Grill innovator never gives up
Sarah Ingram -- Casual Living, September 1, 2008
A genius was once defined as someone who makes a mental connection between things that other people could not see.
The word accurately describes Bill Best, chairman and CEO of Thermal Engineering Corporation in Columbia, S.C. A grilling innovator, he invented the infrared grill.
It might seem unlikely for a guy from a tiny town to change the way the world cooks. Best grew up in Bamberg, S.C., in the coastal plains about halfway between Charleston, S.C., and Augusta, Ga.
According to company President Rachael Harper, Best has recorded more than 60 patents – one for almost every year of his life.
These days, the 76-year-old often works 50 hours a week, she said, and it's not uncommon for him to come back to work at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning.
“I actually dream solutions to problems,” Best said. “Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night and go to the lab to work. I have spent nights when my mind was running wild, and I had to go to the laboratory to try something.”
Such dogged curiosity has served him well.
“To be an inventor, all the stars have to be aligned,” Harper said. “You have to have intelligence, education, a passion for the field of study, a work ethic and the creativity.
“Bill says he's met people a lot smarter than he is, but the reason he gets things done is he works hard.”
Best's hero growing up was his father.
“He was very creative and very mechanical, and I admire the way he could do things,” Best said.
His family liked to cook out -- especially fish fries and barbecues. He could not have known then that those cookouts would be a stimulus for one of his greatest inventions.
“He was the first one to discover that infrared cooks without drying out food,” Harper said. “Infrared energy is radiant energy, the kind of energy that warms you from the sun.
“Infrared heat is able to penetrate the food without disturbing the moisture boundary.”
Believe it or not, charcoal emits up to 20% infrared heat. Traditional, convection-style gas grills cook with hot air.
“Unfortunately, hot air cannot cook food without disturbing the moisture boundary,” Harper said. “You have much less moisture loss when you cook with radiant energy.”
How did Best even think of applying radiant energy to grilling?
Best developed the first gas-powered infrared burner in the early 1960s while teaching at the University of South Carolina. He was doing research at the time, developing a flame arrester for guidance rockets.
Late one night, at about 2 o'clock in the morning, Harper said, Best noticed the flame arrester, which was made of ceramic, glowed bright red and emitted intense levels of infrared heat. That gave him the idea to develop the ceramic infrared burner that he first used in the automobile industry to make radial tires and paint-curing systems.
He formed Thermal Engineering Corporation (TEC) in 1961, but it wasn't until the early 1980s that Best took one of his ceramic infrared burners and built a grill for his personal use out of scrap metal from the plant. He discovered that infrared cooks without drying out food, and from his research sprang TEC Infrared Grills.
“The first grill Bill built had ceramic burners in it,” Harper said. “The old technology cooks with 50% infrared energy and 50% hot air, a major improvement over convectional-style gas grilling that cooks with 100% hot air. There is much less moisture loss with ceramic-style infrared burners, but they have very little turn-down capability. In other words, they only operate at high temperatures.
“That patent expired in 2000. Then, all the other grill companies began to offer grills with infrared technology,” she added. “Most of these grills are hybrid units that use ceramic burners on one side for searing meat and convection burners on the other side for cooking that requires lower temperatures.
“It took Bill four and a half years to develop an all-metal, 100 percent infrared burner. With the new technology, there is no hot air, so food retains more of its own natural juices as it grills. As a result, not only does food shrink less, but even well-done meat remains tender and juicy. Plus, heat is distributed evenly across the cooking grids so there are no hot or cold spots to avoid. You can put a hamburger on one end of the grill and another on the other end of the grill, and they will cook exactly the same in exactly the same amount of time. This means that every square inch of the grill is available for cooking.”
Chefs salivated at using a grill that keeps the juices in the meat and cooks everything evenly.
“All our grills are made in America,” Harper said. “We're not a mass manufacturer of grills. We handcraft grills. TEC grills are made like fine pieces of furniture.”
Another advantage of Best's infrared technology is the cooking temperature can range from to 300 degrees to 900 degrees, Harper said. The old ceramic technology has very little turn-down capability.
“We also make a Char-Broiler for the commercial restaurant industry,” she said.
Residential use of infrared grills has also soared as more people become educated on the benefits of infrared.
For example, the Big Easy is a 100% infrared, oil-less turkey fryer. The technology was developed by Best and licensed to Charbroil, which sells the Big Easy at Lowe's, Home Depot and other national retailers. It is safer and easier to use than conventional turkey fryers because it does not require hot oil to fry a turkey.
Harper's favorite things to cook on an infra-red grill are pork tenderloin and vegetables.
“The best way to show off our product is to grill pork or chicken, because they're the hardest to grill,” Harper said.
Best easily understands why grilling has such an appeal for socializing.
“It allows people to gather outside, drink and talk, while they cook,” he said.
Best likes to grill steak and listen to country music, and he sounds like the guy next door until you ask him his favorite book.
“Mathematics for Scientists and Engineers,” he said. “I've worn it out. It's my most-used reference book.”
Best used to employ mathematical equations to come up with his inventions. “Now he comes up with the invention, and he'll back it up with the equation,” Harper said. “He uses graph paper 18 inches long to design things.”
Best graduated from the University of South Carolina with a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in mechanical engineering. He also has a Ph.D. and is a licensed professional engineer. He still keeps the gray matter on active duty and hopes for more proverbial light bulbs to appear above his head.
“I think I would go brain-dead if I did not work,” Best said. “What could be worse than if you can't think? I like the stimulation of research. It's fun.”
Now that his first infrared patent has expired, he sees other companies using his early inventions. But TEC remains known as the pioneers of infrared technology.
“Bill's developed four other infrared cooking systems,” Harper said. “He's a genius, but he's extremely down-to-earth and humble, very honest and generous to a fault. He never says I. He says 'we developed.' He says it takes many people to get you where you are.”
Still, the transformation from idea to practicality made all the connections in Best's mind.
What is the actual, physical feeling of coming up with an invention?
“I would relate it to winning a sporting event -- the feeling that your efforts work,” Best said. “Ninety percent of the time, they don't work. The difference between a great researcher and a mediocre researcher is that a great researcher never gives up.”