Two beautiful women, a mother and daughter, are standing in the kitchen, cooking together and laughing about the past. “My first job was selling boiled peanuts in town on Saturday mornings,” says one. “I guess I was about 8 years old. In the years following, I would sometimes drive our truck—I was only 13 then—out to the fields and the farmland. Peter Rat filled up the beds with Silver Queen corn and peaches, and my best friend and I went to town to sell that produce out of the back of the truck. We made pretty good money, but the flood of ’94 destroyed the peach crop, and I went to work for the town veterinarian,” recounts Gena Knox, who sounds a lot like her mother, Joan Neely, in this scenario, reminiscing about a Southern agrarian past.
Yet Gena is the daughter, and at 31, she has done more in her short life than lots of elderly folk—and shows no signs of stopping. Starting out professionally as a landscape architect, Gena had a satisfying business going. She loved to entertain at home with her husband, Davis, and spent free time scouring food magazines and cooking shows for inspiration, pastimes she inherited from her mother. “I have always loved experimenting and reading about what others have done,” she says. “I once read an article about the Native American tradition of grilling food on wood planks, and I wanted to try it myself.” Her search for untreated cedar took her from national gourmet specialty shops to the local lumberyard. “I ended up ordering some from a business in Oregon and grilled salmon on them,” she says. “It was delicious.” The idea for a business was born.
Gena and her husband ordered more wood, cut and branded it with their logo and headed to the Merchandise Mart to sell it at a “cash & carry” show. We made several thousand dollars in two days,” she recalls. “Not long after, I stopped working as a landscape architect and made this my trade.”
At first, Gena sold Fire & Flavor grilling planks to small specialty shops, eventually setting her sights on Whole Foods Market, where, in 2003, she walked right in with a query for the regional seafood buyer, John Bowler. He was sold on the idea. “Our products have been in Whole Foods Market ever since,” Gena says.
The Knoxes are tireless and forever inspired. Their cedar plank sales have expanded to include other varieties of wood that are great for grilling and impart distinct yet subtle flavors to fired food. They now sell skewers and spices, grilling papers and brines. Their growth is not out of drive to become bigger but to continue learning to cook in new ways and sharing it with others.
In February, Gena released her first cookbook, Gourmet Made Simple, a sophisticated yet pared down selection of recipes that focuses on flavor and ease. “I like to eat healthy foods but don’t have a lot of time to spend in the kitchen,” says Davis. “Even when I entertain, conversation keeps me at the table and out of the kitchen.” He and Gena like to marry flavors with the best tools—time-tested techniques and a well-stocked pantry. Friends always ask for the recipes, so the cookbook idea seemed logical. “I learned to cook from my mother, as she learned from her mother, and innovation was their trademark,” Gena says. “The same thing comes naturally to me.”
Angie Mosier on … gourmet food at home
Talking to Gena Knox about her new book, Gourmet Made Simple, got me thinking about how many folks are intimidated by cooking and entertaining at home. I sometimes wonder why they hesitate. Gena pointed out that these days, folks are confused about food. We can get ingredients out of season and from around the world, but few of us know how to make the most of them.
On a recent episode of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef,” the contestants were challenged to create a winning dish using only five ingredients. Their only freebies were salt, pepper, sugar and oil. As they scurried around a fresh market and then in the kitchen, it became clear who was enjoying the challenge and who was struggling. The least favorite results came from those who tried to do something too showy. But the challenge was to bring out the natural flavors of simple ingredients.
Harmony of flavors is key. This episode’s winning dishes were thoughtfully composed using ingredients that complement one another and allow for the star ingredient—say meat or fish—to shine through.
Technique has lots to do with great cooking, but that comes with knowledge and practice—and lots of trial and error. Restraint is something that often must be learned. Too much of this and that is overkill. Try buying some seasonal greens, dressing them with a simple yet balanced vinaigrette, and serving them beside the best piece of fish at the market. To me, this is perfection.
In my mind, the idea of cooking a dish over a fire or the “five-ingredient rule” may be the ticket. All you really need for a delicious dish is salt, pepper, sugar, oil, fresh produce, a good piece of meat or a great slab of fish—and perhaps a cedar plank on the fire.
Gourmet Made Simple
(Fire & Flavor Grilling Co., $19.95, fireandflavor.com)