Marc Vetri Says To Ditch The Olive Oil, Plus More Grilling Tips From Philly’s Top Chefs

Steak...on the Grill

Photograph by Carnivore Style

Burnt chicken. Overcooked steaks. Singed eyebrows. Grilling can be a real pain, and it’s a lot of work. Plus, you know that if Uncle Harry’s rib eye isn’t perfect, he’s going to be kvetching about it until Labor Day. To give you a fighting chance, we checked in with some of the city’s best chefs to find out what to do — and what not to do — to make your cookout killer. Happy 4th!

Chicken Is Not Supposed To Be Black

“When you see super-burnt chicken, this is because there are too many coals on the grill. You want to start off with lower heat, so put your chicken pieces on the cooler part of the grill, and then use the hot spot later to crisp up the skin. Sometimes, if you have a ton of people coming over and want to make sure everyone is taken care of, you can even cook it first inside, in the oven, and then finish it up on the grill, with your sauce.” – Erin O’Shea, Percy Street

Lighter Fluid Is the Antichrist

“When I go to cookouts, it is so off-putting to see people dousing their coals in lighter fluid. These are chemicals. You’re going to be eating off of those coals. Plus, the easy light coals burn way too fast. The easiest way to deal with lighting the grill is a chimney starter. You can have your coals rippin’ hot in 20 or 25 minutes. Just add a little newspaper and you’re there.” — Nick Macri, Southwark

Don’t Forget Your Veggies

“Vegetables are great on the grill. For most, I salt them a little to get some of the water out, maybe 20 minutes before. Then, put them on a screaming hot grill. Others, like beets, onions, and garlic, I put right in the coals wrapped in foil. You can even grill fava beans and peas in the pod. You just put them on a fine grate. Right now, we’re doing a smoked zucchini puree. We sautee slivers without the seeds, then smoke and puree.” — Josh Lawler, The Farm & Fisherman

Don’t Fear the Fish

“I love doing a whole side of sea bass or salmon on a gas grill. Nothing too big, like a swordfish, or you’ll be there for 8 hours. But a nice Chilean sea bass, 3 inches thick, it will feed a family of five, and all you need is some salt, pepper, and olive oil. Soak a cedar plank overnight, line it with limes, and then just put the fish on it with some kosher salt. The whole thing goes on the second tier on medium high. Maybe 25 minutes later, that’s it.” — Romeo DiBona, Old Homestead at the Borgata

Touch Yourself (To See If Your Steak Is Done)

“It’s easy to tell when a piece of meat is cooked to the right temp. Touch your cheek. That’s how it will feel when a steak is right around medium rare. If you have to cook it a little more, touch the tip of your nose. That’s medium. For anything more than that, medium well or well done, it will feel like your chin bone. Whatever you do, don’t poke your meat or cut it to test for doneness, or all the juices will run out.” — Ed Battaglia, Ralic’s Steakhouse

Thighs Trump Breasts

“People seem to always go for the breasts, but boneless, skinless chicken thighs are really excellent for grilling. They’re juicier, and really so much better. They’re also really flavorful and take well to a lot of different seasonings. And they are generally pretty cheap, but you should spend a little extra to get a higher quality chicken, because the thigh is where you can really taste the off-flavor in a chicken, much more than in a breast.” – Aliza Green, author of The Field Guide to Meat

Season. Season. And Then Season Some More

“One of the biggest mistakes people make is that they don’t season their meat. Actually, a lot of home cooks just don’t season anything properly, at all. Most people that cook at home don’t understand that you have to put salt and pepper on everything. Everything. I’ve been to so many backyards. He’s got on an apron. He’s the man for like one day a year. And he unwraps some steaks and just throws them right on the grill. It’s disgusting. How could you do that?” – David Katz, Meme

If You Think It’s Hot Enough, It’s Not Hot Enough

“When I see home grillers cook steaks, the grill is never hot enough. Listen, if you want to cook steaks on a grill, then the grill has got to be extremely hot. Otherwise, cook something else. If it’s not hot enough, the steak will cook all the way through before you develop any good color. Put your hand two inches above the grill. If you can hold it there for more than two seconds, it’s not hot enough. It’s that simple.” – Chris Painter, Starr Restaurants

Ditch the Olive Oil

“I don’t know why, but people love to load their food down with a lot of oil – especially olive oil. But it just burns off, and you get all these flames coming up. And if you’re using a gas grill and you’re getting the flames, well, your food is going to taste like gas. The food doesn’t need any oil. The grate does, and if the grates are really nicely rubbed down with oil, nothing will stick to them. But don’t use olive oil. Go for something with a higher burning temperature, like vegetable or grape seed oil. And then once your food is done, that’s when you hit it with a nice extra virgin.” – Marc Vetri, Vetri + Osteria + Amis

Know Your Equipment

“For me, the trick is to know your grill. Whether you’re using a little drum thing with charcoal or wood, or you have some super duper gas grill at home, there are always hot spots and cooler spots, and if you’re going to be successful, you absolutely have to know where they are. And that means that you have to grill a lot.” – Daniel Stern, R2L + MidAtlantic