Asheville chefs share memories and recipes for global grilling

ONE LOVE: Millicent Johnson, left, and Daulton Young, owners of Tayse of Di Islands, show the results of their recipe for grilled jerk chicken. Photo by Brittany Parnell

Editor’s note: Recipes for items featured can be found at the end of this article. 

Now that the Fourth of July is behind us but several more months of outdoor cooking remain, it might be a good time to set aside the sizzling sirloin and shriveled up hot dogs to poke around some more adventurous ways to put your grill skills to use. Xpress recently spoke with local chefs for ways to break out of the burger box and fire up summer gatherings.

Pork chops

Ask Luis Martinez, former executive chef of El Gallo AVL, about grilling traditions in his home country of Mexico, and he’ll throw in some history, geography and migration lessons as well.

“What and how you grill depends on the area,” he explains.

In the north, it’s all about carne asada. The liquid seasoning poured over preferred cuts of beef combines citrus juice with salt, pepper, onions and garlic. “Leave it for a half or full day to absorb all the liquid,” says Martinez. “Then grill.”

Meanwhile, on the Caribbean side of south Mexico is recado negro — an umami sauce made with burnt then quickly fermented chiles. The seasoning is great on pork, beef and fish, though it is most commonly used on turkey, a very popular dish in that region.

Lastly, on the Pacific side, adobo is a favorite among the seasonings. “There are different kinds of adobos,” Martinex explains. “But the one we make in Oaxaca where I am from uses three different kinds of chiles — usually chipotle, guajillo and morita. We don’t do big pieces of meat like here; we use superthin cuts.”

Try out Martinez’s recipe for cecina enchilada (spicy flat pork loin) below.

Do the jerk

Local chef Millicent Johnson says that back home in Jamaica, people made their own grills using materials at hand. She still sighs wistfully remembering the heady scent of sweet-spicy jerk chicken cooking over wood. “Here we use real grills,” she explains, and because of this, “My jerk chicken is really good but never as good as it was back in Jamaica.”

In March, she and her partner, Daulton Young, launched Tayse of Di Islands from an Asheville commissary kitchen. The pair offer a twice-monthly menu of Jamaican specialties, including jerk chicken, jerk pork, rice and peas, greens, curried chicken and occasionally oxtail.

Jerk is a seasoning used as a dry rub or a marinade or sauce, and many cooks employ it for multiple methods. Johnson says she makes her jerk fresh, with a few specific ingredients shipped to her from Jamaica. “I can’t get Scotch bonnet pepper here, though, so I use habanero instead.”

Johnson shares an adapted recipe for jerk seasoning below. Tayse of Di Islands menu can be found at

Happy camper

Chef Owen McGlynn is the master of the Argentinian live-fire grill custom-built for Asheville Proper, the restaurant he opened with his wife, Mindi McGlynn, and Mercy and Russell Joseph in the Grove Arcade last summer. But his love for that style of cooking was first stoked on family camping trips as a child. “My dad would build the fire, and we’d put corn into the embers, still in the husk,” he remembers. “The smell of it cooking was so good, and it was fun to tear the burnt husks off to eat the smoky corn.”

At Asheville Proper, corn and almost everything else that comes into the restaurant will eventually find its way to the grill. “In every dish, we try to incorporate something over the fire, whether charred or smoked or a slight roast or ember.”

Even on vacation, he keeps the fire going. “Our whole extended family is on vacation now, and last night we cooked Georgia corn in the husk,” he says with a laugh. “My sister-in-law had an idea to poach some marble potatoes until they were soft, then oil them up with some salt and pepper, smash them down a bit so they don’t roll and grill them to char the skin. They were great.”

Grilled vegetables are always on the Proper menu, and McGlynn says he is excited to welcome summer squashes, eggplant, tomatoes and okra.

Below are his recipes for grilled crookneck squash served with harissa, a Tunisian chile pepper paste.  Asheville Proper is at 1 Page Ave. Suite 141. For a full menu, visit

On the lamb

Street food has been chef Meherwan Irani’s jam since he opened Chai Pani on Battery Park Avenue in 2009. “The mission of Chai Pani has always been to make Indian food approachable and accessible,” he told Mountain Xpress in 2019. “Street food was the conduit to that.”

But India is a big country with millions of streets, and one of Irani’s fondest culinary memories of living there was the hawkers who set up fire-fueled grills on the street late at night. “They set up their little grills and cook chicken, lamb, steak, goat kebabs — whatever meat they choose,” he recalled in 2019. “Then they put it on flatbread with herbs and toppings and fold it so people can carry it with them.”

