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Travis Strickland has come a long way since his early days cooking French fries at McDonald's. Born in northwest Indiana, Strickland has worked in kitchens for as long as he can remember, bouncing from his hometown to New York, Chicago, and now Los Angeles, where he helms Baltaire in the ritzy Brentwood neighborhood. He’s also gearing up to debut Flint by Baltaire in Phoenix before year’s end.
“The really cool thing about Flint is it’s Mediterranean with some Middle Eastern influence through the contemporary lens of a California-born concept,” Strickland says. “I have a great passion for live-fire cooking, and the entire concept was designed around a wood hearth oven and a hardwood Santa Maria-style broiler. I'm very fortunate that over the years in California, while founding and operating Baltaire, I built a live wood-fired kitchen in my backyard, so I basically did all of the recipe and development for Flint at my home.”
A few weeks ago, Strickland tested some of his California-meets-Mediterranean grill techniques by hosting a sunny backyard barbecue with family and friends. He served dishes like homemade pita wood-grilled in a custom pizza oven, alongside smoked eggplant baba ghanoush, grilled côte de boeuf, and wood-roasted whole cauliflower, showcasing his knack for California-style barbecue.
If you’re wondering what sets Strickland’s type of grilling apart from more traditional methods, he’s sharing five techniques to get you on the right track. Spoiler alert: It involves a lot of EVOO and fresh produce.
“This is a must. California has a long, storied history of regional specialties that are specifically cooked over hardwood. Santa Maria-style tri-tip comes to mind, using the native Red Oak wood to that region. Even if you’re stuck using a gas grill, get some hardwood chunks (not chips, they combust too quickly and will make your food taste like burnt campfire) and add a few on the burner trays under the grill grate so they begin to smolder. The aroma of oak, almond, or apple wood smoke coming off a grill is just about the most enticing smell in the world.”
“Start your menu planning at the farmers’ market or in the produce aisle at the supermarket. California cuisine has become synonymous with the Mediterranean because of the state’s abundance of produce, which practically begs you to cook tons of vegetables. Get the best, brightest, and ripest (fill in the blank) and then begin to build your menu around those. The vegetables will kind of tell you how to cook them. Baby beets? Those are dense and need to roast. Toss with EVOO, season generously, wrap in aluminum foil, and then grill. Summer squash and zucchini? Those are more delicate and cook quicker. Slice them lengthwise (to get maximum surface area), toss with EVOO and season, then quickly sear both sides on a hot grill.”
“Use fruity EVOO with reckless abandon! Big thick porterhouse sliced to share? Finish with sea salt and EVOO! The juice from the steak and the olive oil will create the most amazing bread dipping sauce in the world. Spatchcocked (aka butterflied) chicken from the grill? Top it with some EVOO mixed with capers, shallots, and red wine vinegar with fresh chopped parsley for a simple salsa verde.”
“Get creative with your selections. It’s about improvisation, learning, and discovering fun new things. It will expand your repertoire and always impresses a crowd when they learn your whole roasted eggplant or coal-roasted cabbage or charred sweet potatoes have just come from the same grill as their steaks and chicken.”
“Find some peaches at the market that are a day away or so from fully ripe. Cut in half and remove the stone. Clean your grill grate well and wipe down with a touch of vegetable oil to keep the fruit from sticking. Grill the peaches hot and fast for 60 to 90 seconds until you get some nice golden grill marks. Gently flip over and just warm through on the opposite side. Place onto a platter and spoon a little softly whipped crème fraiche that’s been lightly sweetened with agave nectar and a touch of vanilla. Then crumble some amaretti cookies over the top with a couple of mint leaves. When all your guests are looking at you, do a “mic drop” with your grill tongs.”