Ernest Servantes treated grilling as a treasured hobby until the decision to join the Food Network show “Chopped Grill Masters” lead to a smoking hot win and a renewed love of all things grilled, smoked and seared. (Photo/Courtesy Ernest Servantes)

Chef Spotlight: Ernest Servantes on the secret to making a perfect steak

Vitals: This 34-year-old Texan chef knows his way around a grill, thanks to having grown up in a Mexican-American family that made cooking over a fire a regular occasion. A celebrated fixture on the local barbeque competition since he was a teen, Servantes traded his Weber grill and culinary dreams for a series of high-profile banking internships while studying marketing in college. Servantes may be a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef now, but his love of flame-grilled food has only gotten stronger over time. Now, the self-professed “small town guy” has a near-cult following as the winner of this summer’s Food Network hit series “Chopped Grill Masters,” which featured Servantes grilling his way to an impressive win.

Experience: Servantes learned how to marinade, baste and grill his way to gold-medal status at barbeque competitions when he was a teen and by college, had found his way onto the line at corporate chain restaurant Chili’s. Driven by his love of food, Servantes dropped out of college junior year and by his 20’s, was opening Outback Steakhouse restaurants across Texas as a team leader. Long hours working in large-scale kitchens helped pay off his culinary training at the Culinary Institute in Texas, and degree in hand, Servantes funded a traveling barbeque rig that he used to compete in barbeque competitions in the Lone State. Now, Servantes is the executive chef at Texas Lutheran University – managing all of its cafeterias and catering department, while cooking up specialty meals for its special events – and during the weekend, runs his own catering company and dominates the Lone State barbeque competition circuit.

On the fajita competition that started it all: “I started off competing in fajita competitions when I was just 17 years old. It’s a big thing in small town Texas, seeing who can create the juiciest, tender and delicious fajitas. And so I would go around from competition to competition, beating older guys with my tiny 24-inch weber grill that I’d tote around in my small truck. Participating in these events was a big deal for the guys in my family, and my competitive nature really inspired me to go from small town competitions to big barbeque events and has helped shape my career in a way I never thought possible.”

On the win of a lifetime: “To me, barbeque and grilling is an art form. Every chef has their thing: whether it’s canning, molecular gastronomy or farm to table cuisine. And my thing just happens to be barbeque, learning new techniques, using different woods and a variety of meats to really bring barbeque to an artisanal level. People don’t realize that there are so many types of BBQ, from South American to Middle Eastern – cooking with fire is a really primal thing. It’s my passion and I’ve created almost a science of it, thanks to the support of my family. And to have brought all that passion to a show like ‘Chopped: Grill Masters,’ well, that was just heaven.”

On how he plans to keep up the momentum: “I’m different. I don’t want to do barbeque sauces and brandings of sauces and rubs. I want to help my culture and my community. I’m not an A-lister, but I know that with what I have, I can definitely help others in my community achieve their dreams. I look up to chefs like Johnny Hernandez and Aarón Sanchez – we’re cooking our food, our way. Money is great, sure, but what makes me happy is hooking up my rig and catering a fundraiser to help those with leukemia. I’m from a small town and if I can do anything to help others, to encourage them to dream outside the possibilities available in small town Texas, that makes me happy. I work towards that every day.”

On the craziest thing he’s ever grilled: There’s one thing that stands out right away, and that’s rattlesnake. My dad, sister and I were at the ranch – I was just about nine years old – and seeing a rattlesnake, I thought ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we could eat this thing’? So I shot it, killed it and we threw it into the back of the truck and made our way to my grandma’s house where my dad grilled it. We served it with chiles and corn tortillas and let me tell you, my mom threw away every pan, cutting board, knife and utensil we used in the cooking and eating of that thing! She went off the deep end at the notion that we had killed and cooked that thing. As a family, we always lived off the land, eating deer, boar and rabbit but this was just on another level.”

On his grilling must-haves: “You really don’t need fancy equipment when it comes to grilling, but fresh ingredients really do make all the difference. With some beautiful cilantro, fresh tomatoes, jalapeños, garlic, onions and salt you can barbeque just about anything and make it delicious. You can mix up marinades, you can create a thick puree to use for dabbing on to meat, or you can blend the ingredients with salt and pepper for a simple ranchero sauce. I’ve cooked everything under the sun with those ingredients: from fajitas, cabezas to brisket. The sky’s the limit if you have those ingredients and get creative.”

On making the perfect grilled steak: “You have to start with a good quality of beef; a prime or Black Angus cut. And you need to keep the preparation simple. I like a rub made with good sea salt, cracked black pepper and the surprise ingredient: turbine sugar. Turbine sugar is great because it takes a long time to caramelize. Sear the steaks on a hot grill for about six minutes on both sides to cook the steak to really bring out that caramel flavor of the sugar and rich flavor of the beef – and the end result will be unbelievable. The best advice I can give is to keep your steak seasoning simple and take it from me, I’m a born and bred Texan in a state that’s all about the beef!”

Here’s Servantes’ treasured recipe for the ultimate steak rub; a dry spice blend that will take your steaks from ho-hum to cooking competition-worthy.

Texas Badlands Steak Rub

½ cup of brown sugar

¼ cup of sugar in the raw

2 table spoons of dark chili powder

2 table spoons smoked paprika

1 tablespoon of Mexican oregano

1 tablespoon dry ancho powder

2 tablespoons of dry mustard

1 tablespoon chipotle powder

2 tablespoons of granulated garlic powder

Pour all ingredients in a mixing bowl and blend together. Sprinkle liberally on both sides of your preferred cut of meat. This makes enough to season 6-8 individual steaks. Store seasoning in room temperature in an airtight container.

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