The name Ben Eisendrath probably doesn’t come up when food lovers discuss their favorite restaurants. But his highly sought after handiwork has likely contributed to some of the more memorable meals happening all around the country.
That’s because he’s increasingly becoming the go-to designer for wood-fired, custom-built grills and ovens favored by today’s hospitality leaders. And it’s not just for D.C. chefs, where Eisendrath hails from. He’s also producing culinary masterpieces for high profile chefs and restaurateurs all over.
Many of his creations take center stage in D.C. kitchens, including at Bloomingdale’s Red Hen (chef Mike Friedman), as well as at MGM National Harbor attractions Fish (restaurateur José Andrés) and Voltaggio Brothers Steak House (Top Chef alums and siblings Bryan and Michael Voltaggio). And there’s more to come, with custom jobs in the works for Kaliwa (restaurateur Cathal Armstrong) at the newly renovated Wharf and Spoken English (restaurateur Erik Bruner-Yang) at the highly anticipated Line hotel in Adams Morgan.
For Bruner-Yang, Eisendrath designed a new wood-fired oven — the first concept of it’s kind, called a Blanco oven. It was built especially for roasting Peking duck, and the oven is just one of two in use; the other is at James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef Sean Brock’s Husk in Charleston.
To truly understand Eisendrath’s passion for flame grilling, one must consider his globe-trotting history. A storied upbringing helps explain his obsession with blazing infernos, and how family-run Grillworks continues to conquer today’s culinary landscape.
The journey begins in the 1960s and early-70s when Ben’s father, Charles Eisendrath, was a foreign correspondent for Time Magazine, based in Europe. At that time, the Eisendraths lived the epitome of an expatriate life, moving from country-to-country, all the while absorbing different traditions and cooking techniques.
“I was born in London, and we moved to France as part of my father’s journalism career. Then, we moved to Argentina, where my dad became totally smitten by grilling culture,” Ben Eisendrath says. “I was unwittingly raised from boyhood to be a fire guy.” The family eventually settled in Michigan so Charles Eisendrath could take a teaching position at the University of Michigan.
Luckily for Ben Eisendrath, the family farm was heated by burning wood.
“Guess what my chores were growing up as a kid? Cutting and sorting wood by species, lighting the fires, then keeping the furnace, fireplace, and wood stove going,” he says.
Eventually, his father got into designing and installing outdoor grills. It was a side-hobby business, called the Grillery, and Eisendrath’s mother took limited orders for products that typically lit up suburban backyards.
“They only took a few customers at a time, you were usually put on a waitlist, and you had to pick from one of two grills,” Ben Eisendrath says of the early days. But the business stopped taking orders in the early-1990s. At the time, Eisendrath worked as a tech employee at web titan AOL, and he was looking for an out. His obsession with changing careers turned into a burning desire to resurrect the family business.
The timing was fortuitous too; The company that became Grillworks already had a built-in clientele — a roster of just under a dozen customers left hanging on his parents’ waiting list.
One of Eisendrath’s earliest clients was Dan Barber, the James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef, sustainable food pioneer, and driving force behind critically acclaimed Blue Hill (New York City) and Blue Hill at Stone Barns (Tarrytown, New York). The latter of the two restaurants is home to the first Infierno grill, which operates like a rolling hearth and provides space for multiple grill and oven stations.
“Dan’s great with people,” Ben Eisendrath says. “Do right by him and make nice stuff for him because from there, we really took off.”
New York City chef Seamus Mullen was next to talk Ben Eisendrath into installing built-ins at Tertulia in Manhattan. Then, came Red Hen co-founder Friedman. “We actually arranged for Mike to stage at Tertulia,” Ben Eisendrath says. It was the chef equivalent of taking a test drive.
What started as a spark with Friedman quickly turned into a wildfire. In D.C., there’s a good chance an adventurous chef is currently firing up an incredible meal over crackling logs.
It’s a signature feature to dining at the Michelin-starred Dabney. And it’s already the most Instagrammed feature at hearth-based newcomer Maydan. Neither of those restaurants are part of the Grillworks empire, but Ben Eisendrath appreciates what they’re up to just the same.
“Restaurants went from closed kitchen, to open kitchen, to open kitchen with a grill, to now — open kitchen centered around a hearth, where chefs can really show off their skills,” he says. “I’m happy it’s spreading. When you see a fire and an actual flame, you can’t help but stare. It’s primal and simply riveting.”