Grilling God: Linton Hopkins

May is Grilling Month at Food Republic, where we are offering pro tips from chefs and other well-known grilling gods.

Linton Hopkins just won a James Beard Award for best chef, Southeast, but I'd nominate him for a Pulitzer based on his descriptions of food. His Atlanta restaurants Eugene and Holeman & Finch are temples to fresh ingredients and simple yet sophisticated presentations; he seems to save the hyperbole for when he's rhapsodizing about something like grilled meats.

"The beautiful part of grilling is the char," he tells me over a breakfast pizza at Pulino's during a recent swing through New York. "The burnt-y smoky element of fire and metal and sizzling protein and fat. You gotta have that! But you've gotta have that well-rested pink middle that goes soft and sexy and voluptuous contrasting that — that's why we like grilling."

We pumped this Southern charmer for practical backyard advice, and learned quite a few tricks along the way. Plus, he uses gas! A Beard winner for the people!

More FR Grilling Gods: Michael Chiarello, Bobby Flay, Sammy Hagar, Marc Vetri, Richard Blais

So Linton, what are some of the bbq basics we should start with?

Gas vs. charcoal is a good one.

Well obviously charcoal if that's an option, right?

Yeah, well, gas is convenient though. I love it. It's so fast. It's searing, but what's so good about a gas-closed oventop is you can really zone out your space and mark and roast. I'll roast a whole chicken on a grill and have the back burners really high and upfront low so it doesn't burn the underside. You create a convection oven basically on that grill. Then when the chicken's close I'll throw my vegetables on the back and char 'em up. Zoning the grill is the number one rule of any grill cooking. If you don't zone low to high you're not gonna create the carmelized heat.

What other basic tips can you share?

You want to avoid flame-ups; they destroy the flavor of food. It's about minimal fat on the marination. Once you get the flare-up you are adding that acrid burn.

So keep water nearby?

I keep a spray bottle just to shoot it down. But I also don't put a lot of fat on my meats when I grill them. It's a very thin coating.

At the butcher or market, what are you looking for?

Bone-on chicken, and thick cuts. I think that's critical. I don't like grilling very thin pieces. You lose the ability to hit certain temperatures like the oyster on the inside of the meat. The beautiful part of grilling is the char, the burnt-y smokey element of fire and metal and sizzling protein and fat. You gotta have that! But you've gotta have that well-rested pink middle that goes soft and sexy and voluptuous contrasting that—that's why we like grilling.

What cuts of beef do you like to grill?

New York strips are great for grilling because it's just got an outside fat that doesn't flare up as much as ribeye — and I love ribeyes. And then you can move it to the other zone and then you can start grilling your vegetables.

What about getting that char and knowing when to turn?

Don't touch it! It should release itself. A clean grill is important. Instead of oiling the meat I'll oil the metal. I'll take a paper towel with peanut oil and rub it across, and then I'll let that flame up from that dripping and then the meat goes right on there, almost like seasoning a cast iron skillet. I won't even put any oil on the meat. If you let it sit without moving it won't tear. Even with fish, which can be a difficult thing.

You'd use the peanut oil even for fish?

Not the aromatic peanut oil but the Southern non-flavonoid peanut oil. Also, pre-heating the grill is key to being able to get a good release. Just like cast iron skillet cooking. It's a great nonstick surface but you gotta pre-heat it.

What about side dishes?

To me grilling sides are things like stewed tomatoes contrasting caramelization, really cooked down, rich in umami. Or a big kettle of stewed mushrooms with onions. Roasting is great for grilling sides. One of the first things I do when I get home now is roast Vidalia onions in a clay baker with chicken stock and little bits of butter and salt and pepper covered with foil. I can throw that in the oven and forget about it for two hours and you get these beautiful golden sweet orbs of roasted onions.

How about directly on the grill?

If I'm grilling a steak I'm invariably just cutting tomatoes in half and charring them right next to the steak. 'Cause they just soften and become pulpy and that becomes your tomato sauce with the steak.

Any parting thoughts?

A lot of grilling is about timing, so you come out at the exact same time with everything. So if it's meat, you've gotta plan for it to rest.