With grilling season approaching, and as more people are vaccinated, cookouts are becoming more frequent and less of an intimate experience, and are more and more involving extended family and friends. It’s only a matter of time before skyward streaks of smoke begin popping up over neighborhoods throughout Orange County, and thousands of grill pros — and amateurs — plate up hot delicacies.
One of the most renowned grill masters in the world is Hillsborough native Chef Eric Gephart. Prior to the pandemic, Gephart could be found grilling on top of a mountain in Austria, or firing up a huge cookout in Australia, or sharing a grill in the Cayman Islands with culinary legends, like the late Anthony Bourdain or José Andreas.
And in between exotic trips to the far reaches of the world, Gephart would return home to Hillsborough and his family. “As soon as I hit the frickin’ airport, I’d come back and me and the family would be at the Nickel. We sit down and I don’t even have to order. Just be with all the familiar faces and friends.”
Gephart grew up locally, went to Cameron Park Elementary, C.W. Stanford Middle School, and graduated from Orange High. He was even an Eagle Scout. After graduating from UNC-Wilmington, Gephart went to New York for culinary school.
Marriage and raising a family brought him back to Hillsborough. Gephart had run a couple of restaurants, including one in Raleigh. One of the signature pieces of equipment for his restaurant was the Kamado Joe ceramic grill. When it came time to close down his business, Gephart reached out to the Kamado Joe company and worked out a plan to throw a party in Australia where the food would be prepared on the company’s grill with Gephart as the chef.
“The owner just saw everybody with their phones out and the social media buzz and he’s like, ‘This is what you’re gonna do.’” Just like that, Chef Eric Gephart is the Global Culinary Director for Kamado Joe, and he’s out showing off the company’s grill all over the globe, and videoing his experiences to share with his growing following on social media platforms.
His favorite place he’s been is Slovenia, although it wasn’t an easy choice. “Slovenia was pretty incredible around the Italian border and the Soča River,” Gephart said. “Fly fishing on the Soča, and catching trout, and then going on top of this crazy mountain and grilling it up. My buddy, Pitmaster X, and I bought a 1974 Jeep Wagoneer and did seven countries in 10 days across Europe. Every country we stopped in we hooked up with a top chef of that country, and then had them take us on a culinary adventure. So we filmed this whole thing and that was pretty incredible and that was one of the places we went to that just blew me away.”
But COVID-19 grounded Chef Eric, and even though he misses the opportunity to see new places, he has enjoyed taking his five and nine-year-old daughters on adventures through places he grew familiar with in his childhood.
“We have spent a ton of time just going through the river and fishing. I’ve kind of put them through my own version of scouting, so they’ve done primitive traps and learned how to start fires in a supervised way. I was out in a field that had been freshly plowed the other day with my daughters and we were looking for arrowheads.”
Gephart plays an active role in planning the Kamado Joe grilling events. In contending with the restrictions involved with the pandemic, he cut back on the distance for his next shoot. “I think we’re going out to the Frying Pan Tower, which is off the coast of Southport, about 35 miles out in the ocean, in the heart of the Graveyard of the Atlantic,” he said. “I’m taking a scuba diving boat, my cinematographer, and a couple other guys from Hillsborough, and we’re gonna go out on this tower to do some spearfishing and shoot four or five recipe videos to get Memorial Day and July 4 content.”
During the shelter in place and with more people choosing to play it safe by staying close to home, homeowners are investing more time and money into their homes and outdoor areas.
“Part of that is certainly to do the pandemic and people staying at home,” said Gephart. “Where people are spending money now is upgrading their backyards and their patios. Buying grills has been a big part of that for sure. I think it just boils down to outdoor grilling, and grilling at home has never been more popular, ever. ”
Gephart said he doesn’t miss running a restaurant much, saying that kind of work is the last socially acceptable addiction. “I got sucked into a black hole as you do when you’re part of the restaurant industry. You get sucked down into it it’s addictive. You hang out with these people more than you hang out with your family. Even when I had a day off, or I was home, I wasn’t mentally home. Now, with this job, it’s demanding in a different way, but when I’m home I’m actually present with my kids. I’m not worried about the dishwashers not showing up, or the ice machine is going to break. I miss the physical demands of it, but I get that in the moments when I’m throwing these parties around the world.”
And sometimes he is able to bring his family with him on trips. “My wife jumps on the airplane anytime we go to the Caymans. She loves get down to the beach. We’ve done some stuff down at the Gulf, we’ve gotten down to Mexico, and to California. Every opportunity we get I take them. They get their passports and they’re ready to go,” he said.
To get a closer look at Chef Eric Gephart’s culinary travels, follow
@ericgephart on Instagram.