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It all began with little grill that could

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PALATINE, Ill. - The man in an apron casually moves quartered slabs of zucchini off the hottest part of the grill to the cooler edges, where they can be turned to expose angled stripes of caramelized flesh. Then peppers, yellow and red and blistered, and saucer-sized portobello mushrooms, too. And finger-thick spears of asparagus, now freckled brown and fire-kissed.

The flesh of filleted salmon is weeping surface puddles of its own oils. The swordfish steaks have been turned, and there is a crackle over the heat. The translucent red of sliced ahi tuna has disappeared beneath a checkerboard cladding of white and brown.

The lid comes up on the adjacent grill, and the patio fills with the summer smells of smoke, cauterized rosemary and melted garlic over roasting meat. The bones on the rack of lamb are as clean and white as piano keys.

To the right, another man moves the chops. The dainty rounds of lamb are heaped atop the skillet-sized planks of Midwestern pork. That way the smaller pieces of meat will not overcook. On another fire, he lifts the lid on the beef - strip steaks, marbled and cut as thick as your wrist, sprinkled with garlic and pepper, charred but still plump and glistening.

In a swirl of aroma, smoke and heat haze, the meat is pulled off the fire to rest.

The relaxed murmur of patio conversation fades to quiet as appetite and anticipation become urgent.

We have invited ourselves to lunch at the home of the Weber kettle. The man at the center of things, the man working the fish and vegetable grill, has kettle in his genes.

Jim Stephen grew up with a father whose tinkering strove for the impossible: an invention that would improve on the cooking technique of our caveman progenitors. Improbable as it seems, he found it. In 1951, George Stephen transformed a Chicago Harbor buoy into a lidded, grated and vented kettle that changed the world's concept of backyard cooking.

It's a word too easily thrown around these days, but icon is no stretch at all when it comes to this ridiculously simple invention.

In short form, the story goes like this:

George Stephen inherited from his father controlling interest in Weber Bros. Metal Spinning Co. of Chicago. Among other things, the firm shaped sheets of metal into harbor buoys.

In the boom years after World War II, George joined a migration of prosperity into the suburbs. The how-to magazines of the era were full of project ideas for gracious living in the expanded backyard spaces of these new neighborhoods, and backyard fetes were an emerging pastime of the new American leisure lifestyle.

In his yard, George erected a massive standing grill and cooking station of yellow brick - an artifact that has since been moved to the entry patio at the headquarters of Weber-Stephen Products Co. in Palatine, Ill.

He invited friends and neighbors over for the inaugural cookout. "Everything got burned," Jim says. "According to my mom, he was fit to be tied."

At this point, we acknowledge a cliche: The American male does not take defeat at the grill lightly.

An idea takes shape

George began his quest for a better way. His inspiration: round instead of rectangular, like a buoy. The top could serve as a lid, which would control temperature so that everything didn't get burned.

Friends came over to see. They laughed. Whoever heard of a backyard grill that looks like a buoy, they said.

Born just one year before the kettle, Jim grew up in a world where Dad's success was proven every night, all week long, winter as well as summer. The purpose of a snow shovel was to keep a path to the grill. A rite of passage in the Stephen family occurred when a youngster was old enough to start the fire.

George died in 1993, and son Jim is now chief executive of the privately held family company that employs 2,200 people in the business of making the world's best-known backyard grills.

Outdoor grilling is different from cooking in the kitchen - countless experts and hundreds of grilling cookbooks are testimony to the belief. Yet when it comes to the kettle, they are mostly wrong.

Yes, the smoke of charcoal dusts food with flavored sprinkles of ash - ancient flavors that can be adjusted according to type of charcoal or the addition of various wood chips or scattered herbs. And gas grills have come very close to doing the same thing by transforming drippings into smoke.

But the actual process of cooking?

On a standard 22 1/2 -inch grill, 25 briquettes on each side of the charcoal grate, or the equivalent in lump charcoal, create a temperature of about 350 degrees on the middle of the cooking grate. That's the default roasting temperature of a standard oven, and it's called indirect grilling.

With the cover down and the vents open to draw air through the fire, the effect is like grill-roasting in a convection oven - slightly faster than a still-air oven.

Spread the charcoal out in a single layer and you have a surface cooking temperature of 550 to 600 degrees. That's equivalent to a broiler, or direct cooking. Again, open vents are necessary to supply the fire with oxygen and the grill lid contains the heat, as well as controls flare-ups.

"If we can teach those simple facts to consumers, that's where they get their confidence," says Mike Kempster, Weber's executive vice president, a 34-year veteran of the company and today's luncheon cook on the steak and chop grills.

Many contemporary grilling cookbooks emphasize these principles, as does Weber's own owner's manual, although some grillers are still slow to take the leap of faith. Let's also recognize that no small number of successful grillers - men, raise your hands - prefer to maintain the illusion that there is some primitive magic at work in harnessing fire rather than simple instructions to be followed.

Beyond the two temperatures of direct and indirect cooking, arrangement of charcoal beneath the grate can serve the same as knobs on a kitchen oven, providing a full range of possibilities.

Making a ramp of charcoal toward one side of the kettle creates a hot side to sear a steak. Then the meat can be moved toward the middle, where the charcoal is disbursed underneath in a loose single layer, to bring the meat to doneness. Leaving the other side of the grill with no charcoal below creates a warming oven for such things as fast-cooking vegetables or shellfish.

Varying the burners on a gas grill accomplishes the same effects.

Not that there should be much mystery to grilling anymore. According to survey data collected by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, 72 percent of American households have an outdoor grill of one brand or another. In households with four or more people, the number jumps to 87 percent - putting grilling not far behind television-watching as a family pastime.

