10 Summertime Grilling Tips From Top Chef Champ Buddha Lo

The season of outdoor cooking is here, and like a jump scare, it appeared from absolutely nowhere. Summer arrived so quickly that some of us didn't even have time to blow the dust off of our grill covers. 

Open up social media at this time of year, and you're bound to see a friend or two throwing back a grill lid. Maybe "Summertime" by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince is playing in the background. Because FOMO is a thing, it's understandable if you feel compelled to rush to the grocery store for some hot dogs, burgers, and chicken to toss on your grill. You'll throw them on the fire like every year, and during that first barbecue, the meaty treats will taste like a day at the lake or watching fireflies at sunset. But by the third, fourth, or fifth barbecue of the year, those flavors begin to get tired. Summer used to be exciting, but now you're in a rut, and cooking outside just seems more hassle than it's worth.

As the first and only two-time "Top Chef" winner, Buddha Lo has publicly proven his cooking skills many times over. Had he never appeared on the show, his professional experience would have still convinced us that he's someone we can turn to for cooking advice. Case in point, Lo recently filled us in on some of his favorite summer grilling tips, from the tools every cook needs to flavors they should introduce over their flames.

Use parchment paper to grill fish without sticking

Although burgers, hot dogs, chicken, and steak dominate the conversation during summer, it's also a period of fresher flavors and lighter profiles. It's fishing season, after all. Imagine you've spent your day by the water, wrangling a catch. You finally bring home the big one. You've communed with nature, but now you're hungry. Do you really want to end up back inside, minding an oven or stove as your food cooks?

Fish is a fantastic protein for the grill. An entire grilled fish can sustain a whole party. Problematically, fish are finicky to cook correctly, and even harder to get off your grill in one piece. Some species can handle the heat, like tuna, but many are too tender for this cooking method.

If you have a Blackstone griddle (or any flat-top grill, for that matter), chef Buddha Lo has advice. Put down a bit of parchment paper between the grill and the fish, he says. Yes, it's a lot like baking your fish, but it's outside, and you can still work an edge of blackening.

If you don't have a flat-top grill, Lo still has some great advice. "You can also have the fish sit in the fridge, skin side up, overnight and uncovered," says Lo. "This will cause the skin to dry out, eliminating excess moisture and thereby preventing it from sticking to your grill." 

Try some unexpected cuts

Meat gets the most attention during summertime, and it seems like bonus points are conferred if you bring the most standard links, patties, and cuts to the barbecue. We get it. The sensation of teeth ripping through soft buns, gnashing on seasoned flesh, juices dripping down the fingers — it's a pleasurable experience for many.

But chef Buddha Lo thinks you can be making the feast even better by thinking beyond classic grilling meats. "When considering proteins for grilling," says Lo, "lamb ribs and beef tongue are prime examples of underappreciated and underutilized cuts."

Clearly a chef in the know, Lo mentions that folks should start preparing these cuts with a hot bath. Braising before grilling is one of the best cooking methods for lamb ribs. Similarly, because tongue is a tough cut made of pure muscle, it also needs extra soaking time for the protein to break down. This provides a great opportunity for seasoning as well, and Lo's suggestion here is to fill the broth with ginger, garlic, rock sugar, and soy sauce (he recommends Lee Kum Kee Panda Brand cooking soy sauce.

After a few hours, you can cool your tongue, then slice it. Same goes for the lamb ribs. Then cover with hoisin sauce and get grilling. Nobody is going to miss the burgers, dogs, and strip steaks. 

Get an electric fan (and these other tools)

‌If you know anything about Buddha Lo's doubly victorious run on "Top Chef," you know that this chef believes in being prepared. Is a builder really ready if they've left their tool kit in the truck? Or worse, if they failed to buy one in the first place? The same sentiment goes for home cooks: You need the right equipment at your grill station.

How do you pick out what's essential for cooking good food, and what's just clutter in the kitchen? Start by thinking of the cooking process. First of all, you need to start the fire. If you're cooking with charcoal, Lo recommends keeping a small electric fan at hand to concentrate the flow of oxygen and build your fire quickly. Later you'll need something to handle the food, which is why Lo says tongs are another essential tool.

