There's a time and a place for burgers, ketchup, and paper plates. But there are also warm summer nights when the backyard grill has to anchor something more ambitious; when even the most accomplished pitmasters need to step it up and orchestrate a great outdoor dinner party with style. And that's where Michael Chiarello comes in – the Northern California chef behind the grill-centric Napa restaurant Bottega and the new cookbook 'Live Fire: 125 Recipes for Cooking Outdoors.' "The trick to throwing a terrific outdoor dinner," says Chiarello, who entertains regularly around the open fire pit in his backyard in Napa, "is getting everything set up so you can be a guest at your own party." You want to be drinking beer and talking to friends while calmly delivering a great spread to a well-laid table. Friends come to hang out with you, to enjoy your company, not just to watch you bolt back and forth between the Weber and the kitchen.
The key to a Chiarello-style cookout lies in chef's tricks like offering just one great, self-serve cocktail to set the mood without stressing yourself out; creating an easy-to-execute menu that still feels impressive and generous; and turning the grill itself into a social hub, to anchor the whole party. Most of all, it's about making everything look easy: Chiarello breaks the evening down, with an easy-to-follow action plan that takes you from marinating the beef to sitting down with your own plateful.
Cook over a wood fire.
Michael Chiarello's grilling style is all about flavor – getting smoke into just about everything. His order of fuel preference goes "wood, then wood charcoal, then regular briquettes, then gas." Cooking times and techniques are the same for all four (every recipe here calls for a "medium-high" grill, one you can hold a bare hand over for no more than three seconds), but wood imparts a more complex flavor. Drop a few hundred bucks on a fire pit from Home Depot or just burn logs in your Weber. Chiarello says fire pits are also easier to gather around: "Too many guys position their grills so they end up with their backs to the crowd." If nothing else, pull that Weber away from the wall.
Credit: Photograph by Cedric Angeles