Thirteen-year-old Nathan Hays’ summer is sizzling. The Pleasant Hill middle-schooler started competitively cooking eight years ago and recently won the Food Network’s Kid Chef Nation competition after competing against six other youths, including his younger sister, Anna, 11.
Father Stan and mother Amy know that the Hayses who palatably play together, stay together.
“Grilling competitions are something we enjoy doing as a family,” Stan says. “We are always learning how to improve a recipe or grilling techniques, and then when it’s all over, we enjoy eating the finished product together.”
Q: Nathan, do you have grilling plans for the Fourth of July?
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A: I’m sure I’ll fire up my 18-inch Weber kettle grill and maybe make some apricot-glazed chicken wings. These shrimp are also great off the grill. There’s a little more prep to them, but once they’re on the grill they finish quickly. I think dishes that have a balance of sweet, spicy and smoky tastes are always a winner.
These shrimp placed second in the appetizer category at the 2015 World Steak Championship at Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth. I was the only minor who qualified for the contest, and after I placed, they instituted the “Nathan Rule,” in that the head cook must now be at least 18 years old.
Q: You certainly seem a lot older for your age. Do you want to be a chef when you grow up?
A: I enjoy making up dishes and grilling, but I want to be an engineer when I grow up. I will never give up grilling, because it’s something I really enjoy doing. I don’t want to lose the enjoyment of making food because it’s become a “job.”
My dad is the chief executive officer and co-founder of Operation BBQ Relief, a not-for-profit organization which goes into communities that have experienced a disaster. We start barbecuing and feed first responders and people of the community in need of a good, hot meal, which usually includes smoked pulled pork and baked beans.
This spring, my dad and I, with others, went to Goodman, Missouri, after a tornado tore through and fed people. It feels good to provide some comfort to people in the form of a good, warm meal that I helped to make. I can tell you, seeing the tornado devastation on television is nothing like seeing it in real life.
Q: At 13 years old, you have experienced so much already. What was it like to win the latest Food Network Kid Chef Nation competition?
A: Before a competition, my sister, Anna, and I do a lot of preparation and recipe research. The show was filmed at the World Food Championships in Orange Beach, Alabama, last November, and I had to be quiet about winning it until it aired this spring.
Seven kids from around the country competed in two rounds. One was a mystery basket of ingredients you were given and had to use to create a dish. My ingredient basket contained shrimp, sour cream, orange, zucchini and jalapeno peppers, so I created a grilled shrimp dish brushed with an orange-jalapeno glaze and a tower of grilled smashed potatoes topped with sour cream and grilled zucchini.
For the competition, we also had to prepare our signature dish. Mine is a take on surf and turf with a perfectly grilled rib-eye steak with sea scallops and asparagus wrapped in bacon. Anna started off the competition rough by missing a basket ingredient in her first dish but finished strong with her signature dish.
It was exciting to win, but I will tell you: When you’re cooking under tight timelines, 30 minutes goes by quick. You have to be organized, take a breath, and know what you need to do and get it done.
Q: Do you use your analytical engineering mind when it comes to building a perfect meal on the grill?
A: Sometimes good grilling is about letting a piece of meat or seafood stand on its own using the right grilling techniques. And learning how to grill something the right way takes practice.
I don’t like to brag, but I’m proud to be the youngest person to ever win a Steak Cookoff Association competition when I was 11 years old, after beating 26 adults for the title.
In barbecue competitions, our team is called the County Line Smokers, which refers our Pleasant Hill home that resides on the Cass and Jackson county lines in Missouri. When it comes to grilling, experience is the best teacher, and I have competed in 19 Kansas City Barbeque Society Kids-Q contests, winning three grand championships in 2012, 2014 and 2016.
My advice to people who are just starting out grilling is to buy the best quality meat, seafood and vegetables you can. Even the best barbecuer can’t transform a bad piece of meat into a delicious steak.
When you place something on the grill, resist the temptation to always be moving it or flipping it over. Let it cook, give it a good sear with the cross-hatch marks from the grill, but try to keep your hands off it. Finally, surround yourself with people who support you and who have your back — my dad, mom and sister all definitely qualify for that.
Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. She also writes a nationally syndicated home column. Email her at email@example.com to nominate a cook.
Pineapple Jalapeno Glazed Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp
1 (12-ounce) jar pineapple preserves
1 (10-ounce) jar hot or mild pepper jelly
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar, optional
1 tablespoon barbecue rub, divided usage
6 colossal-sized shrimp shelled, deveined, rinsed and patted dry
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and cut into 6 strips
6 slices low-sodium bacon
Prepare a hot fire on one side of a charcoal grill and set grate on highest setting. To imbue a smokier flavor, add wood chips.
Place a cast-iron pan over indirect flame and whisk in pineapple preserves, pepper jelly, honey and optional rice wine vinegar. Stirring occasionally, allow mixture to liquefy into a glaze. Pour all but a scant 1/4 cup into a heat-resistant, resealable container and place in refrigerator to save for another usage. Stir remaining glaze occasionally, removing from heat as necessary to prevent scorching.
Season shrimp by sprinkling 1/4 teaspoon barbecue rub over each. Place a jalapeno pepper strip down the back of a shrimp. Secure pepper in place by wrapping 1 piece of bacon around shrimp. Secure bacon in place using a toothpick.
Continue process for remaining jalapeno strips, shrimp and bacon.
Season again, by sprinkling 1/4 teaspoon barbecue rub over each bacon-wrapped shrimp.
Place prepared shrimp over hot coals and grill over direct, medium heat for 5 to 7 minutes, turning shrimp over halfway through the process.
At about 4 to 5 minutes into grilling, using a silicone basting brush, coat each bacon-wrapped shrimp with about 1/2 tablespoon from the reserved pineapple pepper glaze in cast-iron pan.
Continue grilling, allowing the glaze to caramelize over all. The bacon should be crisp, and the shrimp will be done after turning pink and registering an internal temperature of 120 degrees with an instant-read thermometer.
Chef’s note: Nathan uses Meat Mitch rub. Recipe can easily be doubled or increased proportionally.
Per serving: 99 calories (25 percent from fat), 3 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 61 milligrams cholesterol, 9 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams protein, 141 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.