July 20

Summer Grilling

Tips and Tricks from Whole Foods Market Chef Hayden Smissen

Warm weather and (occasional) blue skies mean it’s time to fire up the grill. With arguably the best pantry in the world at his disposal, Chef Hayden Smissen of Whole Foods Market South Lake Union has excellent advice for getting the most flavor out of your grill. We chat with him about his must-have grilling accessories, coals versus propane, the secret to the perfect burger, and more.


Discover South Lake Union: Tell us about your culinary background.

Hayden Smissen: My main culinary influences at an early age were my grandparents. Cuban, Mexican, and Southern food were constants in my life. I began my culinary career in Spain, cooking in restaurants on the Costa Brava, Catalonia. From there, I opened a restaurant in the East Bay Area (CA) with my father, and finally made my way back to the Northwest (Smissen lived in Seattle as a young child), cooking with Emily Moore and Jerry Traunfeld. I have been with Whole Foods Market since 2000.

DSLU: Why grill?

HS: Flavor! There really is no substitute for the flavor that flame gives to food. Also, there is a great sensory theater that happens with smoke and fire. Having friends and family gathered around while waiting for the grilling to commence creates a sense of community that has probably been with humans since the beginning. At this point, it’s in our DNA. Every culture in the world has a grilling component to its cuisine.

DSLU: Coals or propane? Does one method work better for a certain ingredient?

HS: I prefer coals, but there is a place for propane. The really wonderful thing about coals is the variety of wood available. Mesquite, alder, cherry—all lend a signature flavor. You can match the flavor profiles of whatever cuisine you are doing, mesquite or scrub oak for Southwest, alder for Northwest dishes, even binchotan charcoal for Japanese grilling. I use propane when I want to set a temperature and need to walk away from the grill to attend to other things. I add smoke flavor by putting soaked wood chips above the burners.

DSLU: What do home cooks struggle with in terms of grilling?

HS: I think the most common error with grilling is constantly checking to see if the item is done. If you leave seafood or meat alone to do its thing, you will get perfect grill marks and flavor. Constantly moving the item, lifting it up, and moving it around will not allow the grill marks to perfectly form and changes the cooking time.

DSLU: What are some must-have accessories for grilling? What about little luxuries?

HS: Long and short tongs, a spatula, and an oiled rag for wiping oil on the grill before putting your items on it. Little luxuries would be a “mop” and “mop bucket”—basically a big mopping utensil and bowl to have a sauce or marinade available to mop onto the items while grilling. Also, soaked wood chips for that extra blast of flavor.

DSLU: What is your favorite thing to grill?

HS: Right now, I am obsessed with Vietnamese bun cha pork meatballs.

Chef Hayden’s Grilling Tips

For Burgers

What kind of grind/meat do you prefer? Ninety percent lean ground beef is great for burgers.

What kind of seasoning? The secret to the “perfect” burger isn’t in the seasoning; it’s in the beef. At Whole Foods Market, our hamburger meat is ground fresh, butcher style. We select only muscle meat and follow strict handling guidelines to ensure its quality. The best beef makes the best burgers.

When is our burger done? Use direct heat. Always cook all types of meat thoroughly to kill any harmful bacteria. Use an instant-read thermometer and insert into the middle of the thickest part of the patty. Ground meats should be 160F.

To press or not to press? Resist the urge to squeeze or press down on your meat. Only press your thumb slightly into the center of the formed patty. This will create a dimple that will help keep a nice shape as the patty shrinks while cooking.

Veggie burger tip: Meat substitutes tend to stick to the grill, so be sure to use a light brushing of canola oil to help prevent sticking.

For Fish

Once you put fish on the grill, don’t touch it for at least three minutes. A crust needs to form on the outside, which will allow the fish to naturally pull away from the grates. Once the crust has formed, it can be flipped over without sticking or falling apart. Fish cooks quickly using the direct heat method. Remove it from the grill as soon as it’s done; it will continue to cook once it has been removed from the fire.

For Chicken

Thin pieces of poultry can be cooked over direct heat; larger pieces of chicken should be cooked over indirect heat. Chicken that is cooked enough will feel springy when pressed. If you’re uncertain, cut into the thickest part of one piece. The meat should still be juicy, but the juices should be clear, never reddish.

For Steak

Rib eye is excellent on the grill because of its marbling and ability to hold up to strong flavors in spice rubs and marinades. However, because rib eye is naturally tender, it needs nothing more than a seasoning rub or a bit of salt and pepper.

For Vegetables

Use a light brushing of canola oil on vegetables and fruits to help prevent sticking. The use of a non-stick grate or foil packets lightly coated with oil can also be helpful. Some veggies like artichokes, asparagus, beets, broccoli, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, and winter squash can be pre-cooked to shorten grilling time and ensure that the inside and outside cook evenly.

Try Chef Hayden’s burger tips with this Whole Foods Market recipe for apple cheddar burgers. And for more burger inspiration, don’t miss the Burger Grilling Competition at the South Lake Union Block Party on August 12. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at Whole Foods Market or at the event.

Interview by Ethan Chung, Photos by Jeff Hobson

At The Center

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