Ask an array of chefs and restaurateurs about grilling, and you’re likely to hear the phrase “Maillard reaction” more than a few times. Turns out, you can make the Maillard reaction—basically the chemical reaction during sugar reduction that gives browned food its flavor—a cornerstone of a successful fast-casual restaurant. And while that lovely, crispy brown-ness (from honey-colored to black) that woos customers and delights taste buds can be the result of cooking through toasting or frying, it’s especially prominent in grilling.
Grilling is perhaps the easiest way to get to the Maillard reaction, which requires a higher cooking temperature. Restaurants that grill get there fast (on an open grill, grill pan, griddle, or even broiler) or slow (through barbecuing). All of these techniques have been called “grilling” at one point or another.
Why do restaurateurs love to grill? It helps that it’s the most basic form of cooking. Grilling is likely as old as cooking itself and is found in countless cultures and traditions from around the world, from Mexico to Philadelphia, Morocco to Miami, Texas to Southeast Asia, and Latin America to the Middle East. Barry Nelson, vice president of operations for Pancheros Mexican Grill, says using a grill lends a menu a timeless quality. “We don’t typically follow trends,” he says of the brand, which offers grilled steak, carnitas, chicken, and tofu in its customizable dishes. “We want our food and flavors to outlast trends and fads.”
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Although health seems to take a back seat to flavor in many fast casuals, using the grill is a way to have your tofu and eat it, too. Mehdi Zarhloul, owner of Las Vegas–based Crazy Pita, says grilling’s high temperatures eliminate excess fats and oils from proteins. And there are other benefits, which Crazy Pita puts to use for its Mediterranean-inspired menu of pitas, plates, salads, and rice bowls. “The grill allows for speedy production of multiple types of meats and vegetables simultaneously,” he says. “It is spacious, evenly heated, and easily accessible. It allows for consistent quality control.”
Ambrose Whyms, chef and vice president of operations at Miami Grill, echoes Zarhloul in singing the praises of the grill. “Grills maintain and accentuate food flavor, as well as offer a variety of healthier preparation options by making it unnecessary to add extra fats and oils,” Whyms says. Miami Grill serves a wide range of grilled proteins at its restaurants, including steak in its signature Cheesesteaks and 1/3 pound Angus steak patties in its burgers.
Grills not only deliver a healthier option, but also a more naturally flavorful one. Cowboy Chicken has been cooking chicken rotisserie-style over a wood fire since 1981. With the flavor that comes from grilling, Cowboy Chicken can rely on the simplicity of its natural, fresh chicken and some hand seasoning. Indeed, grilling infuses flavor in a natural and reliable way that negates the need for additives or culinary acrobatics.
The grill also eases operations in a fast casual. “It’s easy for me to train a staff member to use a grill,” says Ben Koenig, founder of Heritage Eats, a growing California-based concept with a globally inspired menu. Heritage Eats is structured with a 360-degree walkway around a kitchen island and a char-broiler. Jesse Gideon, president and corporate chef at Atlanta-based Fresh to Order, also appreciates the grill’s multipurpose attributes. “You can cook fast and hot or slow and longer,” he says. “You can smoke with them or even run sautée pans over them. Best part is, you can do a lot of volume and varieties of foods on a very small space.”
Another benefit of the grill? The interaction that happens between the customer and the food. Grills are front and center in grill-centric concepts, so a customer can participate with their meal on multiple sensory levels. Lennys Grill and Subs makes its signature Philly cheesesteaks, among other menu items, on a customer-facing grill. “Think about your five senses: the visual of steam coming off the grill; the aroma of steak, chicken, and Italian sausage; hearing the sizzle of onions, green peppers, and mushrooms being cooked to order,” says Randy Hough, senior vice president of operations. “By the time we get to touch and taste, I bet your stomach is already growling.”
Of course, taste is still king in fast casuals, and grilled food delivers in that department. “Our first location had lines around the block as the mesmerizing aroma of fresh chicken cooking on an open grill filled the air,” says El Pollo Loco’s executive chef, Heather Gardea. El Pollo Loco’s commitment to cooking on an open flame has facilitated the chain’s expansion to more than 470 locations. “There is nothing more delicious than perfectly grilled chicken.”
There is nothing more delicious than a juicy, crispy, seared, seasoned, and charred meat, vegetable, or even fruit, which is good news for restaurateurs that grill in some capacity. A fast casual may choose to grill because it provides versatility, health, simplicity, ease, and theatrics, but the customers will keep lining up because grilled food tastes great. Grill it, and they will come.