Hearth & Home February 2016

Steven Raichlen in Malaysia with grill mistress Azlina.
Cover Image: “Project Smoke” book to be published May 2016.

Scholar of Smoke and Sauce

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Steven Raichlen first taught himself outdoor cooking; now he’s in the process of teaching the world.

That a guy with a degree in French literature, two prestigious post-graduate fellowships studying medieval cooking and literature in Europe, and advanced training at Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris, came to be the world’s leading authority on barbecuing and grilling, is remarkable. That his early exposure to outdoor cooking consisted of charred hot dogs and “Pittsburgh rare” steaks grilled by his mother over charcoal lit with gasoline in a three-legged brazier, makes his achievement nothing short of miraculous. But such has been the path to Steven Raichlen’s position as barbecue sage, statesman and scholar.

Raichlen’s studies sparked a curiosity about the correlation between cooking and culture, a subject he explored during a stint as a restaurant reviewer for Boston magazine and in his early cookbooks. But it wasn’t until 1994, while he was doing research for a new cookbook, that his interest in barbecue was peaked.

“The idea hit me like a thunderbolt,” he says. “I realized that grilling is the oldest cooking method in the world, but it’s practiced differently around the world. That was fascinating to me.”

The inspiration resulted in Raichlen’s first book on barbecue, “The Barbecue Bible.” He anticipated it would require one year to create and max out at 100 pages. The exhaustive and encyclopedic tome ultimately took four years and 200,000 miles to research, and yielded 500 pages of the most comprehensive information on barbecuing and grilling that had ever been written. 

Released in 1998, “The Barbecue Bible” became a runaway hit, winning an International Association of Cooking Professionals (IACP)/Julia Child Cookbook Award, and a lot of attention for Raichlen.

Though originally he had next planned to write a book on noodles, he found that his head and heart were stuck on barbecue like sauce on fingers. 

“I made a list of all the things I could do with barbecue,” he says. “I came up with topics for six more barbecue books; an idea for a website; a proposal for a TV show; a line of accessory products; and a goal to spread the message internationally.”  

Preparing the fire for a caveman T-bone.

Raichlen quickly began to tackle the items on his list, releasing his second barbecue book, “How to Grill,” in 2000. The IACP-Award-winning primer with 1.8 million copies in print is a step-by-step guide to grilling, documented with 1,000 photos. Next up was “BBQ USA,” the James Beard Award-winning book Raichlen calls his “love song to regional American barbecue.” 

That book was followed by a host of others including “Planet Barbecue,” a comprehensive exploration of barbecue techniques, flavors, traditions and recipes from around the globe, before Raichlen narrowed the subject matter in “Best Ribs Ever.” Other barbecue-related titles include “Barbecue Bible: Sauces, Rubs, Marinades, Bastes, Butters & Glazes,” “Beer Can Chicken & 74 Other Offbeat Recipes for the Grill,” “Indoor Grilling,” and more.

“Barbecue has held my attention, imagination and passion for so long because it’s such a broad subject,” he says. “There are so many aspects to talk about. It was the first cooking method and launched a whole chain of evolutionary changes. It’s responsible for our huge brains, and influenced the evolution of the jaw because a different type of jaw is required to eat cooked food as opposed to raw. It goes to the heart of who we are as human beings.”

Like the earliest barbecuers, Raichlen’s favorite fuel to cook over is wood, though he admits, even for a seasoned pro, it’s challenging on a busy weeknight. His second choice is charcoal, but he readily adds, “I also own a gas grill and use it often. I’m not a charcoal snob or a wood snob, I’m a pragmatist, and include instructions for all fuels in my books, classes and TV shows. My goal is to get as many people to grill as possible. I don’t want to alienate anyone.”

That includes vegetarians, vegans and other non-meat eaters. Raichlen says he has always embraced meatless meals at the grill, especially since, for a time, his wife Barbara ate a vegetarian diet. 

“I incorporate a huge number of meatless recipes in my books,” he says. “There is no better way to cook vegetables than on a grill. In India, a huge percentage of the population is vegetarian and they’ve got vegetarian grilling down to an art form. In Japan, the national dish is grilled tofu with miso barbecue sauce. There’s grilled pizza. So many foods that are great on the grill have nothing to do with meat. The amazing thing about grilling is that it enhances all foods.

“As a culture in America, we have a split personality,” he continues. “We’re eating less meat but we have an obsession with authentic barbecue, which is all about meat. My principle is to eat less meat, but eat better meat. That’s how I live my life.” 

Raichlen says it’s equally important to know where the meat we grill comes from and what it has eaten. He avoids what he refers to as “industry meat,” instead choosing organic and grass-fed meat, organic poultry, and only wild fish when in season. 

Photo Courtesy:©2016 Mic Garofolo.
Teaching at Barbecue University at the Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a three-day hands-on immersion course in barbecuing, grilling and smoking.

Raichlen preaches these principles to the pupils at his Barbecue University, a three-day hands-on, immersion course in barbecuing, grilling and smoking, currently held at The Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs. Tuition for this luxurious grown-up summer camp starts at $2,175 per person. The two scheduled sessions for this June sold out far in advance, while more potential attendees remain on a waiting list for a possible third session. 

Raichlen says typically more men than women enroll, but the camp has attracted students from as far away as Singapore, Colombia and other parts of the globe. He’s had students return for a second session, and is now even seeing second-generations enroll. One of his most memorable students was a barbecue-loving firefighter whose buddies chipped in and gave him the experience as a retirement gift. 