When your meat is ready to come off the grill, you should always have a proper thermometer for checking internal temps. But you'll also need to give your grilled goods time before digging in. Lo has an often-overlooked device for the job: "A resting tray is also essential," he says. "You want to make sure you're able to take items off the heat when it's done cooking, to prevent overcooking." 

Look toward different cuisines to increase barbecuing options

So, you've locked down the lamb ribs, and aced the beef tongue. Now your appetite for a wider variety of grilled foods has taken flight. This is a great thing, and also one of chef Buddha Lo's tips for summer grilling. Luckily, the world of charred flavors goes beyond Fourth of July fare, and all it takes is approaching your grill with curiosity.

"If I'm looking to try something new, I would take inspiration from one cuisine and make it the primary focus," Lo says. "Each time you go to grill, try something different, that way you extend your repertoire."

Take South African cooking as one example. Braai, a form of cookout, is an essential part of the country's cuisine. Seafood is often prepared on the braai, so anyone looking to work on cooking fish can find inspiration here. Alternatively, you could also practice the South American asado style of grilling, which involves cooking meats over open flames in a technique that accentuates the char. (In the case of Peruvian foods, pollo a la brasa, a form of grilled chicken, opens up your chances to sharpen sauce-making skills, too.) At Lo's direction, you could also look to discover various regions of Chinese cooking through grilling. 

Shanxi cuisine has a simple grilled dish to start with

Shanxi is a province found in the north of China. It is a landlocked region, and its cuisine remains a historical, traditional collection of dishes that express the area's soul. Pork, beef, and chicken can be seen, but lamb and goat are also dominant proteins. With little rain on the high plateaus of the province, the cuisine also features grains like millet and wheat. 

‌Shanxi cuisine is widely known for noodles and dumplings. Although we love carbs, neither of these foods are clear sweethearts for the grill. One dish is well-suited to a barbecue, however, and that's the ever-popular lamb skewer. "To bring classic Shanxi flavor to your home cooking, try marinating lamb skewers in a mixture of Lee Kum Kee chili crisp oil with crushed cumin and coriander seeds," says Buddha Lo. "For the complete flavor experience, grill them over charcoal."

This dish that Lo recommends trying is similar to yang rou chuan, a Northern China dish of fatty lamb cooked to a sizzling finish over flames. The cumin-coated kebab is associated with Uyghur Muslims. Because this can be a straightforward marinade, Lo's recommendation of Shanxi meat skewers can be a good way for grillers to introduce fiery, fragrant flavors that smack of summer. 

The right ingredients will expand your Chinese barbecue

Apart from Shanxi's lamb skewers, there are many other regional Chinese cuisines where cooking over an open fire is an inherent part of the process. Shaokao, or Chinese barbecue, can be found all across the country. It makes up a substantial segment of street food culture.

Skewers are an integral part of eating in China. But depending on where you find yourself, travelers will encounter vendors who use proteins beyond lamb. It's also certain that you'll discover a wider passel of spices and seasonings the broader you look across Chinese grilling culture. The expanse of seasoning options is good news, as these flavors are what you need to add a tingle on your tongue and in your stomach, adding to the excitement of grilling new foods.

To fill your backyard with clouds of shaokao character, you'll need to consider adding some ingredients to the pantry. According to Buddha Lo, Lee Kum Kee is an ideal label for hunting down some of the basics. "The brand offers an array of premium sauces, from oyster, hoisin, and sriracha sauce to chili crisp, chili garlic, and sesame oil," says Lo, "perfect for adding bold umami flavor to anything you're cooking." 

The secret to a good marinade is umami

Like magicians, chefs often have a thing for secrets. Luckily, chef Buddha Lo isn't keen on keeping his techniques close to the chef's coat, especially when it comes to barbecue marinades. "My secret to making the perfect BBQ marinade is umami," he tells us. It's a great tip for summer grilling, because it's an oft-overlooked one. 

