Summer Sizzler

UPDATED 08/26/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/26/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT

JOHNNY CARSON OWNS ONE. SO DO STEPHEN King, Michael J. Fox, Sydney Pollack, Morley Safer and Faye Dunaway. Donald Sutherland bought two. And a Texas tycoon has seven of them, including one he had airlifted to his salmon fishing camp in Iceland.

The object of all this pride of ownership is a revved-up barbecue grill called the Grillery, which is to your ordinary backyard briquet bucket what a Maserati is to a moped. Not that the Grillery is especially sleek—"It looks like the top of a coal mining shaft," concedes its designer, Charles Eisendrath, 50. But it is loaded with cachet (only 800 or so exist), and it is pricey ($825 plus shipping; a double-size model costs $1,450).

What makes the Grillery so special? It is robustly crafted—mostly of stainless steel—to last a lifetime. Its unique cooking surface consists of 13 V-shaped channels set at a back-to-front slant to direct cooking juices into a pan, there to collect as a basting sauce instead of dripping waste-fully into the fire. "The best part of any kind of cooking is the juice, and crazy Americans just throw that away," laments Eisendrath.

The "real joy" of the Grillery, according to its inventor, is that it cooks not with messy charcoal, not with bottled gas, but with wood—most any kind of untreated wood except pine (because of the pitch). "It's flame cooking, no waiting for charcoal to burn down," notes Eisendrath. "Wood adds incredible flavor to cooking. Hardwoods and fruit-woods are best." A hand-crank wheel and gears provide a full 18 inches of elevation adjustments to the Grillery's cooking surface, so heat control is a cinch.

Surprisingly, the creator of the Grillery is neither a chef nor an engineer but a journalism professor at the University of Michigan. A Yale grad, Eisendrath formerly served five years as a TIME magazine foreign correspondent, and it was during his globe-trotting days that he and his wife, Julia, turned into foodies. He still savors memories of "exquisite duck and geese cooked over beechwood in southwestern France, as well as lots of grilling in North Africa and the Middle East."

But after his return with his family in 1974 (then expanded by two sons) to accept a graduate fellowship at Michigan, Eisendrath concluded that the state of American barbecuing was the pits. "Any idiot, maybe even a journalist, could do better," he decided. So he studied up on metals, drew some sketches and had two prototypes by 1979. Then he formed Grillworks, Inc. and secured a patent. By 1983 he had sold all of 15 grills when the famed food writer James Beard called for a demonstration. Beard's enthusiastic endorsement promptly lifted the Grillery into the pantheon of gourmet appliances.

Even today, though, it still isn't easy to buy one. "We treat the business like a hobby—it's recreational capitalism," says Eisendrath. "We are having tons of fun, though we aren't making tons of money." With his grills produced at a metal shop in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and distributed from a 150-acre farm long owned by his family in East Jordan, Eisendrath's company is so low-profile that its Ann Arbor phone number is unlisted. That's to discourage callers who only want to yak about barbecuing, Eisendrath explains. "People who are serious about it will find me."

DAN CHU
JULIE GREENWALT in East Jordan

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