One of the most respected names in the barbecue world, six-time World Champion Pitmaster Chris Lilly is passionate about barbecuing. He’s written two books on the subject and heads up the long-established Big Bob Gibsons restaurants in Alabama, USA.
Chris is making his first trip to Ireland to take part in The Big Grill, and we caught up with him to learn more about how he got into the barbecue game and what he loves most about it.
How did you get into barbecuing?
My dad always had a love for it so I always remember barbecuing in the back yard with him. But I never really cooked barbecue a lot until I went to college and met my wife. It just so happens that my wife’s great grandfather was a fella by the name of Big Bob Gibson. He started a restaurant in Decatur, Alabama in 1925. After I got out of college and married her and moved away, her father asked me to come back, learn the business and open up another barbecue restaurant in town. That was in 1991. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into but started working and absolutely fell in love with cooking barbecue.
What do you love to cook the most?
I love experimentation and I love cooking different things. One week it might be cooking a whole chicken, another week it might be beef brisket or even vegetables. Lately, it’s been a little more obscure cuts like beef navel and under-utilised cuts on the pig as well. I love working with a combination of charcoal and wood. In competition, I use a combination of charcoal and Pignut hickory wood, as that’s what’s prevalent around where I live. The advice I give people is to cook with your local wood and learn to adjust your flavours to the smoke and flavours you get off your local wood.
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Do you have a signature dish?
What I’m most well known for is whole barbecue chicken with white barbecue sauce - a lot of people refer to it now as Alabama white sauce. Back in 1925 that was one of Big Bob Gibson’s original sauces. It’s vinegar-based but it has mayonnaise in it as well as black pepper, lemon juice, and salt. It’s a very simple sauce but you get that tang from the vinegar, and the mayonnaise will keep the chicken from drying out during the cooking process. Another speciality would have to be pulled pork; I think my team has won about 14 championships with pulled pork.
You’re a six-time world champion. How does someone get to that level?
I would come into the restaurant every day to learn the business. My passion was always the pit room, cooking the meat. Then it just rolled over into something I did on the weekend with family and friends. Through the years, we started entering barbecue contests just to get the name out but then we started winning. We got hooked and started doing cooking competitions as a hobby. We were very successful doing it but I had a really good place to practice and I had a lot of history behind me, of people cooking barbecue all their lives. I attribute a lot of my success to Big Bob Gibson and the people that have worked there.
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to get into the barbecuing scene?
Well, it is a fantastic hobby. I like it because it’s something I can do with my closest friends and my family. My advice is to go to a competition or a festival and talk to the people that do it all the time. It’s a real friendly world so there’s a lot of people that will spend some time with you and share their success and failures. But be careful because it is addictive!
What are your top barbecuing tips?
A lot of people think barbecue is high, intense heat and cooking directly over the flame but American southern-style barbecue is indirect heat. Barbecue is all about putting the fire to one side and putting the meat away from the fire so it slowly cooks at a low temperature.
I would advise building a two-zone fire: charcoal and grill on one side and the meat on the other. Lower the temperature and be patient. Close the lid and let the fire, smoke, and heat do their thing.
The other advice I’d give is to get an internal meat thermometer. Without grilling a lot, it’s hard to tell when a lot of the larger meats are done. If you get an internal meat thermometer, you can instantly know your meat is done, as opposed to a guessing game or trying to cut it open to determine when it’s cooked.
Finally, what can we expect from you at this year’s Big Grill?
I’m planning on cooking a whole barbecue chicken with Alabama white sauce and to go with it I’m going to do a southern dish: smoked hominy (a type of corn kernels) and cheese that’ll go really well with it. Also, on Saturday, I’m going to do a demo on pulled pork and how to cook pork shoulder. It’s definitely one of my specialities, its the one where I’ve won most of my world championships.
Catch Chris on Saturday 17th and Sunday 18th August at The Big Grill in Dublin.