There was a time about seven years ago when I didn’t know the definition of barbecue. I was a trained chef, a graduate of culinary school, I had opened a well-respected restaurant, and I thought barbecue described food that was cooked on a grill and smothered in a sweet sauce. How little I knew.
But then, to my surprise, in October 2004 I was invited to be a celebrity judge at the Super Bowl of barbecue— The Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue, simply known as “The Jack.” I had to attend an eight-hour class at the site of the Jack Daniel’s distillery to earn my certification in order to judge the next day in front of TV cameras and alongside Food Network stars.
Before then, I never thought much about barbecue. I had eaten only uninspired renditions from random restaurants north of the Mason-Dixon line. But when I sank my teeth into my first real hunk of barbecued meat, to my complete astonishment and delight, I found it to be some of the most delicious food I had ever eaten. Goose bumps rose on my arms and I wanted to grab somebody— anybody— nearby and tell them about my new discovery. Even today, when someone asks me to name the top meals to ever have crossed my lips, the barbecue at The Jack easily makes the top 5. And the most important thing I learned that weekend was that good barbecue is not cooked on a hot grill, but “slow and low” with smoke.
From that moment on, I returned to Maryland on a quest— to re-create the barbecue I tasted at The Jack. But it wasn’t easy. By far, barbecue has been the most challenging cuisine I have ever undertaken. It took seven years— and many inedible attempts along the way— but now I can finally produce quality barbecue that competes at a national level. (My own competitive barbecue team, Walk the Swine, started earning some trophies just last year.)
Unfortunately, when I started my quest, there was minimal help out there. You can buy books, read blogs, talk to professional chefs, but no one is willing to divulge their secrets. The winning combination of sauce, smoke, meat, brines, cooking times and temperatures are personal and hard fought— you just don’t reveal what took years to accomplish. (Sorry, dear readers.)
But one of the most enjoyable aspects of barbecue is the satisfaction of creating a product that is uniquely yours. To help you get started, I’ve prepared some useful steps to guide you through the basics. You can also Google a million recipes for sauces, rubs and brines or buy quality rubs and sauces online or at specialty gourmet stores. At my restaurant, The BBQ Joint in Easton, we sell my competition rubs and bottled sauces, too.
Just remember, there are myriad paths to success on the barbecue trail. All it takes is creativity, determination and some sweet-smelling smoke.