Grill daddy

Culinary whiz and cookbook author Jamie Purviance changed how Americans barbecue

Ah, chop chop: Cookbook author Jamie Purviance preps for grilling.

Ah, chop chop: Cookbook author Jamie Purviance preps for grilling.

Photo By LILLY fuentes-joy

As you walk into Jamie Purviance’s tidy backyard in El Dorado Hills, you immediately see a towering play structure, evidence that he must have children. What you may not recognize right away is the small herd of grills and smokers that also populate the yard. Neatly covered and arranged off to the side, the 10 or so barbecues attest to what really goes on at the Purviance residence.

But you won’t find Purviance himself charring burgers amid the heady aroma of lighter fluid. Instead, this recent Sacramento-area transplant will be doing barbecue right.

Over the last 12 years, Purviance has cooked up multiple books for the Weber-Stephens Products Company, producers of the Weber grill. The most recent, Weber’s Way to Grill: The Step-by-Step Guide to Expert Grilling, was even nominated last year by the James Beard Foundation for its annual best-books award program. In fact, you might say were it not for Purviance, outdoor grilling and barbecuing as we know it today might never have taken root in Sacramento’s backyards. He’s a virtual Wikipedia of grill information; a grandmaster of the grill, if you will.

Purviance grew up well-educated in northern New Jersey with a fascination for Julia Child and her PBS television series. A summer stint as a Good Humor ice cream man constituted Purviance’s lone food-service experience before moving west to attend Stanford University. There, he managed the kitchen for his fraternity and also began to explore the peninsula’s restaurants.

“I wasn’t really conscious of the food scene,” he remembers. “I was just aware of how the food was more rarified than what was in New Jersey.” This was during the ’80s, an era of food towers and edible art.

After college, he taught in San Francisco at an exclusive boys’ school and brown-bagged peanut-butter sandwiches for lunch. “The parents were appalled at my sandwiches,” Purviance laughs, “so they would bring platters of sushi and takeout for me.”

Curious about other cultures, Purviance took an international teaching job in Jakarta, Indonesia. He and a housemate had a cook and quickly came to love the country and its food, intrigued by the ingredients and techniques, which Purviance says were very different from New Jersey or San Francisco. “A lot of cooking was outdoors on a grill,” he says.

Purviance struck up a trade with the cook to teach her English while he learned more about Indonesian food. “I would sit with her while she cooked. There were such intense flavors, I couldn’t help but take notice,” he recalls.

Back in the United States, the grillmaster traded skills with a retired chef in Philadelphia, Esther McManus. The Frenchwoman, later featured with Purviance’s idol Ms. Child on Baking with Julia for her croissant-making skills, wanted to learn tennis. And Purviance could play well, so they traded knowledge.

McManus encouraged his culinary education, but he wavered between the classic internship and school. Eventually, he decided to fast-track his learning at The Culinary Institute of America. “There, I was shocked at the shouting, ridiculing and the demeaning tone of the instructors,” he recalls. But he took a wine course and fell for the “geeky” historical aspects of wine.

Two of Jamie Purviance’s more popular Weber cookbooks.

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After graduation from The CIA, he was hired as the chef at Napa’s St. Supéry Vineyards & Winery, which was small then, and needed someone to prepare meals for tastings and the occasional event. But as the winery grew, Purviance began cooking for larger company events and doing demos. And soon, the small kitchen had to expand outside to the grill.

It also was around this time, however, that an old back injury resurfaced and Purviance decided he was “not cut out for restaurant cooking” and its intense physical requirements. Fortunately, he found a mentor in Antonia “Toni” Allegra, the editor-in-chief of Appellation, a wine-country lifestyle magazine. She hired him as the food editor, and after several years there, he went freelance and was assigned to review every restaurant in the Napa and Sonoma valleys for a website.

And Purviance, saddled with a daunting but delicious task, quickly learned a great deal about wine-country eating and witnessed the beginnings of the wood-fired-food movement. Then, good fortune came knocking.

“I got that first call from Weber like a gift from the heavens,” Purviance remembers. “They wanted to start getting into books, with the first being a perk for buyers of a high-end grill.” They were looking for an editor and fixer, but what they found was a perfect partnership.

Making up recipes as they photographed, Weber’s Art of the Grill was published in 1999 by Chronicle Books. It contained ground-breaking recipes for the time, such as grilled peaches and bruschetta, now found in backyards throughout the country. The book was such a success that Purviance was media trained by Weber and launched a promotion tour, giving cooking demos and interviews nationwide.

Twelve years later, he has authored more best-selling books for Weber, including niche volumes such as Weber’s Girls’ Guide to Grilling and Command of the Grill: A Salute to Steak, which benefited charities that support the Marines.

“We’ve just kept the ball rolling,” Purviance says. “Now I understand a lot about publishing and marketing. I’m involved in all the photography, design and styling. It’s been a great education.” While he still writes freelance articles for magazines such as Bon Appétit and Fine Cooking, 90 percent of Purviance’s work is with Weber. His responsibilities now include learning about other food cultures to help Weber become a more international brand. Its website is published in 30 different languages, including Finnish and Turkish.

Years of intellectual curiosity and self-education have made Purviance ideal for this job.

“Grilling is supposed to be simple, so I have to take flavor profiles and streamline them so they stay within the concept of grilling being easy and relaxing,” he notes.

Of course, all of this concentration on grilling has taken its toll. “As much as I love what I do, there are days when I walk into a general grocery store and think, ‘Is that all there is for me to work with?’” Purviance says, laughing.

But he has seen a trend in American cooking toward embracing a greater diversity of foods and ethnic cuisines. “Especially in California, you’ll find more specific cuisines. Indonesian or Thai as opposed to a ‘Pan-Asian’ mix.”

And Purviance has seen a general shift away from a grill being limited to meat. “Over time, vegetables and mom have migrated out to the grill. Now, it’s sort of an outdoor kitchen, and I don’t think that trend is going to let up,” he says.

With the recent recession, people have wanted to replicate restaurant experiences at home, and with the new tricked-out gas grills, it’s easier than ever. “People think, ‘I can do this,’” Purviance says, and thanks to his years of grilling instruction, they’re right.