Naturally, meat already has a level of umami; it contains two of the three compounds that create umami taste. This means that when we marinade, we tend to think of complementing elements first — an acid, maybe something herbaceous or spiced, or something salty — before we think of adding more umami. 

Adding more umami to your meats can give them the gravity that summer demands. The sun is high, and there's no time to lose out on big flavors. To bring umami to your barbecue marinades, Lo recommends a specific ingredient. "Hoisin sauce is essential to making Chinese BBQ pork," Lo says. "So, it's a staple in all my barbecue marinades, whether for Western or Asian dishes." 

The reason hoisin is good for marinades is twofold. Because of its composition, part of which is fermented soybeans, it punches up with the satisfying taste that Lo points out. The other reason is that it's economical to incorporate hoisin sauce into recipes. A single splash goes a long way, making this a sauce you can keep on hand for grilling days to come.

Follow the Hūso example and lean into sweet and savory summer produce

Cooking food over a fire, under the open sky, gives us a direct connection to ancestral human behaviors. That isn't easy to find in our modern world. When you lean into supplying your grill with seasonal abundance, you can deepen your personal connection to eating in tune with nature. At chef Buddha Lo's NYC-based Hūso restaurant, the kitchen takes summer produce seriously.

"This summer, we will be focusing on ingredients like corn, summer squash, berries, cherries, peaches, and melon," Lo reveals. "I'll be pairing them with flavors of yellow curry, leche de tigre, and berries and cream." 

Although the chef didn't mention whether any of these ingredients will be hitting the grill at Hūso, you can take his suggestion to work with summer produce as a way to broaden your own outdoor cooking. Start with something simple, like grilling peaches in halves. While these cooked stone fruits taste delicious on their own, you can puree them into a char-infused sauce for pork chops. Or, mince the grilled fruit into a blackened-peach pico de gallo. Another surprising barbecue option is grilling watermelon, which puts a balanced brightness into any summer salad.

Take the time to make your dishes look nice

Before chef Buddha Lo decided to open his own restaurant or show off his chops on "Top Chef" (twice), he was a student of the culinary arts and sciences. Following graduation from the William Angliss Institute, a top culinary school of Australia, Lo began working in some prolific positions around the world. Throughout his time in the industry, he has been able to include Eleven Madison Park and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay on his resume — and count several of the world's most well-regarded chefs as his mentors. 

Lo is grateful for the advice he's been given, and passes it on to make sure that the meal you're grilling this summer doesn't flop. "Both Clare Smyth and Daniel Humm share a similar philosophy in their approach to cooking," says Lo. "Follow these four rules when presenting dishes: delicious, creative, beautiful, and intentional."

Whether the food is coming off the coals or out of a sous vide, taking the time to ensure your dish looks good can actually impart better flavor. Science already suggests that color impacts taste, so add that garnish of garden herbs, layer your vegetables in a unique method, and take a moment to wipe the grease off your plate edges. 

Don't forget dessert

At this point, you've hopefully found a few new summertime grilling tips that can help grow your outdoor cooking repertoire, or at least make what you are already doing just a bit better. But when all is said and done, you can't forget that dessert plays a role in how your grilling is judged. Forgetting the sweets after a cookout is not a good look.

Chef Buddha Lo suggests an ideal pairing to finish off your barbecue: caviar with vanilla ice cream and honey. Along with being elegant, the essence of caviar can harken back to the flavors of your entree — especially if it was grilled fish — to make the meal come full circle. A caviar sundae sounds great, but if you want to maintain the barbecue theme, there are ways to accomplish this.

Think back to the fruit you were scorching just before dessert started. The chill from a tin of caviar can revitalize that flame-kissed honeydew melon, which itself will add a floral, fruity, and slightly sweet bite to the seafood delicacy. Similarly, lop off the kernels of your sweet corn, toss them in a bowl with butter, and top them with fish roe. Your backyard shindig is going to taste like a million bucks.