BRAAI, BRAAI, BRAAI!
Words by Clair McLafferty
Photos by Cary Norton
Portrait provided by KUDU
In most of the South, grilling season stretches from the earliest sign of spring through the end of football season. During the hottest months, grilling is a practical way to keep the heat of cooking outside. But during the other months of the year, it’s an easy way to entertain.
The machine at the heart of this tradition is as recognizable as it is useful. When it pops up on television, the boxy or domed grill is always at the center of the party. The host operating it is quick with a corny joke and sips a beer or a citrusy beverage to take the edge off the heat. Despite their differences in fuel source or shape, most of these grills work roughly the same way.
But one entrepreneur wants to change the way we cook outdoors. Stebin Horne, creator of the KUDU grill, wants to bring—and meld—the South African tradition of braaiing with the South’s rich history of barbecuing. This wood-burning grill combines a fire pit with an adjustable griddle and cast iron pan. Stebin’s design allows users to cook a variety of things at the same time, while the base doubles as a visually pleasing fire pit.
Braai is best explained as a sort of barbecue. Braai is also the word used to describe a gathering around food made this way, or it can be the verb that describes how the food is cooked. South Africa has 11 official languages on the books, and braai exists in each of them. It’s such a fundamental part of the culture that a movement to rebrand the country’s Heritage Day, September 24, to Braai Day was a success.
So successful, in fact, that almost half of the nation’s population braais on September 24, regardless of socioeconomic status or where they’re located. “Grilling over fire is the centerpiece to the South African outdoor barbecue experience,” says Stebin. “Whether traveling or at home, you get the most out of the experience and flavor doing it this way.”
Stebin first encountered braai when he visited South Africa to meet his wife’s family for the first time. “[My wife’s] brother was putting together this small grill that had a disk as the base, a bar, and attached a piece to the grill to raise it up and down,” he says. “He said that he would light it and we would watch it for the next five hours. And we did.”
The wood-fire aspect of KUDU grilling adds depth of flavor to the food and allows it to cook evenly. Instead of relying on the size of a flame for the temperature, the KUDU grill allows the user the mobility of moving the food being grilled closer to, or farther away from, the fire. These attachments also provided the basis for the grill’s name, since they resemble the spiral horn of the male kudu, a species of African antelope.
As far as Southern heritage in the US goes, Stebin wanted to incorporate the use of cast iron pans into the grill itself. To this end, the grill has an attachment specifically for this style of pan. On many grills, says Stebin, the additional cooking eye for a cast iron pan just accumulates pollen and pine straw. “Cast iron is an heirloom, a historical type of cookware. I wanted to force that you can grill and do this at the same time into the conversation.”
For Southern chefs who’ve encountered the KUDU, the flavor advantage has rendered it a new tool, especially for home cooking. Many of these chefs first encountered it at the Auburn Oyster Social. Stebin donated the use of seven KUDUs for the grill out, and the chefs were impressed.
“It’s kind of like having your own miniature barbecue pit that you can take with you,” says Rob McDaniel, executive chef of SpringHouse in Alexander City, Alabama. “It’s a multipurpose grill that has a bunch of different uses and is fun to cook on.”
David Bancroft of Acre Restaurant in Auburn agrees. “Nothing compares to the flavor of cooking over an open fire. Having the ability to be able to pack that up and use it as a home cook brings a great tool to backyard gatherings.”
Both chefs talk about the benefits of using a KUDU when grilling chickens. “You get an amazing caramelization on the outside of your chicken, and you don’t have to worry about it burning,” says Rob. “On a normal grill, if the chicken is too close to the coals, the outside is perfect, but the inside is still raw. The KUDU gives it beautiful golden brown skin and cooks it evenly.”
Stebin’s inspiration for the grill and his brand was as much the culture surrounding the braai as it was the food. With technology making its way into all parts of our lives, he says, it can be difficult to make meaningful connections, even as it’s easier to connect with people all over the world. Stebin hopes that the KUDU will help get people off their phones and into real conversations.
“We want it to be so much more than a grill,” he says. “We want it to be an outdoor lifestyle brand that helps people enjoy spending their precious time outside of work with loved ones. Our company mantra is ‘help people be present.’”
This mantra strikes a chord with buyers. Demand for the KUDU grill has been so overwhelming. Stebin believes that this popularity is due to the camaraderie and experience that the grill inspires.
“It can be difficult to connect, even with your family,” he continues. “We feel like, with our product and through the braai masters and chefs who work with us, that we can really teach people to make the most of their time outdoors and cooking. We want people to put down what they’re doing and come together over an open flame.”