Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Interview: Chris Lilly

Chris Lilly is a legend amongst serious BBQ fans. Chris has won the prestigious Memphis in May competition numerous times and has been a State Champion at least 8 times.

Chris is a Vice President of the acclaimed Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q and is the head of their competition team. Mr. Lilly is the corporate PitMaster for Kingsford Charcoal.

We are thrilled that he has agreed to take some time to talk to us about BBQ.

Q. How did you get your start in BBQ?

A: I met my wife in college, and she just happened to be the great-granddaughter of Big Bob Gibson. I've always been a foodie, but it was through her that I really got involved. I was definitely not going to college to cook barbecue! I double majored in marketing and finance and after graduation I got a job in Franklin, Tenn., in pharmaceutical sales.

Don, my wife's father, always wanted to open another restaurant in Decatur, Ala. but he never had anyone to run it, so he decided to build one and offered me the job. They were so supportive of me coming in and learning. When I first started, I came in with the pit guys at 6 a.m. and spent years learning the BBQ techniques of Big Bob Gibson. I didn't feel comfortable managing the staff unless I knew how to barbecue myself.

Q. With your success as a competitive pitmaster and your involvement with Kingsford, you have become something of an ambassador for BBQ. When you travel to areas of the country where people think that BBQ is grilling up burgers and hotdogs, what is the most important concept that you try to convey about true BBQ?

A: I tell them that barbecue is all about improvising and making do with what you got. I give them a taste of great barbecue and tell them that they can most definitely get that same great taste at home with a kettle grill and a bag of charcoal. I also make sure they know the difference between grilling and barbecuing and show them how to set their grill up for each style of cooking.

Q. What do you enjoy the most about speaking with the public at an event like Memphis in May where there is an audience that is educated about BBQ?

A: Memphis is like a big family reunion for those of us competing, so the whole event is a lot of fun. Talking to people who really know BBQ is also always a great time, because they like to share their cooking experiences with you – I learn a lot. It is always fascinating to me to explore more complex ideas and levels of cooking with BBQ veterans. It’s sort of like a jam session with musicians.

Q. What do you enjoy the most about speaking with the public at an event like the Big Apple BBQ in the middle of Manhattan where people are not as conversant with our national cuisine?

A: Big Apple BBQ is a great event, and the reason it’s so cool is that you’ve got people from all walks of life there gathering for what is essentially a big cookout. Everyone’s having a good time eating, drinking, learning new things and hanging out with each other – which is really the best part about barbecue.

You always hear stories of how short tempered and hard New Yorkers are but I have never seen it, especially when I am breaking down a whole pork shoulder. I think they are very appreciative that we will take the time to travel to their city and visit with them at this wonderful event. BBQ conversation in NYC is great because people are always open to hear your story and eager to share theirs.

Q. Kingsford has a wide array of briquettes. In addition to the standard, they also have flavored briquettes such as Mesquite and Hickory. They have recently introduced Competition Briquets. What advantages does this new product offer the serious griller? What advantage does it offer those that would use it for smoking?

A: New Kingsford Competition Briquets are unique because they combine the high heat that you traditionally associate with lump charcoal with the consistent burn of a charcoal briquet. A serious griller is going to see that this allows for the ultimate versatility when cooking - whether that’s searing, slow cooking, smoking or advanced grilling techniques. The new product is also 100 percent all-natural and is made of the same quality wood char that is used in the original blue bag.

As far as the advantages for those grillers who are looking to use the low and slow method and smoke their foods, the high heat capabilities of the new Kingsford Competition Briquets is actually perfect for them. What you have to remember is that heat and smoke in a charcoal grill are like wattage that you can dial up or down depending on your cooking method of choice. By controlling the air flow through your grill, you can leverage this product’s high heat for low and slow cooking.

Q. Looking into your crystal ball, what changes do you see for BBQ in the next 20 years or so?

A: I truly hope we see the past 20 years mirrored in the next 20 years. Since I have been in the barbecue business I have seen great strides in not only the popularity of barbecue but the education of barbecue. Many people are just now grasping the idea that barbecuing is not just burgers, hotdogs and sauce. The idea that our style of low and slow barbecue is a truly American cuisine is now taking hold.

The next 20 years should begin with continued promotion and education. I am presently working with the Atlanta History Museum on a project called “Barbecue Nation.” This will be a traveling museum tour which celebrates the rich history and cultural influences of barbecue. We are 2-3 years away from the completion of the project but support and participation are overwhelming.

Through education the popularity of barbecue should continue to thrive. Barbecue is not restricted to the road side shacks and joints of the South. Events such as the South Beach Wine and Food Festival and organizations such as the James Beard Foundation have embraced this American food culture.

Q. May 12th will see the release of Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ Book. Is this the first cookbook that you have worked on?

A: Other than submitting recipes, doing interviews for other people’s cookbooks and writing the foreword to Ray Lampe’s “Dr. BBQ’s Big-Time Barbecue Road Trip!”, yes, this is my first cookbook. May I also add that writing a cookbook is a full time job!!!

Q. What can readers look forward to in this book?

A: There has never been a BBQ personality as over-the-top as Big Bob Gibson. This book focuses on him, snippets of his life, and his philosophies of cooking. I also throw in a few of my experiences over the years.

While life at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q is the back-drop of this book, the main focus is barbecue methods, techniques, strategies, and recipes. How do you make a dry rub? What type of wood should you use? What are some of the most efficient grill set-up techniques? Beef, pork, poultry, ribs, sauces, four hooves and a fire; all is covered in a way that will encourage a BBQ beginner to fire up his grill and provide the seasoned veteran with new cooking tangents to explore.

No ghost writer, no recipe consultant; just a guy who loves barbecue and is excited about the opportunity to share his family’s passion and experiences.

Q. Let’s say that a novice griller has a new Weber kettle, a bag of Kingsford Charcoal and a good cut of meat. What would be the most important piece of advice that you would offer them as they get ready to embark on their first foray into the world of grilling?

A: The piece of advice I would offer up is to build a two-zone fire in your charcoal grill for direct and indirect heat. It is important to then make sure that you understand where to place different cuts of meat on the grill. Normally, I like to grill the thin cuts of meat that are ready to go in a short amount of time, like a nice flank steak for instance, directly over the charcoal. For the thicker cuts of meat that need to cook “low and slow,” they need to be placed over indirect heat. The advantages of this two-zone fire is that if the food in my hot zone starts cooking too fast on the outside, I just slide it over to the other side to finish the job and make sure it cooks through in the middle without charring.

And lastly, I would say that any griller, no matter their level of experience, just needs to make sure that they have a love for the arts because barbecue is an art.


~post signature


BP said...

Great interview.

Eric Devlin said...

Thanks! Glad you like it.