After spending the day preparing for the class at the Weber Grill Academy, Kevin drove us over to the Weber grill restaurant 10-minutes away for an after work social to meet the Weber restaurant crew, R&D Engineers, and members of the Stephens family. Let Harry and Kevin talk and sat in the front of Kevin’s car, I set down my purse inside the baby car seat in the back. I was thankful that baby seats were a forgotten obligation. I took a nice photo of the two pitmasters underneath the giant red Weber kettle in front of the restaurant and walked into the richly decorated restaurant. A long line of giant uncoated stainless steel kettles is the first thing you notice when you walk into the place. Exhaust systems hung over-head to handle the 1500°F heat and smoke that comes off of these grills. The grills are held at different temperatures to cover all of the items on the menu.
We were introduced to Corporate Chef Larry Donahue, R&D Chef Matt Jost and Executive Chef Dustin Green and given a kitchen tour. Larry opened up the Old Hickory they use to BBQ and explained that their smoker was a real workhorse, smoking at near full capacity. The Chicago restaurant was even busier. The kitchen had high ceilings and felt comfortable even though it pushes out nearly 2,000 lb of coals a day. That’s equal to a 100 20lb bags of Kingsford, for those of you that grill in your backyard. The kitchen was well managed and clean. These chefs put out over a hundred different menu items each day. I found them passionate and personable. When we talked about the class the next day, I remembered to thank these men for sourcing high quality meats. It was a rare treat. They said they got the best money could buy in Chicago and I believed them.
Afterwards, we walked into a private reception room, lavishly decorated with nostalgic photos of Weber’s founder, George Stephen. An employee shared a story about how in 1952, George Stephen Sr. was working at Weber Brothers Metal Works in Chicago and manufacturing marine buoys when he came up with an idea for a dome-shaped grill with a lid. By cutting a buoy in half and adding some vents and legs, the Weber grill was born.
Mr. Stephen had 12 children and we met two of them that evening, Bob and Melissa. They were both very gracious and charming and shared fond stories of their family as we ate grilled vegetables, artichoke and spinach dips, and bacon wrapped shrimp on chafing dishes as our own bartender handed us anything we wanted to drink. Weber even brought in a Summit grill and an 18” WSM.
Naturally, Harry and I asked people to pose in front of the grill and smoker. I think our favorite moment of the entire trip was meeting Eric Schlosser, Weber’s first engineer and the inventor of the WSM. For me, it was like meeting the president of the United States. We both keep telling Mr. Schlosser what an honor it was t meet him and asked him to take photos with us in front of his WSM. We were enthralled with this graciously humble man and we made sure he understood how many lives he has changed by creating a simply designed, heat-efficient and cost-effective smoker. Cooks all over the world use WSMs and win major competitions, beating out much more expensive smokers. If anyone has proven that, it is Harry Soo. But there is no good way to communicate how difficult it is to win a contest without having tried it yourself. Harry has walked out of Vegas after battling 110 teams from 27 states clutching an over-sized $10,000 Grand Champion check and a single WSM smoker in the back of his Honda mini-van. How cool is that to do? Eric is the man who made it possible for both of us to cook and teach the way we do every weekend of our lives the past few years.
After Eric, I met Leonard Zelek, an R&D Senior Project Engineer. I posed with Leonard in front of the Summit, which he labored over for a long time. Lenny is my kind of guy. He talked about working late into the night, to meet strict deadlines and going to conferences to seek out suitable working materials for Weber. He asked pitmasters questions about why they do what they do. He explained his disappointment at their answers and I reassured him that tomorrow’s class would not be like that. Harry was going to answer every possible question he could have and would go into the physics and chemistry of BBQ. He seemed excited and so was I.
We met Weber’s social media manager, Heather Herriges and grill tester, Jenny Lussow. As the night progressed, we took our leave so we could start cooking for tomorrow. After all, it was going to be low and slow good old fashioned pit barbecue.
By 4 am, I had put the brisket and the shoulder for the class and by 7:30am, the Weber executives, managers, engineers, grill instructors, and restaurant chefs were outside listening to Harry talk about BBQ.
We ran several WSMs and a Weber Summit gas grill, which is a grand-daddy of a grill. I don’t really know anything about grilling, but having worked for a Swiss diagnostic pharmaceutical company, I have always enjoyed over-engineered equipment and the Summit was exactly that. The wheels had to have a 15° angle tolerance against tipping. The knobs lit up for night time use. There was even an indicator that told you how much propane was left in the tank. It was freaking awesome. The charcoal grill was the same. There was a place to hold the lid comfortably; numerous alternative configurations for woks, fish, and grilled veggies. You name it. I made use of the equipment by handing the tongs over to Kevin, who cooked with the confidence of a master. I enjoyed watching him when I wasn’t watching over the WSMs.
When I opened up the 18 inch in the morning, I was truly surprised to see the dark oily bark on the prized SRF brisket. I’ve rarely gotten a brisket to look that pretty in sunny and dry California. I thought I made a mistake somehow but Kevin said that’s how briskets cooked in Chicago. I couldn’t wait to taste it.
If you have ever taken a SYD BBQ 101 class, you will know that there’s a fair amount of science that Harry teaches. There is even a monologue on barbecue and “quantum mechanics” and “string theory” as well. To my surprise, our Weber students, especially the engineers, knew enough astronomy, chemistry, and physics to answer quite a few of Harry’s crazy science questions. Bravo!
For the class, we cooked a breakfast “fatty” made up of an apple fritter donut, cream cheese, bacon bits, scrambled egg, Jimmy Dean sausage rolled up in a bacon weave exterior. Then there were the Korean BBQ flaken-cut beef short ribs and Harry’s now famous bacon wrapped pineapple mozzarella rings smoked in a 14” WSM. Luckily, Kevin and Dina Howard Helped us make these donuts the night before. Not to be outdone, there was also barbecued Pig Candy for snacking. Then there was tri-tip which I’m sure was difficult to source in Chicago but they did it. And of course, Harry taught how to cook the four competition meats, chicken thighs, St. Louis ribs, baby back ribs, rib tips, pork shoulder, and brisket.
The students were eager to learn the secrets of BBQ. In my opinion, Harry taught the best class I have ever seen him teach. The reason why I say that is because he was able to communicate to Weber, as a user, how great their products are and how much joy they give to their customers everywhere in the world. What a terrific job it must be to make it your responsibility to bring people together and have a good time around a fire cooking a meal together. Grilling becomes bonding and bonding becomes joy.
At the end of class, as the meal is being served, Harry dissects the pork shoulder into different muscle groups so the students can experience the many different flavors and textures the shoulder has to offer. The class respectfully grew silent, standing around him anticipating what he called the “Hog Heaven” moment. I held my breath hoping that my efforts were not in vain. Each student closed his/her eyes and tasted competition level money muscle. I heard groans, Oohs and Ahhs and I was able to exhale in a sigh of relief. I did a good enough job. The same thing happened with the Wagyu brisket, the ribs, the chicken, the tri-tip and the seared Ahi tuna, Harry’s signature dish. So on and so on. We cooked 15 meats and sides in 7 ½ hours. It was a cooking and eating marathon. By 2:30pm, more Weber employees poured in and for the first time in our teaching careers, there were almost no leftovers to take home. We felt great and honored and hopefully demonstrated to Weber what superb tools they create and the joy they enable.
The next day, Kevin took us out for breakfast and then we were off to Huntley, Illinois, where we visited the manufacturing division of the charcoal grills & smokers.