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Q & A with Hill Country's Elizabeth Karmel

EAK Cowgirl Headshot_5.2009.jpgElizabeth Karmel is on a mission. The North Carolina born chef has spent much of her career encouraging women to barbecue, founding a website called “Girls at the Grill,” writing cookbooks, and of course, running the kitchen at Hill Country — one of New York’s best barbecue joints.  Hill Country is famous for its Texas meat market-style atmosphere and Karmel’s exceptional brisket, chicken and ribs. So it’s not surprising that Karmel has her fair share of male fans as well.

“Forty percent of my Girls at the Grill readers are men,” Karmel says. “Underneath the girl-centric speak, men realized there was a lot of great outdoor cooking information, tips and recipes on the site.” Grilling enthusiasts can also sample her southern cooking at this week’s Chefs and Champagne, a James Beard Foundation tasting event, which will be held this, Saturday, July 23rd, at Wolffer vineyard in Bridgehampton.  She’ll be serving smoked Texas Tenderloin with white shoepeg corn pudding for the occasion.

What did you want to be growing up?
Growing up, I wanted to be a doctor. But I couldn’t be happier as a chef.
What was your first job in food and what did you learn?
My first job in the food industry was as a waitress, and I learned that I wasn’t very good at waiting tables, but I was very good in the kitchen.  I was demoted from a waitress and promoted to assistant manager in one day and was tasked with creating the breakfast menu. Thus, a chef was born!
What compelled you to move from the down south to New York?  And what do you miss most about it living in the city?
Job opportunities drove me to the big city – New York is the center of the food world in the US.  The thing I miss most about living in the South is fresh seafood and seasonal produce, especially summer tomatoes, strawberries and peaches.  And of course I miss Biscuitville!
Why do you think grilling is perceived as a man’s world and why do you think the typical griller is a man?
Grilling used to be perceived as a man’s world because it was all about building a fire.  With the proliferation of gas grills that are as easy to turn on as flipping a switch, women have joined in the fun and men have since gravitated toward gas grills.
What inspired you to create Girls at the Grill in the first place? When you first created back in 2001, were you met with a lot resistance from men?  Do you still experience resistance?
Quite the opposite, actually. In fact, 40 percent of my GATG viewers are men. Underneath the girl-centric speak, men realized there was a lot of great outdoor cooking information, tips and recipes on the site.
What’s your favorite dish to cook on the grill and why?
I have a motto: If you can eat it, you can grill it!  I love just about anything cooked on the grill, from a perfectly cooked steak to grilled pizza to a grilled banana split sundae.
Any quick grilling tips for ladies who’ve experimented with rubs, smokers and the bbq world?
My tip for ladies and anyone else with less confidence at the grill than they could have: it’s 10 percent skill, 90 percent the will to grill!  And starting with great ingredients is a given.  Check out the basics here: 
Is this your first time cooking at Chefs & Champagne?  What are you serving up?
Yes, this is my first year cooking at Chefs & Champagne, and we are thrilled to be included. With Hill Country Barbecue Market, we’re serving smoked Texas Tenderloin with white shoepeg corn pudding
Whose dishes are you most excited to try at this year’s Chefs and Champagne?
This event has such a great line up of chefs so I hope to try everyone’s dishes, but I am looking forward to ending my night with a sweet treat from Zac Young.
This year’s chefs and champagne is honoring Emeril Lagasse. How do you think he has influenced the culinary world throughout his career?
I credit Emeril for making food fun and accessible to the American audience. He’s been instrumental in bringing food as entertainment to America and allowing all of us to follow him and have exciting culinary careers.
How did you end up writing a book about Pizza on the Grill?  What are some of your favorite toppings and combinations?
After my first bite, I was hooked on grilled pizza!  I see crust as a blank canvas, and I started experimenting with all of my favorite flavors from around the world.  I realized that 99 percent of the ingredient combinations worked really well and decided to write my cookbook, Pizza on the Grill, with my favorite grilled pizza partner-in-crime, Bob Blumer. Once you try pizza on the grill, you’ll never want to eat it any other way.
You were raised on BBQ in North Carolina and a bbq chef yourself, so I’m sure you’re a tough critic. Other than Hill Country, what are some of your favorites?
I love the barbecue world and am lucky to have so many great friends who make incredible barbecue. For baby back ribs, nobody does it better than Mike Mills of 17th Street Bar & Grill; I also love Ed Mitchell’s Eastern Carolina pulled pork; John Stage and Jeff “Cooter” Coon at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Harlem make killer saucy pulled pork; I go to Blue Smoke for Kenny Callaghan’s salt & pepper beef ribs; At Hemingway, South Carolina’s Scott’s Bar-B-Q, Rodney Scott’s barbecued cracklins are to die for. I also love his peppery South Carolina whole hog.

Hill Country
Address: 30 W. 26th St. between Broadway and Sixth Avenue
Phone: (212) 255-4544

Chefs and Champagne, July 23 at Wolffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack, NY. For info, visit

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