Charlie McKenna Has Some Big Ideas About The Future Of Barbecue In America
Chicago chef is a big name in competitive barbecue
The last time Lillie's Q chef Charlie McKenna and I spoke in September, the FSU alum was skeptical about his team's chances of winning a National Championship, though he was quick to praise the "awesome" skill set of a then-unknown redshirt freshman quarterback named Jameis Winston. My, how time changes things!
One food that that has certainly stood the test of time has been barbecue. The activity of firing up the backyard grill to cook meats stretches back decades; it's a food that is decidedly American and has grown increasingly in popularity, especially over the past few years. Cities like New York and Chicago – hardly slow-cooked rib meccas – are slowly but surely becoming urban barbecue havens. With this in mind, we caught up with Charlie to discuss the state of barbecue in early 2014.
We proclaimed 2013 “the year of barbecue.” Why do you think it blew up so much last year?
With the way that the economy has been over the past few years, barbecue has remained an approachable food. It’s something that everyone grows up eating: if you were grilling hamburgers on your Weber, you were “barbecuing.” I think that everyone who grows up in this country has some kind of attachment to barbecue. It can be in a dump or it can be in a great atmosphere in an urban setting.
Do you associate it regionally with the South or has barbecue expanded in scope?
Originally, most people always associated barbecue – and slow-cooking – with the South. I think now with chefs, like myself, who are using a lot of techniques we learned in fine dining and creating great rubs and meats, it’s become more chef-focused. Even in the South in Atlanta, there are urban barbecue restaurants opening that do it really well.
What do you see ahead in 2014 for the world of barbecue?
I think it’s going to continue to grow urban-wise. I think you are getting a lot of people who are now cooking over open fires. It’s tough in cities like New York and Chicago but you have restaurants that are super high-end like Saison in San Francisco cooking on the ashes. That’s a big trend that I think is going to start up. I think chefs are going to get back into the real aspects of cooking. When Alinea opened, you saw a shift towards that type of food and now it’s reversed – chefs are going back to cooking over real fire and over open woods and pits. It imparts flavor that you just can’t get on a gas grill or stove.
What are some winter barbecuing tips for cities like New York and Chicago?
You can use natural wood chips. Pan smoking inside is also great because you can impart some smoke flavor on it and then use your oven and wrapping to get the process down because it takes so much time. Other than that, just tough it out!
Any tips for homemade sauces?
The easiest thing to do is to start with a base. Brown sugar, ketchup, molasses, Worcestershire, mustard and typical spices like garlic, paprika and pepper. And just play around – a lot of people are intimidated by cooking because they get in their mind that there’s a recipe and you it’s scientific and you have to follow the rules. I say throw all that out the door – mix up stuff, get it out there, see what you like and work from there.
What’s your barbecue competition calendar shaping up to be this year?
Memphis in May, definitely! That’s set in stone and I will never miss it. We usually play the smaller ones by ear. I’ll be doing tri-tip at Charleston Food & Wine Festival, as well.
What are you drinking with your barbecue?
I’m drinking craft beer that’s made in America or bourbon.
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