By Ben Bowers
on 5.8.13
Photo by Russ Faulk

Plenty of guys think they’re grill masters. But Russ Faulk, vice president of product design at Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, actually happens to be one. A love of designing pottery and furniture led him to Kalamazoo Gourmet, where he’s played a major role in shaping their top-tier products, including their award-winning outdoor kitchens and grills. Thank him later.

After asking him to add his personal notes to our tips for mastering the grill, we caught up with him to talk about life, family, American craftsmanship and battling squid.

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Q.
What’s one thing every man should know?
A.
How to fix things. Growing up, I watched my Dad tackle every repair that needed to happen around the house. It didn’t matter if it was fixing the screen door, replacing a part in the washing machine or doing plumbing. He had the attitude that he could figure anything out. I picked up that same attitude from him. I hope my son will pick it up from me. Now, what I really need to learn is when to let somebody else do the work, because I just don’t have enough time in the day.

Q.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A.
Wow. I could go two ways with that. Professionally, the biggest challenge I have ever tackled was the recent redesign of our Hybrid Fire Grills. It was a complete reinvention of a beloved product, and a product that is critical to our business, so there was a lot of pressure to get it right. I am very proud of the result. On a personal level, the hardest thing I have ever done was performing CPR on a dying friend. It took a long time to get over losing him, and a long time to forget all the stress and emotion of that day. I still become irate when I see someone not pulling over for an ambulance or other emergency vehicle.

Q.
What are you working on right now?
A.
I am working on a really cool new product, and I can’t wait to begin testing one of the first prototypes. I wish I could tell you what it is because I am really excited, but I need to keep my lips sealed. We are also hoping to set up a flagship showroom in Chicago very soon, and we plan to have a working outdoor kitchen on the roof. I have been working on the design for the outdoor space, and that is a lot of fun.

The first time I tried cooking squid, it must have looked like a slapstick routine about an epic battle against a Kraken.

Q.
Name one thing you can’t live without.
A.
My family, for sure. My lovely wife, Kate, and my amazing son, Alex. I would also hate to think about living without beer — American craft beer specifically.

Q:
Who or what influences you?
A:
The design and architecture of the American Craftsman style from the late 1800s and early 1900s has a significant influence on my design aesthetic, as do Japanese crafts and architecture. You can see the influences of architecture in general in the design of our grills and our pizza oven. I like to ensure that good proportions are part of every product we design. I also used to build furniture and throw pottery as hobbies. The Shaker style was a strong influence for me back then.

Q.
What are you reading right now?
A.
My most recent reads were The Zen of Fish and Born Standing Up. I loved them both. I don’t read much fiction. Frankly, I don’t read many books at all anymore. Most of my reading is done online. I like to keep up with Fast Company’s Co.Create posts, among other things.

Q.
Name one thing no one knows about you.
A.
There probably isn’t anything that nobody knows about me. I am not very secretive. In my professional life, there aren’t a lot of people who know I fly kites rather seriously. During late spring and early summer each year, I am performing at a kite festival just about every weekend as part of the Chicago Fire Kite Team. For many years I competed in organized sport kite competitions. More recently, I was the commissioner of the sport in the U.S. for a few years.

These days, I just fly demos at festivals across the country. My favorite kite festivals of the year are coming up on back-to-back weekends on opposite sides of Lake Michigan in Grand Haven, Michigan and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We’ll get about 40,000 spectators on a nice day on the beach in the little town of Grand Haven. I also like to design and build kites when I can find the time. I make the types of sport kites we use on the team, and I like to make larger single-line kites. My most recent couple of designs were both 14 feet tall and needed very little wind to fly.

Q.
It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A.
My last drink would be a wonderful Imperial IPA — one that I have never had before. The first time I have a great beer is always the best that beer tastes. If I were to go with a beer I have already had, right now I would choose “Larry’s Latest Double IPA Trial” from Bell’s in Kalamazoo. The meal would be one I cook for myself. It would be a swordfish steak cut from the belly meat of the fish and grilled over an apple wood fire. My starter would be grilled Buffalo shrimp, and dessert would be Key Lime Pie spiked with tequila.

Q.
If you could go back and tell your 16 year old self something, what would you say?
A.
You are not yet who you will be. None of these things right now matter as much as they seem to.

Q.
How do you want to be remembered?
A.
As a good man — a good father, a good husband and a good friend. Someone you want to enjoy a beer with, and someone who is there for you when you need him.

Q.
What’s the most challenging thing you’ve ever cooked?
A.
Definitely squid steaks. They are very difficult to grill properly. Plus, the first time I tried cooking them, it must have looked like a slapstick routine about an epic battle against a Kraken. I went to the Japanese market to buy fresh squid for a dinner party we were hosting. I wanted really big squid so that the hood meat would be thicker and better for the grill.

Well, I bring home a couple squids that were 4 to 5 feet long, and they hadn’t been cleaned. I proceed with trying to figure out how to clean a squid without the benefit of the internet (this was 10 years before Wikipedia and 14 years before YouTube), and the squid are so fresh their suckers keep latching onto the stainless steel sink. I’ve got the water running, and these big, long legs keep sticking. I keep pulling them free, but there is so much stretch in these legs that they snap back at me and smack me every time they let go, sometimes then latching on to me. I finally get them cleaned and prepped, and I have completely run out of patience. So then I go out onto the deck, and I don’t wait for the charcoal fire to settle down enough. I overcooked the squid I had worked so hard on. Now I know… don’t grill angry.

