North Carolina native Elizabeth Karmel was raised on barbecue—at roadside stands, neighborhood cookouts and county fairs—but it wasn't until she moved away from home that the barbecue love affair began. When good barbecue wasn't at her fingertips, she had to learn how to smoke it herself, and a pit mistress was born.
Since then, Karmel has made it her mission to learn about every style of barbecue. Karmel, a.k.a. the Queen of the Grill, is now a nationally respected authority on grilling, barbecue and southern food. Her website, GirlsattheGrill.com, encourages everyone to "take the tongs" and provides tips and resources to get started. Karmel is also the executive chef of Hill Country Barbecue Market in New York City and Washington, D.C., and NYC's Hill Country Chicken. She developed the award-winning concept, menu and flavor profiles—from the meats to the sides and desserts—for all three restaurants. The secret to her success? Cooking "low and slow" with indirect heat, letting the meat's inherent flavors work their magic.
She may have restaurants in New York, but Karmel is a southerner at heart. The wholesome and satisfying food her grandmother used to make continues to inspire Karmel in the kitchen, both in her restaurants and when she's making cornbread and homemade ice cream for friends. "Being southern is a nebulous thing," she says. "It is hard to describe, but one thing is for sure, in the southern home—no matter where it is located geographically—you will never want for food and drink, and even the smallest occasion will become a rousing celebration."
Q: Your first experience cooking barbecue yourself wasn't until after you left North Carolina. What inspired you?
A: It was all taste memory. I just really craved it one day after moving to New York, so I got a Boston butt and cooked it indirectly until the fat rendered out, and I made the vinegar sauce I grew up with: apple cider vinegar, ketchup, a little dark brown sugar, white pepper, black pepper, chili flakes and salt. Basically, the recipe I created that day, with a little of this and a little of that, is pretty much the same one I use today. It's so much simpler than everybody thinks.
Q: What's your philosophy on cooking and entertaining?
A: I want to communicate and connect with people through food. I really want them to feel like somebody they love is giving them a hug when they take a bite of my food. It's pure, simple, authentic and homemade.