Reassuring voice on the line when grilling becomes a crisis

Updated: 2011-06-06 07:46

By Dirk Johnson (New York Times)

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Man. Meat. Fire.

It is supposed to be a foolproof formula. But the guy at the grill is frantic. He has a yard full of hungry guests, and he is fumbling to get the gas flaming properly. It is a Memorial Day weekend nightmare that calls into question the very essence of his suburban manhood. Furtively, he dials the Weber Grill hot line for help, and Janet Olsen is on the line.

"Quick, I need to talk to a man," he says curtly.

For Olsen, 67, it was yet another caller insisting that no woman could possibly grasp a grilling issue.

With 14 years on the job, she calmly but firmly explains that she will be able to handle the problem. If the man is especially upset, she suggests, "You might want to grab a beer - and just listen for a while."

At the Weber hot line center in Schaumburg, in the state of Illinois, this is the busiest week of the year, as thousands of befuddled grillers (overwhelmingly male) are being rescued by a team of about 40 grilling experts (almost all of them women).

Some questions are trickier than others.

"So I've got this squirrel," one caller informed Olsen. "So how do I cook it?"

Since squirrel-cooking is not in the Weber catalogue, Olsen told the man he could probably find some answers online.

Olsen, who was widowed at 51 and has pictures of her grandchildren on her cubicle walls, does not rattle easily. "I'm good at what I do," she says. "I don't cry" - unlike some of her male callers - "though I have thrown a headset."

In much of America, grilling is both an art and a science, a pursuit worthy of such rigor that Weber recently opened a Grill Academy in Schaumburg that offers lectures, tests and cooking lessons. Students are people who sell Weber products, such as the extravagant new Summit Grill Center with Social Area, which runs about $5,000, and the Sear Station, which reaches temperatures of 700 to 800 degrees.

It has been a long haul since George Stephen, Weber's founder, invented the covered kettle grill in 1954 and drove his contraption from hardware store to hardware store, selling his product as a revolutionary way to dine and socialize in the backyard.

William Brohaugh, the author of The Grill of Victory (2006 Emmis Books), says grilling strikes an emotional chord because it evokes such fond memories of family life.

To this day, he says, he doesn't order steak in restaurants "because they're never as good as my dad could make them on the grill".

The male dominance of the grilling world has traditionally been regarded as a legacy of the caveman ethos, the notion that controlling fire is a way to master the universe.

But Elizabeth Karmel, a barbecue chef who operates a website,, sees another explanation. Until the 1980s, when gas-powered grills emerged, cooking out meant working with charcoal.

"Building a charcoal fire was dirty work, a man's work," she says. "But that's changing."

Barbecue - it is a noun in the South, something a person eats - is known as "low and slow", cooking at lower temperatures for longer periods. Grilling is conducted at high levels of heat for short periods of time.

Grilling soared with postwar suburbanization. Weber today has retailers in more than 30 countries.

"You can make a great barbecue on a little backyard grill," says Karmel, executive chef at the Hill Country restaurants in New York and Washington, D.C. "It's the knowledge, not the size, that really counts."

The Weber Grill Academy, which opened in January, includes a large lecture hall that could fit at a Big Ten college campus. At the door, a bronze George Stephen is grilling steaks (they look a tad overdone).

The school is headed by Kevin Kolman, 33, who has a master's degree in education. He is an affable but no-nonsense instructor who expects his students to study the material and do their best on quizzes.

"They should be able to answer, 'What is the definition of a flavorizer bar?'" he said, "or 'What is the importance of a damper system in a charcoal grill?'"

Danny Rine, a 23-year-old salesman from Ace Hardware in suburban Glenview, Illinois, was impressed by the fancy Weber Summit Grill Center with Social Area: an L-shaped appliance more than nine feet wide.

"Our customers," he says, with eyes growing wide, "are really talking about this thing."

He says the possibilities were endless.

That is what keeps life interesting for people in the hot line center, which fields some 500,000 calls a year and 75,000 emails. One worker monitors Facebook and Twitter for posts about cooking troubles, and connects a Weber expert with grillers in distress.

Most of the time, Olsen says, the answer is an easy one. People sometimes simply forget to turn up the heat. "You'll tell the man the answer, and in the background you can hear his wife say, 'See, I told you so.'"

In some cases, there is no quick remedy.

Some people call to tell Olsen they have a houseful of guests, and they have just taken a turkey out of the freezer.

"I'm afraid," she tells them, "you're not going to be eating that turkey today."

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