The street grills were the inspiration behind Botiwalla, the restaurant Chai Pani Restaurant Group opened in 2017 in Ponce City Market food hall in Atlanta; a second location opened this year in Charlotte. Below is Irani’s recipe for lamb kebabs.

Luis Martinez’s cecina enchilada (spicy flat pork loin)

Serves: Six people


  • 11 guajillo chiles, stems and seeds removed
  • Two pasilla chiles, stems and seeds removed
  • Six whole peppercorns
  • Four whole cloves
  • ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
  • One teaspoon dried thyme
  • ½ tablespoon dried oregano
  • Eight garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 cup of diced white onion
  • ½ cup of white vinegar
  • 1¼ pound piece of lean, boneless pork loin
  • Sea salt


  1. In a heated pan, grill the chiles. Turn them over regularly and grill until they are supple and fragrant (15-30 seconds).
  2. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Remove from the heat, add the chiles and cover. Leave for 30 minutes or until the chiles are very tender. Drain, reserving ½ cup of the soaking liquid.
  3. In a dry pan, grill the cumin for a few seconds. Add the oregano, cloves and thyme. Finally, add the black pepper. Roast these spices until they become aromatic.
  4. In a molcajete (mortar) or spice grinder, grind the spices.
  5. Put the softened chiles with the reserved soaking water into a blender along with the onion, garlic, ground spice mixture and vinegar. Blend until smooth and salt to taste. (It should have the consistency of mustard.)
  6. Using a sharp knife (such as boning, filleting or slicing knife), trim off the cap of fat that covers one side of the pork loin. On the other side of the loin, there may be a strip that runs the length and has a different texture than the solid loin meat. Separate it by running your hand down the membrane that connects it to the loin, then cut it off and reserve for pork fillings. If a membrane or fat is covering any of the surfaces, trim it off. The piece of loin should now be clear, solid meat from one end to the other.
  7. Lay the meat so that its length (and the grain) runs crosswise in front of you. Place one hand firmly on top of the meat, then begin slicing at one end, parallel to the work surface and 1/8 inch below the top (and, as you guessed, 1/8 inch below the level of your hand). Work your way across the meat but stop 1/8 inch short of the other end; do not cut through. Remove your knife, turn the meat 180 degrees and start a second cut across, 1/4 inch below the top. When you’ve cut across about 1 inch, open out the top slice, bending it on the 1/8 inch “hinge” that you left at the end. Lay your hand firmly on the newly exposed top and continue cutting across, again 1/8 inch below the surface, below your hand. Stop 1/8 inch from the end, turn the meat around and begin a third slice 1/4 inch below the top. Cut across 1 inch, unfold the second slice, then continue your cut, 1/8 inch below your firmly held hand. Work your way back and forth across the meat, leaving 1/8 inch hinges at the end of each slice until the entire piece has been stretched out to a long, 1/8 inch piece of meat. Cut it into sections.
  8. Spread each piece of pork with the adobo mixture and stack in a nonreactive baking dish. Cover and let marinate in the refrigerator for four to six hours.
  9. Preheat the grill to high. When ready to grill, oil the grill grate. Arrange the slices on the hot grate and grill, turning with tongs until nicely browned and cooked through, one to two minutes per side.
  10. Serve immediately accompanied by tortillas, guacamole and salsa.

Millicent Johnson’s jerk chicken

Serves: Four people
Prep time: One hour
Total time: 13-25 hours for best results


  • One whole chicken
  • One or two chopped habaneros, with or without seeds
  • 2 teaspoons  vinegar
  • 1 small yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 small sweet onion, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons fresh thyme, chopped
  • 3 teaspoons of original Mrs. Dash
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic
  • 4 teaspoons ground allspice
  • 2 tablespoons fresh ginger root, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • Four stalks of green onion
  • 1½ tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • 1 small green bell pepper
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 2 tablespoons ketchup
  • 3 tablespoons butter


  1. Clean and wash chicken thoroughly
  2. To make jerk marinade, place yellow onions, habaneros, green onion, thyme, bell pepper, ginger, garlic and vegetable oil into a blender and pulse until smooth.
  3. Place chicken in a bowl, then add salt, allspice, garlic powder, Mrs. Dash and soy sauce followed by half of the blended marinade. Rub everything together. Place seasoned chicken in a freezer bag or let sit in a covered bowl. You can cook chicken immediately after seasoning, but for best results, put it in the refrigerator for 12-24 hours to marinate.
  4. To make the jerk sauce, place butter in a small saucepan with the remainder of the marinade, then add water, ketchup, honey, lime juice, brown sugar and salt to taste. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Let sit until ready to serve.
  5. Preheat the grill to medium high and remove chicken from marinade. Place chicken on the grill grate, cover and cook for 45-55 minutes keeping the internal grill temperature at 350 F-400 F, turning the chicken occasionally. When chicken is cooked, the juices will run clear. Check chicken with meat thermometer. When fully cooked, chicken breast and thigh should be about 165 F; leg and wing should be 170 F. Remove chicken from grill and place on a cutting board, chopping into desired pieces before transferring chicken to a platter. Pour desired amount of jerk sauce over the chicken and serve.