Q.
What’s your favorite thing to grill?
A.
It may sound simple, but I take a lot of pride in my burgers. I also love to grill fish. If I am treating myself, I’ll grill a Berkshire Tomahawk Chop or a nice, thick steak. If I am about to watch the Chicago Bears, I’ll grill up some hot wings. I make them differently each time. I recently grilled a pair of amazing Kobe beef New York strips. If I could do that more often, I certainly would.

I guess that is a pretty tough question, really. Maybe my answer is “anything with a face.” There are fruits and vegetables that I like to grill, but none of them apparently make it onto my favorites list. I love to grill over a live wood fire. Apple and cherry woods are my favorite. I am lucky enough to sometimes get trimmings from the orchards in Michigan.

Q.
How did you get into product design at Kalamazoo?
A.
Pure luck! My background is in design, but not industrial design. I was in print and interactive design for many years, but I always loved designing things that were tangible — things you could use. That’s why I enjoyed designing furniture and pottery so much, and why I still enjoy designing kites when I have time. I was working in the business consulting world when this opportunity presented itself. I am very happy I was in the right place at the right time. I have loved grilling since I was a kid. Nothing beats designing our grills.

Q.
What’s one element about a grill that buyers typically don’t pay enough attention to?
A.
That would be indirect cooking. The real magic happens on a grill when you combine direct and indirect heat. When I grill a steak, I like to quickly sear it above a hot fire, and then I move it to an area of the grill with no fire below. Close the hood and let that nice, thick steak coast up to medium-rare for about 20 minutes. You need a grill with well-designed zones for indirect cooking, and you need good heat circulation inside. I also like to roast at higher temperatures, so I am looking for a grill that can keep a 500-degree Fahrenheit air temperature inside with only half of the burners running. These things are pretty easy to do on a good charcoal grill, but are a real challenge for most gas grills. It’s all about versatility.

Q.
Kalamazoo has been making grills right here in the U.S. for years. What do you think about the revival of the “Made in the USA” movement?
A.
I think it’s great. I believe that our country would do well to get back to being a culture that makes things rather than just consuming things. We’ve seen such a shift to service industries over the years; fewer people are graduating with degrees in engineering. Fewer people are building things. I think that is an important part of the economy. We are proud to build our products in Kalamazoo, and I am proud every time I see the team working so hard to build a great product for every customer. If you watch our craftsmanship video, you can get a glimpse of this. You can see just how much pride they each take in their work. People in the office laughed at me, but I teared up the first few times I watched the video. That last moment when Gregg, our most senior finisher, cracks a little smile — it got me every time.

Q.
What’s your favorite restaurant/place to eat?
A.
I like very casual dining with a great tap list. When I travel, I’ll typically get off the plane and search Google maps for gastropubs in the area. That’s my go-to search term, and it usually leads me someplace good. One of my favorite places is Simzy’s in Manhattan Beach, California. I was recently in Charleston, South Carolina, and I loved this new place called The Ordinary. Their pickled shrimp was outstanding. It was sort of like an escabeche. They also had oyster sliders on the menu. Each little sandwich was a fried oyster done bahn mi style. You can order them one at a time at the bar, but nobody can leave without eating more than one.

When I am in New York, I must go to Don Antonio by Starita to see my friend Roberto and eat the Montanara pizza. That is a true next-level pizza. They lightly fry the dough and then they top it as a Margherita pizza, but with smoked mozzarella and bake it in the pizza oven. I love that pizza, and Roberto has recently added some really interesting Italian craft beers to his menu.

Q.
What’s your stance on marinades?
A.
Did someone put you up to this? I always feel like a jerk when I say it, but I don’t particularly like marinades. I will occasionally brine things before grilling, roasting or smoking them, but there are very few things I will marinate. Hot wings is one thing I will, but nothing else comes to mind. I’ll marinate wings in hot sauce and garlic overnight before adding a dry rub and grilling them. It is just a personal bias, but I generally like dry seasonings more than wet.

Q.
How do you prefer to relax?
A.
I like to stay up until 2 a.m. laughing and talking with friends and drinking beer. Preferably at home, or at a beach house where we are all staying together.

Q.
Kalamazoo’s grills are incredibly pricey, but built to perfection. When designing for a luxury market, how do you balance maintaining absolute quality without falling victim to “feature creep” — i.e. just adding bells and whistles because you can?
A.
I am so deeply biased against useless features, it isn’t at all difficult for me to resist putting them on our products. Occasionally there is pressure from here or there to add something I would call feature creep, but I am pretty adamant about authenticity and purpose in our designs. Our mission is simply to make the best grill — not the coolest grill — not even a luxury grill. We just want to make the best grill in the world. Adding a sound system or timers does not make a grill work better, so we don’t need to worry about features like those.

Q.
If you couldn’t man the grill, who would you let take over?
A.
My good friend Dan Brinnehl. He can grab the tongs any time he likes. He has mad skills with a charcoal fire. I actually enjoy it when other people are grilling, even on my grill at home. It is definitely hard not to jump in and take over at the grill sometimes, but I try to behave myself.

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