Raichlen has noticed an interesting trend among students today: They are far more knowledgeable about barbecuing and grilling than when he first started Barbecue University 16 years ago. “Initially, attendees were mostly new to barbecuing and I was teaching the basics,” he says. “Today, some are still beginners, but many are ready to delve much deeper into the subject. They often already have a lot of sophisticated equipment at home and want to know about more complex techniques like brining and whole-animal cooking. Some are Egg maniacs; others want to learn about wood grilling. It’s amazing how knowledgeable people are today.”

Don’t worry, Raichlen is always 10 steps ahead. “I try to identify trends, but also lead trends,” he says. “I pick subjects I’m interest in and want to learn more about. I like to pick a subject and dive deep into it.”  

His next deep-dive will be on smoking, a technique he says requires “forced patience” and a different mindset than grilling. (See related article on Smokers and Kamados in this issue of Hearth & Home.) His latest book, “Project Smoke,” due out in May, will pay homage to smoke cooking with how-tos and hundreds of recipes from appetizers to main courses, and even smoked side dishes, desserts and beverages. 

The book also delves into cold smoking, a subject Raichlen says he hadn’t explored much previously. “A lot of foods are cold-smoked – salmon, speck, black forest ham,” he says. “Scotch whiskey is made by cold-smoking the barley, and mezcal is made by cold-smoking agave. There is a lot to explore. I wanted to get that body of knowledge out to the American and international public.”

The book parallels Raichlen’s public television series “Project Smoke,” in its second season this year. His two previous PBS television series, “Barbecue University” and “Primal Grill,” are now airing internationally. Raichlen’s degree in French literature and fluency in the language are coming in handy for the two television shows he hosts in French for Zeste TV in Canada, “Le Maitre de Grill” and “La Tag Barbecue.” “It’s serendipity that it has come full circle,” he says of the connection with his early studies.

Raichlen is amazed at how interest in grilling, barbecuing and smoking is growing in Canada, and throughout the world. “Barbecue is truly the universal language that unites all of us,” he says. 

Wouldn’t it be great if food cooked over fire – what Raichlen calls “the story of humanity itself” – could solve the world’s problems? World peace through smoked brisket? Raichlen is doing his part to make that so. 

“My ‘Primal Grill’ TV show airs in Israel and the United Arab Emirates, so it truly is the universal language that unites all of us,” he says. “Interest in barbecue is huge. I walk down streets in Montreal, in Italy, almost anywhere I go, and people recognize me and want to talk about it.”

Steven Raichlen being inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame at the American Royal.

Rock Star? He might as well be. Raichlen’s celebrity status was further elevated when he received “barbecue’s top honor” last fall as he was inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame at the American Royal. Raichlen’s significant impact on the world of barbecue earned him the recognition he calls “an enormous honor,” and says it is especially meaningful because he received it “in Kansas City, the Mecca of Planet Barbecue.”

There is perhaps no one better qualified to make observations on the barbecue marketplace than Steven Raichlen. Besides being the definitive authority on the subject, he also has a unique view from within the marketplace as a purveyor of grilling products. 

For a number of years, Raichlen has teamed with the Companion Group on his Steven Raichlen’s Best of Barbecue line of tools, fuels and accessories, and his Planet Barbecue line of seasonings and sauces based on barbecue flavors around the world. Raichlen personally designs and develops the products, gaining inspiration from trends, personal interests, and a desire to solve problems to improve consumers’ outdoor cooking experience.

He says grill manufacturers are doing a good job in that area, as well. He credits multi-fuel grills and kamados for helping to spark consumers’ interest in charcoal and wood-smoke flavor profiles. He predicts wood-grilling will be the next area of interest, but points out that the technique requires a higher level of equipment and skill. He says pellet grills, which offer wood flavor via an automated, easy-to-master appliance, are a good compromise, and expects they will become the next grill category to take off. 

Raichlen says accessory products that tap into the science behind low-and-slow barbecuing can simplify the process, improve accuracy, and help replicate results time after time, and they will continue to be of interest to consumers. “This is a double-edged sword though,” he says. “There is no substitute for skills and experience. I believe in the need for both improved products and education. They should continue in lock-step.” 

Raichlen says the education part of the equation needs to start with retailers. With thousands of store visits under his belt he observes that, “Smart retailers fire up the grills every weekend. They always cook and share food with customers – there’s nothing like the smell of a burning grill, or the taste of a brisket out of the smoker,” he says. 

“Good retailers also offer classes. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to educate customers. As with anything, the more customers know about a subject, the more they’ll do it and enjoy it. Pleasure begets pleasure. 

Raichlen samples sate with a Malaysian grill master.

“Become a purveyor of information and knowledge,” he advises. “Educate customers. Allow them to experience the products by burning grills and doing demos. And, maybe most importantly, let them taste (the food).”

Tasting barbecued and grilled food is something Raichlen still relishes. More than two decades, 30 books (including a “foodie-love-story” novel), five television shows, countless awards, and many other resume-entries later, Raichlen’s passion for outdoor cooking is as strong as ever. 

He has written for every major consumer food magazine, grilled on countless national television shows, and lectured on the history and culture of barbecue at the Smithsonian Institution, Library of Congress and Harvard University. His body of work and influence on the industry is unparalleled. 

There remain only two items unfinished from Raichlen’s long-ago “How Can I Make a Career Out of Barbecue” checklist: to develop a grill – although that is in the works (he won’t share details except to say it will be fueled by charcoal), and to open a restaurant – “My wife would probably kill me, but I might consider it if it were with the right partner,” he says.

“I never imagined in a million years that this would be my life and my career. I thought I would be a college professor,” Raichlen says. “I love that my work is always different and I still love it every day.”

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