Owen McGlynn’s coal-fired crookneck squash, served with harissa

Serves: Eight people

Crookneck Squash:

  • 3 pounds crookneck squash
  • 1 cup crumbled feta
  • 1/2 cup cashews, roasted and crushed
  • 5 tablespoon olive oil


  1. Prepare squash by cutting in about 1- to 2-inch chunks (large enough for grilling) and toss with olive oil.
  2. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
  3. Cook over charcoal grill (use a grill basket if necessary) until squash is nicely charred, about 3-5 minutes.
  4. Combine with crumbled feta, cashews.


  • Two red bell peppers, seeded and divided
  • Three cloves garlic, chopped
  • One small red onion, chopped
  • One dried ancho chile, rehydrated
  • 1/4 teaspoon whole coriander, toasted and ground
  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin, toasted and ground
  • 1/4 teaspoon caraway, toasted and ground
  • 1/4 teaspoon of paprika
  • 2 teaspoon fresh lime juice


  1. Sauté chopped onions and garlic in a pan until caramelized.
  2. Add to blender with bell pepper, ancho chile, spices and lime juice. Purée until combined. (Chef’s note: If ancho chile is too spicy, add honey to sweeten and salt and pepper to taste.)
  3. Squash with feta and cashews can be tossed with harissa or plated with a large spoonful of harissa for dipping.

Meherwan Irani’s lamb seekh kebabs

Serves: 10 people
Time: Two hours, 10 minutes


  • 1⁄2 medium red onion, finely chopped, plus 1 medium red onion, thinly sliced with the grain
  • 1⁄3 cup finely chopped cilantro
  • Three medium cloves garlic, finely minced (1 tablespoon)
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely minced
  • One serrano chile, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped (1 tablespoon)
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon Indian red chile powder, or substitute cayenne
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon Kashmiri chile powder, or substitute paprika
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon garam masala
  • 2 ½ pounds ground lamb
  • 1⁄2 cup melted ghee or unsalted butter, for basting
  • Naan, for serving
  • Lime wedges, for serving
  • Cilantro-mint chutney, for serving


  1. In a large bowl, add the chopped onion, cilantro, garlic, mint, ginger, serrano, coriander, salt, cumin, both chile powders, turmeric, and garam masala; stir until well combined. Add the lamb and use your hands to mix well, pounding and smashing the meat between your hands to thoroughly incorporate the seasonings. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled, at least one hour.
  2. Meanwhile, soak 10 8-inch bamboo skewers in cold water for at least 30 minutes.
  3. When ready to cook the kebabs, preheat a grill to high (about 450 F) or a grill pan over very high heat. Drain the skewers and shake off any excess water. Retrieve the lamb mixture and divide into 10 evenly sized portions (about 5 ounces each). Roll the portions into tight balls; working with one ball at a time, thread onto a skewer. Starting from the tip of the skewer, work the mixture up, gently rolling the kebab between your palms so that it is an even thickness from end to end, with a slightly flattened, ribbed sausage shape, about one inch thick. Repeat with the remaining balls and nine skewers.
  4. Once the grill is hot, add the kebabs, spacing about 1 inch apart. Close the grill or tent the grill pan loosely with foil and cook until the meat is charred on one side and loosens easily from the grates, about two minutes.
  5. Open the grill or remove the foil, turn the kebabs, and continue cooking with the grill open until charred on the opposite side, about two minutes. Baste the kebabs liberally with ghee and continue cooking until the meat is cooked through, one to two minutes more. Transfer to a platter and serve immediately with thinly sliced onion, naan, lime wedges and chutney.

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About Kay West
Kay West was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, StyleBlueprint Nashville, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. To kick off 2019 she put Tennessee in her rear view mirror, drove into the mountains of WNC, settled in West Asheville and appreciates that writing offers the opportunity to explore and learn her new home. She looks forward to hiking trails, biking greenways, canoeing rivers, sampling local beer and cheering the Asheville Tourists.

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