There is an art and a science to cooking outdoors. These three locals are on the vanguard of each.
Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff
For the rest of the country, cooking outdoors is a seasonal pursuit. For a brief sliver of the calendar, the clouds part and the mercury rises just enough that the grill starts calling. Here in the Lowcountry, there isn’t a bad day to get outside and fire up the coals, the gas or the wood and flood the neighborhood with the savory smell of gourmet cooking.
As such, we get a little more practice than the rest of the country. Does that make us better at cooking outdoors than our northern counterparts? At the risk of seeming immodest, yes. Yes, it does. If you need further proof, meet three locals who make barbecue an art, and an art of barbecue.
This blacksmith is obsessed with creating the perfect grill.
Some chefs say they got their education from the ground up, starting as the lowliest line cook chopping vegetables all day long before working their way through the ranks. Kevin Lawless started from the grate up.
“I learned how to do it backwards; I learned how to make grills first,” he said. The accomplished blacksmith was already well known for his custom creations before he got into the barbecue business. Trained at SCAD as well as under the tutelage of acclaimed blacksmith Philip Simmons, Lawless demonstrated a knack for turning metal into breathtaking works of art.
And then a dear friend of his asked on a Monday if Lawless could custom-build a grill by his birthday that Saturday. “So that was a challenge,” he said. Lawless studied the grill of legendary local pit master Elgie Stover, crafting a design similar to his but with a few tweaks. It started an obsession with creating the perfect grill.
I learned how to do it backwards; I learned how to make grills first,”
“Each one has a different personality,” he said. Whether it’s the custom job with the Superman S or the six-door masterpiece he made for another client, each grill tells a story. “I always ask, what do you want to use this thing for? So it will have a smoker or a grill you can cook directly over, if you’re cooking steaks there will be a spot for indirect heat.”
Discovering the inner workings of the grill led to a discovery of the inner workings of the barbecue they produce. Starting out with a group called the Knights of Relaxation, Lawless dipped his toes into the world of competitive ‘cue. “We just had fun,” he said. “When you’re doing this, you can’t really be serious.”
Eventually, though, even not taking it seriously, Lawless’s culinary star started rising, with a trophy case full of wins at the Kiwanis Rib Burnoff (competing against the very grills he’d built for area restaurants).
“We won nine rib burnoffs in a row until restaurants started getting (mad) at us,” he said. “One year Eric (Anthony, the other half of Iron Pig) and I won the seafood contest, the rib burnoff and WingFest. The only thing we didn’t win was the chili cookoff.”
For Lawless, it’s just a simple matter of finding the right cut, getting the right heat and exercising some patience. “On TV, you always see people mopping the meat as it cooks. If you have to mop the meat, it’s not good. I’ll start the grill, and then I go to work,” he said. Work, in this case, being continuing to turn metal into eye-catching and sometimes delicious works of art.
This business owner is the boss of rubs, marinades and sauce.
When you’re cooking outdoors, there’s no detail you overlook. You get the temperature just right, you have the timing down perfectly, so that the final result has either that fall-off-the-bone perfection of slow-cooked pork or that buttery-soft inside delightfully seared outside of a chop or a steak.
The question, then, is how are you going to put that much thought into perfecting every aspect of the meat, then coat it in anything less than the best sauce?
That was the driving thought behind Gourmet Warehouse, the brand of sauces, rubs and marinades launched on Hilton Head Island in the ‘90s and still produced at its Cardinal Road facility. Richard Camputaro bought the brand several years ago and has transformed it into an international sensation.
“It’s a passion project, to be perfectly honest,” he said. He took over the brand after a career spent at Publix and at Southern Wine & Spirits, developing relationships with retailers as well as a deep knowledge base of the retail world’s ins and outs. “You have to have your ducks in a row to be able to branch out. It’s not a simple process to get on the shelves at grocery stores.”
The vertical of sauces and rubs is a particularly tough nut to crack since it’s not just as simple as David vs. Goliath. In this case, there is the Goliath of Kraft, but there are also thousands of Davids in the form of a slew of craft gourmet sauces from smaller labels all over the country. “You really have to have a better mousetrap.”
It’s a passion project, to be perfectly honest,”
His unique knowledge of the space allowed Gourmet Warehouse to establish a large footprint at grocery stores, but it was the brand’s commitment to quality that caught international attention. “We definitely don’t cut corners with our ingredients – no high fructose corn syrup, for example. The higher-end brands appreciate that and look for that.”
Those higher-end brands include a pair of lines that Gourmet Warehouse recently brought onboard to expand its offerings. The first, The Flavors of Ernest Hemingway, embraces the author’s legacy with sauces, marinades and rubs incorporating the flavors of Key West, Pilar rum and Cuban influence. “It’s been a fun project. We’ve actually been able to interact with the Hemingway family and really embrace the brand.”
The latest expansion is a line for Saveur Magazine that reflects the brand’s refined culinary reputation. With flavors like rosemary date, bourbon honey, and ginger sesame, the Saveur line is a global trek through different epicurean traditions.
From its facility on Hilton Head, Gourmet Warehouse is now reaching the world through prestigious lines of sauces that make grilling an art. Home-cooked success has never smelled so sweet.
This pit master’s Southern barbecue is a local secret.
There’s a phrase that has been overused to the point of absurdity locally, one that you see on all manner of advertisements for everything from restaurants to boutique stores. That phrase is “Hilton Head’s best-kept secret.” It’s a shame because every once in a while you stumble across something that truly qualifies for the epithet.
For example, if you were to drive down Spanish Wells road at any point between Sunday and Wednesday, you’d hardly notice the nondescript red shack where Carl Campbell serves his hungry patrons. In fact, were it not for the hand-painted “snack bar” sign, you might not even realize this small dirt parking lot dotted with the occasional wooden utility spool even serves as a restaurant.
But for three glorious days a week, Thursday through Saturday, this secret spot is transformed through the magic of wood, smoke, meat and flavor.
“When that smoke goes up, everyone comes out,” said Campbell, who runs Snack Bar. Towed behind his car, that grill serves as all the advertising Campbell needs as it fills the neighborhood with the smell of Boston butt and spare rib blissfully slow-cooked over charcoal, oak, pecan and hickory.
And once you’re drawn in by the smell of good old-fashioned Southern barbecue, you’ll find there is so much more on the menu. Carl honed his skills as a chef not just on that tow-behind grill, but in kitchens at restaurants and hotels all over Massachusetts during his education with the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “While going to school, I’d go into hotels and a lot of high-end kitchens with a lot of German guys and Italian guys, just picking up the basics. I had a good time,” he said. “Once you get into it and you like it, it’s in your blood.”
When that smoke goes up, everyone comes out,”
Returning to the island in the early ’80s, Carl worked at “every restaurant on the island,” furthering his education as he opened up Snack Bar on the weekends. These days, the passion is being passed on to the next generation as Kasey has started cooking seafood and hot wings at family reunions. At Snack Bar, the younger Campbell sells pickles, chips, sodas and snacks.
“If people bring in fish they’ve caught, I’ll grill it for them. Just a little salt, pepper, garlic, olive oil and green pepper, wrap it in aluminum foil and put it on the grill. Man, that’s good stuff.”
It might be the smell of wood smoke and pork that draws you in, but it will be the culinary prowess behind each bite that will keep you coming back. Now get out there and spread the secret before Hilton Head’s best-kept secret becomes everyone’s go-to spot for delicious food.
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