Nothing says summer like firing up the grill. Hamburgers and hot dogs are a classic, but there’s more than one way to spice up your barbecue recipe repertoire. The art of crafting skewers is not only tasty, it’s easy and fun, to boot.
Roslyn Heights native turned celebrity Michael Schulson is a master of technique. As the Founder and CEO of Schulson Collective restaurants, Schulson has launched a dozen restaurants in as many years. You may have caught him on TLC’s Ultimate Cake Off and Style Network’s Pantry Raid. He has also appeared as a guest on The Today Show, The Martha Stewart Show, Live with Regis and Kelly, The View, Rachael Ray and The Tyra Banks Show.
Today, Schulson is considered among Philadelphia’s most successful hospitality professionals, but his culinary roots are humble. Raised on Long Island, he recalls family dinners around the table — a tradition that instilled his love for gathering people together around meals.
“It is all about caring and bring people to the table,” Schulson said.
From his very first job at a Port Washington pizzeria, Schulson went to graduate from the Culinary Institute of America, where is honed his French culinary skills, a technique he calls “the basis of all cooking.”
“Once you master French, you can move on to anything you want,” he said.
Prior to opening his first restaurant, Izakaya, a modern Japanese pub in Atlantic City’s Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in 2008, Schulson cut his teeth at prestigious restaurants including New York’s Peacock Alley, Park Avenue Café, Le Bec-Fin and Susanna Foo. Schulson’s culinary chops range in variety from Italian and Mexican to American and Asian — an influence particularly close to his heart.
“My thing as a chef is Asian food,” he said. “I can cook other things as well, but Asian is my strength.”
Among the dozens of restaurants to his credit is Philadelipha steakhouse Alpen Rose, Asian fusion spot Sampan and the now-iconic Independence Beer Garden located steps away from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in Philadelphia’s Independence National Historic Park. Schulson also has two new, yet-to-be-named restaurants in the works, a Mexican and an Italian concept.
COVID-19 has put a pin in construction, but there is still a lot of cooking going on. Schulson’s eateries are slowly reopening in line with pandemic safety protocols, but if you can’t make it in person, not to worry. Grilling skewers at home is a go-to for Schulson. They are simple, fun and a little fancier than your average burger on the barbie. Here are Schulson’s tips for mastering the art of grilling skewers in your backyard.
“I love skewers — it’s my Asian influence thing,” he said. “If you skewer your meats or other proteins, it allows you to take eight ounces of protein and make seven-to-nine skewers. That will feed three to four people with eight ounces of protein, as opposed to the way people traditionally eat, sitting down to eight ounces per person.”
“I love a simple marinade,” Schulson said. “I take equal parts soy sauce and sugar with mirin (a type of rice wine) and a little bit of olive oil. You can put a little bit of garlic or onion powder in there, and you’re good to go.”
Soak your stick
“I prefer using wood skewers over metal skewers because it saves time in the cleanup. My wife and I don’t like to clean very much, but we are neat freaks,” he said with a laugh. “One of the best things to do is to soak wooden skewers overnight — for 24 hours. In my refrigerator, I have one of those takeout containers from the Chinese food place that I fill up with water and short skewers so anytime I want to make skewers, I can use those. Soaking the skewers is important because it prevents the wood from burning.”
Bring the heat—but not too high
“Grilling is one of those things where people overcomplicate it — it doesn’t have to be difficult,” Schulson said. “For me, grilling is about simplicity. One of the things I always keep in mind is that you shouldn’t grill anything on a really high heat. High heat won’t do anything except burn the food faster, make it black on the outside and overcooked on the inside. It is all about a nice medium heat — slow and steady. One of the tricks I like to use is to crank the heat all the way to let the grill get hot and then to lower the heat so you’ll get a nice char on the outside without it being burnt.
Separate veggies & protein
“I love to skewer vegetables, chicken, steak and seafood — whether that is shrimp or swordfish,” he said. “Mushrooms and asparagus are great skewered. One of the tricks is to take two skewers so they are about a half-inch part — you’ll have two skewers for one mushroom or one asparagus on its side — that makes it easier to turn. I don’t believe in layering skewers — proteins and vegetables should be cooked separately. If you have chicken on a skewer with tomatoes, onions and zucchini, they are not going to cook at the same rate. You’re either going to end up with an overdone tomato or an underdone piece of chicken.”
“What makes it so fun is being able to sit outside, pick up a skewer and enjoy,” Schulson said. “You already cut everything into bite-size pieces before grilling so you don’t really need a fork or a knife. All you need is skewered vegetables and skewered protein for a complete meal. It is simple, easy and everybody loves it. It is the perfect food for a nice summer barbecue with the family. That is what it is all about.”