Fire up your grills—cookout season is upon us. Chefs and sommeliers across the country reminisce about their favorite cookout memories and traditions, and serve up some inspiration for what to eat and drink at your next one.
Robert Ramsey, chef instructor, Institute of Culinary Education, New York
Favorite Thing to Throw on the Grill: The answer is just about anything. When we are talking about meat, just make sure to pick a more tender cut. Ribeyes, New York strips, flank, skirt, and hanger are all delicious on the grill. Same goes for pork: tenderloin and chops are great. For chicken, for the best balance of flavor and tenderness, I always go for thighs. For fish, you will have best luck with whole fish, or meatier fish steaks like tuna, mackerel, swordfish, mahi-mahi, or salmon.
But really, get creative with the grill. If you’ve never tried a grilled donut with strawberries and vanilla ice cream, you’re missing out!
Drink of Choice: To me, nothing beats an ice cold beer on a hot summer day. If I’m cooking up brats, I’ll reach for a German-style lager. Steak calls for a toasty brown ale or porter. For seafood, I like to serve gose, a super trendy sour-style wheat beer, perfect for buttery lobster. Finally, my favorite all-purpose, backyard beer is a refreshing pilsner—Peak Organic Fresh Cut is a great one to try.
Favorite Summer Cookout Tradition or Memory: When it comes to backyard cookout traditions, the best one is whatever yours is! I started my own with friends and neighbors in Brooklyn. Every year on the Fourth of July, we have an Independence Day BBQ (the kind that involves a smoker!) in the backyard. Last year the menu was duck-themed, where smoked duck nachos and duck-fat refried beans were some of the highlights.
Coly Den Haan, sommelier and owner, Vinovore, Los Angeles
Favorite Thing to Throw on the Grill: I am super into grilling veggies. I will throw it all on the grill. Romaine hearts drizzled with a creamy dressing right off the heat. Marinated cabbage quarters, stuffed mushrooms, and street-style corn are a few of my favorites. I have also been loving white and purple yams. I bake them first for about 15 minutes to get them just a little tender, cut them into inch-thick rounds, drizzle them with olive oil, then throw them on the high-heat grill for some nice, caramelized char. Top with some homemade chimichurri and it’s crazy good.
Drink of Choice: Rosé is a safe bet, especially if you’re grilling vegetables, fish, or chicken. If you want to step outside the norm a bit but stay in the same general rosé vicinity, try an orange wine! Right now I’m loving J. Brix’s Nomine Amoris orange wine—totally murky, funky, and fresh with hints of salted watermelon. What says barbecue more than watermelon?
Favorite Summer Cookout Tradition or Memory: I personally love the art of a good potluck! It’s a really great way to get a lot of variety on the table and to try your friends’ and family’s culinary flare. I generally encourage my guests to bring apps and sides while I take care of the heavy grill lifting.
Brandon Kida, chef, Hinoki & the Bird, Los Angeles
Favorite Thing to Throw on the Grill: Yakitori or any other meat on a stick.
Drink of Choice: At the moment, I’m really into chilled orange wine. The aggressiveness can stand up to the grilled flavor and the acidity will help cleanse the palate.
I pair with the weather just as much as I pair with the food. The weather is going to dictate people’s moods and in turn their drink of choice, so think heavy, deep-fruited Cab on a cool autumn day, as opposed to on a 90-degree and humid day.
Favorite Summer Cookout Tradition or Memory: Watermelon rind throwing contest.
Jeremy Allen, general manager and bartender, MiniBar Hollywood, Los Angeles
Favorite Thing to Throw on the Grill: Rappahannock River Oysters with a dish of melted butter with lemon is one of my favorites.
Drink of Choice: Summer BBQ pairings couldn’t be easier: Assorted cans of beer in a cooler full of ice and you’re in business! I also like to have a bottle of tequila and a case of Mexican beer on hand (and limes definitely won’t hurt!). In terms of general drink pairings, I recommend clear or pale liquors or chilled wine. Also, you can add mint or basil and any booze to fresh, tart lemonade for an awesome pitcher to beat the heat.
Favorite Summer Cookout Tradition or Memory: St. Paul, Minnesota is a little bit different from other cities in that it’s got that small-town feel when compared to the bigger, badder twin, Minneapolis. One summer, I lived in an apartment building that was rented by friends and musicians, and we basically knew everyone on the block. We would barbecue every Monday and essentially throw a massive block party. We would bring out our own traffic cones and set up a charcoal grill in the middle of the street.
Ryan Arnold, wine director, Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants, Chicago
Favorite Thing to Throw on the Grill: Whole garlic drizzled in olive oil with ribeye or strip steak!
Drink of Choice: A great Blanc de Noir Champagne or a light-medium body red with a slight chill go wonderfully with steak. Look at the fat marbling, which will dictate how structured your wine should be. If you have a higher fat content, go for a red with more tannins.
Favorite Summer Cookout Tradition or Memory: I roasted a 65-pound pig senior year of high school and it was awesome! Back then I wasn’t terribly into wine, so we enjoyed it with ice cold PBR and Miller Lites.
Richard Hanauer, wine director, RPM Restaurants, Chicago
Favorite Thing to Throw on the Grill: Anything in a shell: crab, lobster, shrimp, clams. I love playing off the smoke with brine and sweetness and simply preparing it with lemon, salt, and pepper to allow the seafood to shine.
Drink of Choice: Pair crustaceans with a white Burgundy, especially from Meursault, as the chalkiness of the minerals goes well against the body of crustaceans. If you’re going for a bivalve, go for a Chablis that has a bit less body to correlate with the delicate bivalves.
Favorite Summer Cookout Tradition or Memory: We don’t often sit to eat during the summertime! The food is always so incredible coming hot off the grill that we circle around the kitchen devouring the shellfish before having a chance to sit.
Seth Wilson, wine director, Booth One, Chicago
Favorite Thing to Throw on the Grill: Bratwurst, which goes great with cool white wines.
Drink of Choice: Spätlese Riesling, specifically the 2012 Dr. Loosen Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese from Mosel. Bratwursts really don’t need much, but I always like to glaze it with a touch of Riesling while it’s cooking to caramelize the outside of the brat and bring out the sweetness of the meat. Spätlese Rieslings have more sugar than a Kabinett and can caramelize better.
Favorite Summer Cookout Tradition or Memory: Going to Biergartens while living in Berlin and enjoying brats with sauerkraut during the summer with locals, always paired with Riesling or beer (of course)!
William Bierlein, executive chef, The Omni Grove Park Inn Resort, Asheville, N.C.
Favorite Thing to Throw on the Grill: A Korean-style ribeye is the quintessential grilling medium. I like to marinate a marbled ribeye in ginger, shallots, garlic, some crushed chili flakes, a little soy, and a splash of lime overnight in the fridge, and then grill it up medium rare the next afternoon.
Drink of Choice: That Korean ribeye is just perfect with a classic, not-too-sweet Mojito.
Favorite Summer Cookout Tradition or Memory: A few years ago, my entire clan, or at least 80 of us, gathered together at a beautiful little park on Lake Michigan. I spent most of the day grilling up a huge spread of traditional hamburgers and hot dogs.
Everyone came by to chat me up while I was grilling. I just stayed by the grill and the family kept coming back for another burger or dog, bringing with them a fresh tale to tell or an old memory from the family archives. I saw every member of my family; I talked to every person who was there. That grill was the key that connected me to all the generations, to the distant cousins I hadn’t seen in decades, and to every branch of the family tree.