“I’ve got the religion,” came the response from one of the world’s best chefs. It was enough to convince Benjamin Eisendrath to venture past the patios and decks of America’s residential grillmasters. For more than 30 years, Grillworks remained a best-kept secret of sorts in the cult of live-fire cooking, although some chefs, even James Beard himself, knew of the machines. But Eisendrath, who took over the company from his father in 2007, initially avoided the commercial space because it “didn’t look like fun.”
Dan Barber, the James Beard–award-winning chef of Blue Hill Farm, erased that thought. “He changed my mind because he seemed sincere in that he wanted to bring fire to the forefront of his kitchen,” Eisendrath says. “He wanted it to be in front of guests, not hidden in the back where nobody can see or experience it.”
The two worked together to design a pro version of a residential grill, which turned out to be insufficient. The Blue Hill staff torched it and Eisendrath returned to the drawing board. What resulted was essentially the first Infierno, a live-fire cooking system two years in the making.
Eisendrath laughs at what came next. “I did what you’re not supposed to do,” he says. “I built it and they came.”
Grillworks’ machines now dot the kitchens of culinary luminaries everywhere. José Andrés argued with Eisendrath whether the style of cooking was Spanish or Argentine in origin. Tom Colicchio had the team build one in a month so it could launch with a new concept, a decision he made last-minute when he realized he couldn’t live without it. Seamus Mullen built his restaurant, Tertulia, around one. Along the way, just like the experience with Barber, Eisendrath has continued adding, tweaking, and revamping the grills to align with chefs’ very specific—and demanding—needs. They’ve added rotisseries, shelving. Changed sizes. A recent invention is the Infierno Blanco Oven, which draws its internal heat through a rear vent from a wood fire below. Basically, it’s a live-fire oven powered by a hearth. It’s ancient in theory and special to today’s market. Both sentiments are acute descriptors of Eisendrath’s company in many ways.
Charles Eisendrath, Benjamin’s father, was a Time Magazine foreign correspondent in the 1960s and early 1970s. As he travelled, from France to Turkey to Chile to Argentina, he was exposed to live-fire grilling on a different plane than the American model. That was especially true in Argentina.
When he returned stateside to begin a job at the University of Michigan, he set about designing a grill inspired by that journey. He made 14 prototypes before rolling out the stainless steel machine he dubbed “The Grillery.”
Friends wanted them. Then came a call from James Beard, who invited Charles to his New York office. Charles headed home, but the grill he brought along didn’t. With a U.S. Patent in tow, he spent the next 25 years fueling his grilling passion.
However, in 2005, Charles decided to shut down the company, which wasn’t producing many grills anymore and was preparing to say goodbye to its last metalsmith. During an Argentine fishing trips a few months later, Benjamin, then a successful product director at AOL, made the decision to restart the company. Charles offered the company to a fellow entrepreneur when Benjamin realized he couldn’t let the family business fall into unfamiliar hands.
In 2007, he shipped his first grill. Over the years, Benjamin filed away ideas for grills and was now in a position to bring them to life. “I was going to do all the things I always thought could have been done with it, even as a kid, when my dad was doing it as a hobby and I was wondering why we didn’t have ones that you could build in, didn’t have grills that had multiple independent stations,” says Benjamin, who stamped serial numbers into the grills with a rubber mallet as a kid. “So I set about checking this backlog in my head and doing all of those things that should have been done in the first place.”
Bringing chefs into the picture has brought the best out of Benjamin, and Grillworks. He refers to himself as a “pyromaniac,” and says he couldn’t be happier to see the art of live-fire cooking taking hold. “It’s more of an art than a science,” he says.
For chefs, the experience remains—and always will be—an intimate one. Typically, Benjamin says, the restaurant will pick a model, whether it’s the Infierno line or an Architectural System, which the company recommends for chefs going for a particular look for the hearth. Those are built to slide or drop into a space designed by the customer.
Grillworks likes to talk with the culinary team as well as the equipment one during the process. It takes around four months to build a machine and, Benjamin says, the restaurant usually starts design specs six months in advance. At that point, everything can be molded to meet the chef’s specific goals, whether from a footprint or culinary standpoint.
As for why Benjamin believes Grillworks is so popular among chefs, it comes down to that customization and the flexibility of the cooking style overall.
“Beside the obvious—that it’s what brought mankind to where we are today—working with a fire gives you at least a couple more levels of adjustment in your cooking,” he says. “You have the intensity of the fire. You have the type of wood you’re burning. How much air it’s getting. It’s getting to know flame. It’s much more organic than even a gas-flame appliance because every one of those fires is going to be different, and those skills that are developed by the chefs really come through in the menu.”