The Thrill of the Grill
South Florida-based cookbook author Steven Raichlen's office looks pretty much like you'd expect. Located in a rectangular cottage behind the Coconut Grove house he shares with his publicist wife Barbara Seldin Raichlen, the office features an entire wall given over to Raichlen's cookbook collection. Galleys for his new book, The Barbecue Bible (a 700-page collection of 500 recipes that was published last week), are spread out on a couch awaiting last-minute editing. Framed covers from his James Beard Award-winning High-Flavor, Low-Fat cookbook series (eight books in all, with two more planned before the millennium), plus a photo of Raichlen from his Beard-nominated and Julia Child Award-winning Miami Spice hang on the same wall.
Research for The Barbecue Bible required Raichlen to visit 25 nations, many of which he describes as "gastrointestinally challenging. I've eaten in a lot of unhygienic conditions. If I were writing a book on global salads rather than global barbecue, I probably wouldn't be here."
The Barbecue Bible took four years to complete, necessitated eight major trips a year, and demanded 80-hour workweeks. "It's biblical in its heft," Raichlen jokes. He calls it "my pet, my obsession," but also claims that it is his "first mainstream book." By that he means a book that has broad appeal. "Grilling takes place in virtually every country," he explains. "It's the most elemental method known to man." (He kicks off a six-week book tour on June 25 with a party in Greenwich Village.)
Like many South Floridians, Raichlen is a transplant, having moved here from Boston in the early Nineties to marry Barbara. They met when he was conducting a class at La Varenne in Stowe, Vermont, the first North American campus of the famed Parisian cooking school. Barbara was one of his students.
On their wedding invitation, she instructed her guests to come dressed "glitzy," his to come dressed "bohemian." And the couple's current life together appears to be a happy compromise of the two styles: They're equally comfortable riding bikes to a matinee in Coconut Grove as they are dining with various visiting culinary celebrities. "Miami has been great to me and my career," he notes. "A terrific place for a food writer." But he confesses that he misses the Boston/Cambridge area, where he worked for eight years as a restaurant critic and another six as a freelance writer. "There, every third shop is a bookstore," he points out. "Here, every third shop is a bathing suit store."
Obviously books are important to Raichlen. Not just writing them, but reading them. He moved south "with no TV but 90 cartons of books," Barbara recalls. Many of those volumes, including a peck of French-language novels, speak to his past and hint at his education and interests. Born in Japan and raised in Maryland, Raichlen earned a degree in French literature from Reed College in Oregon. In 1975 he won a Thomas J. Watson Foundation Fellowship to study medieval cooking in Europe. "I got a grant to eat and drink my way through Europe," Raichlen grins. He then trained professionally in Paris at both La Varenne and the Cordon Bleu, and eventually founded his own school, Cooking in Paradise, on St. Barts. The school, which runs for a week every April, has been on hiatus for the past three years, though Raichlen plans to jump-start it next year.
If you examine his bookshelves closely, you'll note volumes in languages other than English and French. He offers me a Spanish-language South American cookbook -- Peruvian cuisine is a new passion -- to examine. "How many languages do you speak?" I ask him as we leave his office to tour his high-ceilinged home, which dates to 1926. Somewhat abashed, he lists them in order of proficiency: French, Spanish, Portuguese, "and a smattering of German."
"You'd never know something like that unless you ask him directly," Barbara explains. "Steven is very modest. I didn't even know he'd been nominated as a Rhodes Scholar until two years ago."
At the age of 26, Raichlen wrote his first book, Dining in Boston. "The publisher left out 40 pages and wouldn't reprint the book," he sighs. Five more books quickly followed. But he soon discovered a brutal truth about cookbook publishing. "I didn't realize it was an author's responsibility to 'sell' his own books," he says. Sales faltered, and from 1984 to 1990 he couldn't interest a publisher in his material. (He continued to struggle after arriving in Miami; his popular 1993 Miami Spice made the rounds of a dozen publishers before being snapped up.)
During the six years he went bookless, Raichlen made a living writing for magazines such as Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, and National Geographic Traveler. He also became a columnist with the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, for which he won Best Food Column of the Year in 1991 from the Association of Food Journalists.
Now his talents are in high demand. Television appearances include Good Morning America, the Today show, TV Food Network, the Discovery Channel, and CNN. He puts out a cookbook each year, sometimes more than one. Miami Spice was turned into a restaurant in Hong Kong -- "a cookbook's equivalent of a novel being made into a movie," Raichlen quips -- for which he served as a consultant. (It lasted a year before folding in 1997.)
Raichlen saves his blue-and-white-tiled test kitchen for the end of the tour. It's also the kitchen for the household, and it overlooks the patio, where six grills and two smokers have been set up. Recipes from The Barbecue Bible are taped to cabinets, with changes penciled in. His assistant, Roger Thrailkill, darts in and out of the house, rummaging through a Sub-Zero refrigerator, stirring duck stock on a Five Star professional gas range, and rendering a whole bird with slivered ginger under its skin on one of the grills.
An enormous ficus tree stands next to the patio, where Raichlen spends a considerable amount of time. We settle at a wrought-iron table, on which rests a constantly ringing portable phone. One of the calls is from Jake Klein, the chef-proprietor of JADA restaurant in South Miami and one of Barbara's two grown children. Klein wants to drop off some of his recipes for Raichlen to scan. He is quick to credit Raichlen for his direction in life: "He got me interested at an early age. My education started in the restaurants Steven took us to, when we made a game out of guessing what was in our food."
Raichlen apologizes for the interruptions. We sit surrounded by the grills -- some are powered by gas, others by charcoal. He serves tasty Balinese fish kebabs grilled on stalks of lemongrass, an example of what he calls "flavor triangles" -- ground meat or fish mixed with sugar and garlic. Later he slices up a Brazilian rib roast stuffed with cheese and vegetables. Both recipes can be found in The Barbecue Bible.
Next on Raichlen's agenda: a sequel to the Bible, a New Testament that deals only with American barbecue. Raichlen looks forward to the project. "The only thing worse than doing what you want to do," he says, "is not doing it.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.