The association further found that slightly more than half of grillers cooked outside year-round. Men are still more likely than women to grill - by about 2-to-1 - but women are more apt to decide when and what to grill.

Keeping trade secrets

West of Palatine in the suburb of Huntley, Ill., the ground near Interstate 90 rumbles.

Presses two stories tall with the force of 500 tons stamp sheets of steel into the apple shapes of lids and kettles in sizes small, standard and feed-the-neighborhood.

As manufacturing goes, production of the charcoal kettle is as straightforward as its design: handles, a lid-hook and leg sockets are welded onto the stamped kettles, which are then dusted with powdered glass and fired to 1,540 degrees to create a porcelain-enamel cladding.

Exactly how this is done and the Willy Wonka machinery to do it, however, is cloaked in secrecy; visitors to the plant must sign a pledge not to reveal certain details.

"We think there is something valuable that the consumer gets if we have our hand on the manufacturing," says Jim Stephen in explaining why the company keeps most production here at home.

That's not the only way that the Weber kettle defies conventional corporate wisdom. From the start, it was designed to not grow obsolete or wear out.

A few years back, the company held a contest to find the oldest grill in use. The contest winner was an Illinois doctor who inherited the grill from his mother. It had been cooking steadily for the family since 1955. Before he accepted his prize of a new gas grill, the doctor asked, "Will it cook as well?"

In Schaumburg, Ill., the company maintains a round-the-clock, 364-day-a-year toll-free hot line to answer grilling questions. (It's closed on Christmas.) Jane Olsen, who has been handling calls for eight years, gets plenty of questions about how long to cook various foods or how to order new parts for gas grills.

She also gets calls from kettle owners whose only purpose, she thinks, is grasping for a straw, any reason at all, to justify buying a new grill, maybe the kettle with the removable ash-catcher. Their stubborn old grill won't give up, but the new and the shiny still beckons.

Jim Stephen says there are two good excuses to get a new Weber: Send the old one to college with a child. (He's made way for three new ones that way.) Or expand your social life "to the point when one grill isn't enough."

The bulletin board at Weber's customer-service center is papered with testimonials, including some where Stephen's advice is taken to the extreme. A man in Hornell, N.Y., said his Fourth of July party has grown from 15 guests to 135. He included a picture of his 11 grills.

According to the industry trade group, the average grilling household has 1.6 outdoor grills.

Americans deep in their passions are always a thing to behold. Another letter on the wall from Bellville, Minn., contained a photograph of a faceless figure beneath a parka, leaning into a wind blast of a blizzard. Dad grilling dinner.

In Salina, Kan., a couple testified to "a long-term love affair with our Weber," which they named "Big Red." It was a wedding gift 35 years ago. For some reason, a good number of grillers posed their dogs with their kettles - perhaps drawing a connection between backyard friends they can count on.

On the patio of Weber's modest low-rise headquarters, in the 90-degree sun of a Midwestern afternoon, with crab-apple trees providing ambience but no shade, lunch is served.

It is an absurd feast: mountains of food and a table for just four. Weber test cook Edna Schlosser has prepared the menu - simple ingredients, cooked simply and simply delicious. A grill may function pretty much like a kitchen oven, but a kitchen appliance cannot carry you back on that magic-carpet ride to the antediluvian past where fire, friends and food first converged.

While we eat, Schlosser briefly sears slices of pineapple, peaches and whole strawberries - fruit that becomes crispy warm on the outside while staying juicy cool beneath.

Inside the headquarters building, other executives and workers at Weber clear off their desks. This food is for all comers. It's a company ritual as old as the grill itself.

Going back to the beginning, inventing the Weber kettle was only half of George Stephen's challenge. He had to sell the idea of cooking outdoors in the round to people who took one look and laughed. So he put his kettle in the car and headed to shopping centers to make lunch for strangers.

In those postwar years, the man in the gray flannel suit expressed his wild-side yearnings in the tiki fantasies of Polynesia. George Stephen met them at the door of Marshall Field's and other department stores in the cities ringing Chicago. Come join us, he would say, we're having a Weber luau.

"One on one, he'd show people what this barbecue could do - one barbecue at a time," says son Jim. "It's the little grill that could."

Shared across cultures

Like the baseball cap, the Weber kettle is one of those few things that Americans share across their cultural divides.

You can strive for the elegance of a whole king salmon or keep it simple, with hot dogs and wings. Either way, the kettle grill belongs to you. Webers are found on patios overlooking formal gardens in Beverly Hills and in the pit parking lots of NASCAR races.

As with the baseball cap, you can spend a little more - or very much more - for the sake of standing out, making a statement or pleasing your eye.

Gas grills from Weber and other manufacturers now reach for the stars in style. Some people will tell you that these grills are not just more stately but more convenient as well.

But here is a secret, and you can pass it around: Every gas grill in every backyard in every corner of the world - each and every last one of them - aspires to nothing except to try to equal that old sawed-in-half lake buoy with a bed of ash-covered, blistering hot coals in its belly.

Good gas grills have given up their "lava rocks" of the 1970s and taken on modern updates that reduce flare-ups and provide smoke that gives backyard grilling its transcendent and timeless essence.

Still, Jim Stephen can detect a difference in the taste of food. "Yes, but I'm not your average person in this matter," he says.

George Stephen, it is said, never failed to distinguish this echo of the ancient past in food cooked over charcoal.

Yes, he discovered how to control the fire. But no one has been able to beat the fire itself. "It's the little grill that could."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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