Jerk chicken wings grilled by friends Galen Thomas and James Younge.

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What better time to kiss summer goodbye with style than in front of a grill this Labor Day?

Thank God for pitmasters. This week, we’ve been seeking out locals who are gifted at barbecue and grilling. Five allowed us to watch them cook, two professionals and three guys who do it for fun at home. Here’s what we saw. Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jorge Reyes, grill man at Picanha, Castor Gardens

Credit: Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

This interview was translated from Portuguese. 

Reyes: I started here at the end of 2008, towards 2009, at the turn of the year. There, I started washing dishes, then the stove. I started graduating little by little… I became a cook. I cooked for six years. From there, I started to get professional training in churrasco (Brazilian barbecue).

I started really at the bottom… It’s the trajectory of life, right? Like in school.

Picanha, the restaurant's namesake. In English, we might call this top sirloin.
Picanha, the restaurant’s namesake. In English, we might call this top sirloin. Credit: Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Never in my life had I grilled meat. I messed with cattle. I worked on a farm. Never roasted meat. I learned how to do the job right here.

Barbecue [in Guatemala, my native country] is very different. It’s on the hot plate. It’s grilled, but it’s not on spits.

DSC_0734 (1)
Credit: Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Credit: Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

I ate picanha a lot of the time. It’s really, really good here. But, when you get to eat it every day here, it can get a little bit unexciting. My favorite is the brisket.

James Jones, West Oak Lane resident

Credit: Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Jones: It’s organized, but at the same time, it’s relaxing.

DSC_0585 (1)
Credit: Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

It’s less dishes to clean. Is that bad? You cook a lot of food with less dishes.

In the summertime, my family grills every weekend, and my dad made these ribs that everybody loves, so I ended up getting the recipe from him. I started grilling when I was in college, then I got back to Philadelphia and purchased my house.

You get to sit outside and think. It’s no TV out here.

Credit: Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

I’ve been in a burger phase. You can stuff burger with seafood or you can stuff them with veggies. My favorite thing is to make this crabcake burger— a lot of people don’t eat pork— so you can take turkey, dice up some shrimp and you can take some crabmeat and you mix that in with the burger… It’s like a blank canvas.

My dad is from Tarboro, North Carolina, so they grew up grilling. He lived on a farm, so if it had two legs or four legs, they killed it and ate it. It’s communal for them. It’s communal for me too. When I grill, people come over sometimes, eat, talk, chop it up.

Credit: Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Leo Forneas, chef at The Twisted Tail, Headhouse Square

Forneas: It’s all about when I was growing up. My grandfather, we used to do weekend grilling in one of our vacation places in the Philippines.

The spit-roasted flavor of it when you put it on the grill. It renders out the fat, it gives you that smokiness.

It’s very simple. It’s all about lighting a charcoal and turning it on and putting something on there and the flavor, it intensifies it.

Credit: Cassie Owens/Billy Penn
Credit: Cassie Owens/Billy Penn
Credit: Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Pork belly takes a little bit longer to grill. Takes maybe half an hour depending on the caliber, but you know, a good pork belly is one of the best pieces of meat you’ll ever grill.

Simple stuff, like shrimp, oysters, clams, or mussels, when you just put it on the grill and it just kind of opens up, and you take some kind of lemon or acid to drizzle it? And just take it from there— it’s the best flavor you’ll get.

Credit: Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

James Younge of South Philly and Galen Thomas of West Oak Lane (in a back patio in Wynnefield)

Younge: My dad would sometimes show me. But Galen— I think when I went to school and the first place that we got that had a deck on it. Just being able to grill on a Tuesday night or something like that.

Thomas: I had a nice deck in DC too. You could like see the (Washington) Monument from it. We’d be grilling out on the deck and serenading women and stuff.

Younge: Yeah, we really did…

Thomas: Yeah, I’m a changed man now.

James Younge
James Younge Credit: Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Thomas: Food off the grill tastes amazing.

Younge: Nobody turns it down. If you say you’re firing up the grill, people will make it happen.

Thomas: We don’t just grill in the summertime, we grill year round. Thaw out the snow and… (laughs).

Younge: Definitely. I definitely thawed out the grill before. It doesn’t take that long.

Thomas: The fire’s going to melt half the snow anyway.

Younge: Oh! We were grilling in the snow when we went on a ski trip.

Thomas: Yeah, we had lobster.

Galen Thomas.
Galen Thomas. Credit: Cassie Owens/Billy Penn
Credit: Kaylee Tornay/Billy Penn

Thomas: We’re putting my favorite on the grill right now: pork shoulder.

Younge: I think steak for me. At the end of the day, nothing compares to a nice cut over an open flame. You know, we grill a lot of stuff. All types of marinades. But that’s the simplest, my most favorite thing.

Thomas: He’s a rich guy. I just take a nice hot dog. Nothing better than a hot dog on the grill.

Younge: Well, true, true. But that’s not one of my favorite things to grill.

Thomas: But it’s one of my favorite things to eat off the grill.

Younge: That’s true. It’s up there.

Credit: Kaylee Tornay/Billy Penn

Cassie Owens is a reporter/curator for She was assistant editor at Next City and has contributed to Philadelphia City Paper, Metro, the Jewish Daily Forward, The Islamic...