Smart phones. Tablets. Social media. Americans have many distractions. But for Stebin Horne, there are few things in life worse than not being present. That belief is the driving force behind his company, KUDU Safari Braai Grills.
“I helped build startups including ATDC at Georgia Tech. One thing that was missing from all of that, over a span of two decades, was the simple need to be present -- to be present in the moment, to be present in what you do,” the Macon, Ga., native said. “That is the one thing America lacks more than any other country in the world: being present with your family, your children and your friends.”
This, Horne says, is why he founded KUDU Grills, a grilling system based on an elevated platform over an open fire.
The idea for the grill came from South Africa, during a visit when Horne went to meet his future wife’s family. “I felt that it would be good if I went over there to learn who she is, where she grew up and her whole culture there,” he remembered. He admitted that he wasn’t prepared for the life change that came with his visit when he discovered South Africans’ serious passion for braai, or open-fire cooking as a social event custom, but he was intrigued by the concept. “It really kind of exposed me to a whole new world of cookery that was using primal features in a lot of advanced dishes,” Horne said. “It was really a great blend of excellent food, prepared in a communal way that you just don’t find in America. I think it’s a big piece of what’s missing in this country.”
Horner quickly learned during the South Africa trip that an open fire is like a magnet for people, immediately enhancing any social event. His wife’s brother was cooking on an open fire, and like a moth to a flame, Horne saw that it drew the entire family over, seeming to encourage them to gather and bond with each other.
“That’s the one thing that South Africa does as good as anybody because they put everything down and everyone comes together,” he says, remember how his brother-in-law referred to open fire cooking as “African TV” because everyone watches the fire. “There’s no kids on iPads, there’s no parents on the phone. It’s just time to come together, catch your breath, take pleasure in the things that you love and appreciate. It’s the moments that can happen every evening, and it’s just magical. You combine food and fire, you bring in two elements that we as humans can’t avoid. We’re automatically attracted to it. And that was what captivated me.”
Inspired, Horne returned the United States and corroborated with his hometown friend, Stewart Vernon, to create the grill, eventually bringing in Atlanta native and “Top Chef” star Kevin Gillespie as a partner. Although the company just launched in January, already it is gaining prominence among notable chefs around the country, who enjoy the unique grilling system and act as “Braai Masters” representatives, including Gillespie, John Currence and other widely recognized chefs in the South and beyond. “The number one thing that appealed to chefs was that it’s the first product they had access to that doesn’t tell them one single thing about ‘If you want to use this product, you must do this, i.e. a Big Green Egg,’” he said, adding that chefs also enjoy being able to cook different foods at the same time, but at different temperatures. “They are artists, and to them a KUDU Grill is a blank canvas.”
Made mostly in Macon, the KUDU Grill is unique not just because the flat, circular grill allows people to gather around in the same way South Africans do during traditional braais. It also sautés, sears, fries, boils, smokes and steams, depending on how you want to use it and various accessories, adding value as well as ambiance. “You have this great opportunity to cook with charcoal or cook with wood,” he said. He brings in parts of the grill directly from South Africa, along with the charcoal and the wood, because he said it’s “unlike any wood that you can find in America.” However, Horne was quick to clarify a possible misconception of the grill: “KUDU is not a fire pit that you cook on -- it’s an open-fire cooking system, which is such a fun, simple and easy process.”
Horne has other products and accessories for the KUDU, including a rotisserie, a breadmaker and a fryer, with plans to add more. He says a fire tower for hanging meat will be available soon, along with a warming tray. KUDU's website also offers instructional videos featuring Gillespie and recipe videos in which the "Top Chef" prepares foods you'll want to cook immediately after bringing the grill and additional gear home.
“It’ll have so many accessories that, depending on what you wanna do and how you wanna cook, it’s really only limited by your imagination,” he said. “One of the great chefs compared it to NASCAR because a NASCAR vehicle is made to race -- it’s made to drive. It doesn’t have leather seats. It doesn’t have cruise control, or satellite radio or AC. It’s made just to drive better than any other car can drive or perform. It’s intentionally simple, and the reason is because you can do so many things with it. And that’s what the KUDU is.”
Horne is happy to do his part in improving culture through something as simple as cooking. And he said that ultimately he just wants people to slow down, step away from Facebook, put away the tablets and smartphones, and smell the roses. Or, at least, smell the barbecue and braai.
“I saw these people that didn’t have access to some of the first-world things we have here in America, but they were instantly happier,” he recalled from his time in South Africa. “And I felt that that was something America could use more than anywhere in the world.”
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A longtime music and lifestyle journalist, Jacinta Howard frequently covers Atlanta's arts and music scenes, and her byline has appeared in Creative Loafing, Denver Westword, Upscale Magazine, Hip-Hop Weekly, The Source and a host of others. She is the author of six novels of women's fiction and contemporary romance, a USA TODAY Must-Read Author and a two-time RONE Award nominee.