Smackdown on the Patio

By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

One brought a veritable chef's pantry: Meyer lemon puree, nicoise olives, espelette pepper, pineapple in a marinade and more, all vacuum-packed in plastic and ready for the grill-off. The other came armed powerfully but simply: shakers of homemade spice rub, squirt bottles of barbecue sauce, tubs of potato salad and coleslaw, piles of pre-smoked pork ribs.

The two contestants in our invitation-only grilling smackdown were chosen to represent the two sides of the eternal gas-vs.-charcoal debate. But they ended up also carrying the flags for two approaches to cooking. This competition shaped up into city vs. country, restaurant vs. joint, chef vs. cook.

As Walter "Lefty" Nash succinctly put it, "It's two different worlds."

When it comes to the choice of fuel (our stated reason for this cook-off), barbecue purists say that only charcoal -- or wood -- can effectively infuse food with the delectable taste of smoke. The general public, meanwhile, prefers the ease, speed and control of propane, which over the past 20 years has come to dominate the grill market even though charcoal has shown recent signs of resurgence. Which cook's way would win the day?

We chose our competitors for their demonstrated proficiency with each option. As executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown, Douglas Anderson uses a propane system to grill skirt steak for warm Thai beef salad or for chicken that he sandwiches with avocado in a lemon brioche bun. At Lefty's Barbecue in Waldorf, Nash and family have been turning out hickory- and cherry wood-smoked ribs, chicken, pulled pork and more since 1989.

Much to their chagrin, for this project we denied them access to their favorite equipment and forced them to deal with the kinds of grills we home cooks have. Rather than the $5,000 setup he wheels around the Four Seasons patio areas, Anderson, 46, would work on a small three-burner Weber Genesis Silver, which before being discontinued retailed for about $550. And instead of the huge smoker he and his crew use to cook up to 1,600 pounds of meat at a time, Nash, 60, would be grilling on a Weber Performer, a kettle-style charcoal grill that costs $345.

The rest of the rules were simple. We'd provide each contender with a whole chicken and a pork tenderloin, and they could bring any other ingredients to help turn both into grilled masterpieces. We upped the ante by adding a cook's-choice category, in which they could try to wow us with anything they wanted. We staged the battle in neutral territory, in the kitchen and on the backyard patio of a beautiful Northwest Washington home on a quiet weekday morning.

Given that this was a smackdown, the trash-talking was surprisingly minimal. Both men demonstrated a sportsmanlike respect for the opposition: As Anderson proficiently cubed a tomato, butterflied his chicken and started marinating it in olive oil, lemon, parsley and garlic, Nash said: "Look at that! What you're doing is just, my God, way upscale from what we do. This man here is a real chef. That chicken looks good."

Anderson, for his part, was awed by Nash's reputation. "When I found out it was you," he said, "I was pretty intimidated."

Not that there weren't some digs here and there, ones that cut to the core of the debate. Anderson bragged about turning down his fire -- "You know, because I can" -- while Nash good-naturedly scoffed at Anderson's attempt to get big wood chunks smoking on the gas grill's grates.

We didn't give them strict time guidelines, so Anderson graciously allowed Nash a head start for fire-starting purposes. Out came the briquettes and the lighter fluid. No chimney starter or lump charcoal for him. Doesn't that lighter fluid taste show up in the food? "Not if you let it burn off before you put on whatever you're cooking," Nash said as the flames leapt up.

Accustomed to a smoker that has a full three feet between coals and food, Nash initially overfilled his grill and had to remove a layer of briquettes to get the heat under control. Even so, within 15 minutes the coals were appropriately covered with white ash, but the traditional way of gauging the temperature -- with a hand placed over the grate for a certain number of seconds -- resulted in a count of less than 1. Translation: "That thing is hot!" Nash said. When he closed the lid, the built-in thermometer zipped up to 400, 500 degrees; he would have preferred something closer to 300.

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