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Friday, February 26, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Inventor Finds Better Way To Grill Tofu -- Steam Tubes Used To Prevent Burning

Grilled tofu? Who's ever heard of such a thing?

Don Hennick of Fremont knew bean curd burned. Still, the 38-year-old vegetarian wanted to find a way to grill the stuff without it sticking to the grate or shriveling up into tiny black chunks.

Then one day it came to him.

Asked to build a grill for a company picnic a couple of years ago, Hennick scanned materials at the welding fabrication shop of South Seattle Community College, where he is a student.

He examined some hard wire tubing, suddenly realized he could run water through it, and bang. Hennick is now waiting for a patent, to be issued next month, for his invention of the first non-burning grill.

"The idea just hit me like a bolt of lightning," Hennick said. "It literally designed itself."

The grill is actually a grate of half-inch metal tubes connected to two steam-producing chambers which hold water. It works over any heat source, including a campfire or any existing electric, charcoal or gas grill.

Water from the chambers then flows through the tubes. It never exceeds 212 degrees - the boiling point of water - but is remains hot enough to grill everything from steak and burgers to thin fish filets, fresh veggies - even tofu.

"It makes grilling possible for all kinds of tender foods that were once impossible to grill," he said. "The other huge advantage is that it's healthy because it retains flavor and doesn't char your food, so you don't have to eat the black carbon."

When covered, the grill can also be used as a smoker or an oven. It comes in several different sizes, including a prototype small enough for backpacking and another large enough for commercial use.

One of his grills is being used at the Swingside Cafe in Fremont. Brad Inserra, the owner, likes it because it keeps flakier fish like flounder and snapper from falling apart, and it retains the consistency and flavor of butter and other seasonings.

"Customers have told me they like the sauce I use," he said. "When I tell them it's butter, they can't believe it."

John Todd, Hennick's instructor at South Seattle, likes the grill because it's simple.

"It's amazing," he said. "It does exactly what you want it to do. There's no moving parts. You can leave it on as long as you want. It won't burn your food. I've seen it work."

Hennick, who does custom metal work for a living, is also a regular inventor who enjoys finding ways to improve existing products. He already has two patents on furniture designs he invented.

He's currently working on a few other projects. One, a moped which runs on a chainsaw motor, is an ongoing hobby. The bike weighs about 50 pounds and is small enough to pack into a duffel bag.

Todd called Hennick's approach to inventing unique because he is willing to continue learning new skills once he's mastered others.

"He doesn't have such a strong ego that he's unwilling to try new things. He already had good woodworking skills, then branched out into metal, and now to machining," said Todd. "The guy's always thinking. He's constantly looking for solutions to problems."

Hennick is more modest about his accomplishments, offering that good ideas are cheap, but turning them into useful products for others is the challenge.

"I can't describe the exhilaration," he said. "When you realize you have something that clicks, that's original, that's useful. It's truly inspiring."

Of all his inventions, he is most proud of the grill. For the past two years, he's been searching for a way to mass produce it, but hasn't had much luck. He spent seven months last year traveling through Southeast Asia, talking to die makers, who produce stamping molds, and trying to market his product. The trip taught Hennick that he can't do everything himself.

"It's pretty daunting and unreassuring when you can't find someone willing to invest in your product. I need to find someone to help me with that angle," he said. "I'm not a marketing person. I'm an inventor."

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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