are so many details on the grill that we test over and over again, looking for ways to improve. Our original Dual-fuel Grill, as it was called back then, came with two different kinds of drawers: one for gas cooking, and one for charcoal. I really wanted to combine the two drawers for a simpler design and better experience. The dedicated gas drawers were lined with ceramic tiles to retain and diffuse heat, and those tiles would have cracked if you used charcoal on them, so I had to find another way. We worked diligently on the different angles in the bends on the stainless steel baffles, the hole patterns, and the gauges of the material. In the end, we came up with a single drawer that was better than the old one for BOTH gas and charcoal.
Q: The Hybrid Fire Grill’s ability to cook with gas, charcoal and wood makes it totally unlike anything else on the market. Can you name another feature that makes this grill truly distinctive?
Our “warming rack” is unlike any other grill’s warming rack. On most grills, this space is used to keep hamburger buns warm and that’s about it. But because our firebox is 37.5” tall, the inside of our grill performs like a convection oven. So you can roast vegetables, steaks, racks of lamb, really anything you want up there, at temperatures exceeding 500 degrees. I like to put root vegetables on that upper rack right when I start a charcoal fire; it gives them a head start cooking while the fire gets going, so each element of the meal comes together at the same time. We made sure that this upper rack doesn’t impede your access to the space underneath, so you can easily use the grill grate directly below it at the same time.
Q: Why did you decide to build the Gaucho Grill?
I love cooking with wood. Part of the appeal of grilling is its primal nature, and I think a wood fire is the most primal way to cook. Also, you can’t beat the flavor. The Hybrid Fire Grill is great for wood-fired cooking, especially for a beautiful, thick sear-and-slide steak or spit-roasted poultry. But, if you really want to go for it, sometimes you want a dedicated tool. The Gaucho is dedicated to wood-fired grilling at its very best. The three things you want if you are in love with wood-fired cooking are: the ability to raise and lower the food above the fire to change the intensity of the heat, enough space to build and sustain a fire and generate the glowing coals you want to cook over, and an easy way to start the fire. These are the reasons the Gaucho Grill exists. I get excited when I talk to clients who choose the Gaucho for their outdoor kitchens. They’re inventive, confident, and they enjoy the primal grilling experience, just like I do. We have quite a few clients who incorporate both the Hybrid Fire Grill and the Gaucho into their kitchens, and that’s even more exciting.
Q: How did you design the Gaucho Grill?
Whether you think of it as an Argentinean grill or a Santa Maria grill, the format has deep roots and some simple parameters. The core essence is the grill rack that raises and lowers over the fire. That was a given, but I wanted the Gaucho Grill to have the all of the conveniences that make the Hybrid great – the gas starter, the rotisserie, the easy ash collection system. One of the big changes we had to think through was a way to seal off the ash bin, so we could maintain embers in the firebox to retain heat. Traditional Argentinean grills use a layer of firebrick for this, but we did it with double-walled, insulated stainless steel.
The big wheel was part of the plan from the beginning. I love the way it looks, but it’s also super functional. Its large size gives you a pronounced mechanical advantage. The extra leverage is crucial because the grill grates it raises and lowers are really big and heavy. Similar grills typically use a ratchet system to keep the grates from falling back down, but not us. We’re using an industrial acme screw system so you don’t need a second hand available to release the ratchet. The beauty of an acme screw is that it operates very smoothly, but the mechanism absolutely will not budge unless you turn the wheel.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced when designing the Gaucho Grill?
The biggest challenge was definitely getting the rotisserie to work the way I wanted it to. I really wanted the rotisserie to move along with the grate. On the Hybrid Fire Grill, you just hit a switch to activate the rotisserie, and I love that – I wanted to make that happen on the Gaucho as well. It was difficult bringing all of that functionality together on the Gaucho Grill. But we did it! I think the most fun thing to do with a Gaucho is to cook with the rotisserie, so I’m very glad we made it happen.
Q: How has the design of the Artisan Fire Pizza Oven changed over time?
Our original pizza oven was a groundbreaking design. It created a new category in outdoor cooking as the first countertop pizza oven for outdoor kitchens, and it was very popular. Many companies have since tried to capitalize on this space. That first generation oven utilized a single burner below the cooking deck, and the cooking was done with the door closed. It was optimized for a seven-to-ten-minute pizza like you might find at California Pizza Kitchen.
I wanted to create a new oven that could achieve a rather lofty goal. I wanted an oven that could deliver a great Neapolitan-style pizza in about two minutes, while still being just as easy to use, and able to safely sit on your outdoor kitchen countertop. That meant starting from scratch. The result has been a huge success. Its fan base even includes Roberto Caporuscio, the president of the Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani America.
We created a two-burner pizza oven with a much larger flame in the rear. We discovered that this rear burner needed to burn a red flame rather than a blue flame for better heat radiation, so we use a diffuser above the burner ports. The biggest hurdle was keeping the pizza oven from getting too hot on the outside. Rather than using insulation and making it heavier and thicker, we did something unusual: we designed it so that cool air is drawn in through the outer layer of panels. As the hot air from inside the oven exits through the chimney, it draws cool air through the space between the inner and outer walls. Avoiding heavy insulation makes the pizza oven quick to heat and quick to cool down, so you have a lot more control over the temperature.
Q: What are the differences between the countertop and built-in models?
The countertop model came first, because we saw that as a real need in the marketplace. Our clients wanted to enjoy the experience of making artisan pizzas at home without building a massive stone structure. It also has the advantage of being relatively easy to move and to add to an existing outdoor living space.
The built-in model was born because designers kept coming up with interesting ways to incorporate our countertop oven into stone alcoves and other structures in order to achieve that traditional built-in aesthetic. It was obvious that people wanted a built-in oven that cooked like a Kalamazoo, so we made it happen. The built-in oven uses the same cooking technology and interior geometry, so it cooks the same. The real challenge we took on was to also make it just as easy to clean and service as the countertop oven, which utilizes an innovative stacking construction. Our solution was a stainless steel structure that is permanently installed into the masonry and attached to the chimney. We call this the installation liner. The oven itself is separate. It glides in and out of the installation liner on heavy-duty stainless steel slides. You can easily remove and clean the cooking deck and ceiling stone without any tools because it slides out entirely clear of the wall and is engineered with the same type of stacking structure as the countertop design.
So in the end, our customers choose one over the other based on the design of their outdoor kitchen and the look they’re going for. There’s no compromise when it comes to functionality or performance.
Q: Why would you recommend adding the Artisan Fire Pizza Oven to an outdoor kitchen?
Our pizza oven brings out the creativity in our clients. It’s a very interactive experience. You’re getting the temperature just right, you’re watching your pizza carefully as it cooks – you just stay really present and in the moment. When grilling, there’s typically a single person responsible for cooking. But pizza-making is social, and everybody likes to contribute. Many people are hesitant to come up with their own grilling recipes, but pizza is a format within which people feel really free to experiment. Our clients host pizza-making parties, or family pizza nights, and everyone has fun creating their own topping combinations and taking ownership of their individual pizzas. It really brings people together and gives them a chance to get more directly involved with their food.