Back in 2012, I flew to St Louis to cover the first Kingsford Invitational BBQ Competition for The Daily Meal. Little did I know that I was meeting the Ocean’s 11 celebrity judges of the barbecue world, including Brad Orrison, Ardie Davis, Meathead Goldwyn, Tuffy Stone, Amy Mills, and Harry Soo. I got to ride the bus around with them to all the dinners and events and wrote How to Judge a barbecue Contest for The Daily Meal.
At the time, Chris Lilly was the emcee of the Kingsford event, and if Brad Orrison of The Shed in Mississippi is the Dean Martin of barbecue, then Chris Lilly is the smoothly crooning Frank Sinatra, liked by all. His Big Bob Gibson team just won a record-smashing fifth Grand Champion prize at Memphis in May in 2017.
I asked Chris ten questions about barbecue and how it has changed since 2012.
The Daily Meal: Describe the ideal pitmaster. What separates a top pitmaster from the rest?
Chris Lilly: My idea of a top pitmaster and what separates them from the rest might be a little different than most: Someone who has devoted their life to learning and practicing the art of barbecue. They are usually found in dingy pitrooms of forgotten towns across the South, with their only recognition coming from local patrons who grew up eating their smoked goodness. No awards adorn their walls, only smoke stains and sauce splatters of a lifetime of cooking barbecue.
You’re a democratic barbecuer as evidenced in your book, Fire & Smoke: A Pitmaster’s Secrets. However, if you shared all your secrets then everyone else would be winning Memphis in May five times. What secrets will you not share? (I realize this is an impossible question to answer.)
Chris Lilly: Actually, I don’t hold back very many barbecue secrets. Over the years, I’ve told many people step by step my exact pork shoulder recipe and I’m still having success in competition. Barbecue is an art, not a recipe. There are countless adjustments I make during the cooking process and most of them are made subconsciously. There is a difference in reading a book on how to cook pork shoulder and doing it every day for over 25 years. My ash pile is bigger than most, if that makes any sense.
What changes have you since in barbecue since I met you at the Kingsford Invitational in 2012 in St Louis? Where do you see the barbecue world going in the next five years?
Since then, I’ve had 5 more years of cooking barbecue and 5 more years of being inspired by other pitmasters and chefs across the country. I’d like to think my barbecue skills have advanced with a larger array of cooking techniques. Also, I’m incorporating many spices and ingredients normally not associated with Southern barbecue. When I travel, my favorite thing to do is eat. God blessed me with a sensitive palate and a creative mind. I bring my inspirations back to the pitroom.
How do you balance the celebrity life of barbecue, along with all the travel, with the actual time to work on your craft? Does celebrity ever get in the way of the cooking?
I think being a well-known pitmaster has improved my craft. It has allowed me the time to travel and experience flavors and techniques that I never would have tasted or seen otherwise. When traveling and cooking I’m forced to cook on all types of pits and grills. My cooking versatility and knowledge improve when I’m on the road. When I’m back home in Decatur, Alabama, you will always find me in the restaurant kitchen experimenting with things I’ve learned while traveling.
Your fellow champion and judge Tuffy Stone often speaks of the balance between “salt and sweet.” Can you comment on your approach to balancing these two flavors in your own barbecue?
Tuffy is a smart man. When I teach dry rub and seasoning classes, the salt and sugar balance is the first lesson. Determine what you are cooking and then mix salt and sugar together appropriately. Beef, chicken, vegetables, and seafood usually carry a higher salt to sugar ratio while pork can take more sweetness. It’s a personal preference, but thinking through your seasonings and sauces before-hand will improve your success on the grill.