Constable: Grillin' when it's chillin'
Snow blankets the backyard beyond his suburban patio. Swirling winds make the single-degree temperature feel like 18 degrees below zero. Hatless and gloveless, Kevin Kolman checks the only thermometer that matters to him.
"Two hundred and fifty degrees," a grinning Kolman says, noting that temperature hasn't varied in the entire six hours the three slabs of baby back ribs have been simmering in his trusty Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker Smoker. Rib-eye steaks sizzle on a nearby kettle grill that is older than the 37-year-old Kolman. Hamburgers cook on one of Kolman's newer gas grills.
The Grill Master for Weber, Kolman figures his backyard is home to 40 Weber grills -- if you count the four top-secret prototypes hidden inside his garage. His collection boasts brightly colored, but faded, half-century-old kettle grills that rely on charcoal, stainless steel behemoths that run on gas and have plenty of room to store dishes, portable tabletop versions and coal-black smokers.
That 1960s-era green kettle with a folding "sidekick" maple cutting shelf came from a World War II vet.
"I traded him a new one for it," says Kolman, who notes both his grandfathers served during that war.
The Grill Master's breath shows in the bitter cold that numbs fingers and toes and turns his nose, ears and cheeks a pink that might indicate he was medium-rare if he were a steak. But Kolman shuns the temptation to remove a lid and let the grill's heat wash over him.
"We have this beautiful saying at Weber, and it applies definitely on days like today: 'Looking ain't cooking,'" says Kolman. "The more we can keep these lids closed, the faster the food's going to cook, the more flavor there's going to be."
It's never too cold to grill outside, says Kolman, who was cooking in his backyard a year ago when the polar vortex gripped the region with temperature was colder than today's wind chill.
"My wife thinks I'm crazy," admits Kolman, who keeps notes on how different grills perform in all kinds of weather to help him in his job traveling the nation to teach others how to get the most out of their Weber grills.
He's scheduled to return today from an appearance at "Camp Brisket" -- a two-day cooking exhibition at Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, which sold out its $550 tickets for the public. Kolman's filming a pilot for a cable cooking show, has appeared on a variety of TV episodes, cooked alongside Hall-of-Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith for Weber's Grilling with the Greatest Sweepstakes and often raffles off a chance to grill with him for local charities.
An all-conference basketball player at Prospect High School while growing up in Mount Prospect, Kolman used to watch his father, Frank, grill on the family's Weber grill. "I remember him having to do the walk of shame," Kolman says, explaining how his dad would bring in the steaks only to have his mother, Sandy, send them back to the grill for more cooking.
He attended Concordia University in River Forest to continue his basketball career, but Kolman admits he wasn't ready for the college environment. He returned home and took classes at Harper College in Palatine; he credits Harper professor Susan Farmer with teaching him how to learn.
As he earned his associate degree, Kolman took a job answering phones at the Weber facility in Palatine. While completing his bachelor's degree at Eastern Illinois University, Kolman continued working for Weber, moving into the parts department, where he learned the grill business inside and out.
As a member of Sigma Chi fraternity, Kolman became a leader in efforts to curb alcohol and drug abuse on campus and became an outspoken advocate of eliminating hazing traditions.
Thinking he might be a good teacher, Kolman went on to receive his master's degree in education. That's when his Weber mentors persuaded Kolman to use his educational and speaking skills as the company's Grill Master. In addition to all the seminars and demonstrations, Kolman teaches four classes a year in "barbecue science" at Ohio State University.
"We've mastered the science, which lets our customers master the art," Kolman says.
Beef, chicken and fish draw the most attention, but Kolman has grilled foods such as butternut squash, eggplant, peppers, asparagus, mushrooms and pizza, exotic meats such as lion, and even desserts.
"We've baked pies for Thanksgiving," he says, pointing out the space in one charcoal grill. "I'll get that thing fired up and we'll throw four pies in there. When I get in front of a grill, I'm cooking with love. It's the most honest gift I can give."
He posts tips on his Kevin's Backyard Facebook page and at webernation.weber.com. But asking him to choose a favorite among his dozens of grills is the same as asking the dad to choose a favorite between his two girls.
"I've got two daughters upstairs and to ask me which one is my favorite is impossible to say," Kolman says.
He and his wife, Annie, an accountant, are parents to 6-month-old Kinsey, and Maddie, 2, who got her first grill for Christmas.
Kolman offers a few tips for grilling outside all winter: Make sure you have enough fuel, let the grill preheat for 5 or 10 minutes, keep an eye on the thermometer (if your grill has one) and the time, and keep the serving plates inside so they stay warm.
Those first years of college after he quit playing basketball, Kolman got into bad habits and earned the nickname "Tractor" after his weight ballooned up to 340 pounds. Learning how to eat and cook healthier, Kolman lost the weight and the nickname, even with all the food he grills.
"By the time I come back and close up all the grills, all the food is gone," he says.
That leads him to one other secret about grilling that is key for a man who makes his living as a Grill Master.
"I've learned to keep it (that he's grilling) off Facebook," Kolman says. "Because once my friends and family see that, they come over here."