Steven Raichlen: the dean of BBQ-U
When a young lawyer graduates from law school he hungers for his first big case. When a surgeon completes the med school regime she thirsts to get into an operating room.Me? I just want to light the grill and open a cold one.Ah, but I do hold something in common with the aforementioned students, for I recently graduated with a degree a degree in BBQ, from Barbecue University, no less.While the study is certainly less difficult (This is cooking, not brain surgery, instructor-chef Steven Raichlen implores.) and fits into a three-day schedule rather than the years that other important degrees require, it has the distinct advantage of being one of the tastiest courses in the universe.For those who are vegans or havent seen his popular PBS television shows, Steven Raichlen has been spreading the gospel of barbecue for a decade now since the publishing of his book, The BBQ Bible. While the Bible has sold more than 4 million copies to date and is translated into German, Japanese, Italian and more, it is his appearances on television and in person that have made him, for many, an undisputed deity on the subject of grilling.In the world of grilling, Steve Raichlen is as ubiquitous as charcoal and a Kettle Grill. This week alone, hell appear on Monday morning with Matt Lauer and the gang on NBCs The Today Show, attend grilling events in Atlanta and Memphis (BBQ Mecca) and finally, make his annual trip to town for the 2008 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.Steven be presenting seminars at the Classic titled On the Barbecue Trail (at 10 a.m. on June 13 and 9 a.m. on June 14) where he will be talking about the various ways that people around the world use fire to cook and satiate, not only their appetites, but their souls as well.BBQ University was christened in 2000 when, following the success of his book, Steven realized that people wanted to have a participatory, hands-on experience learning how to grill. He began the yearly programs at the fabled Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. Limiting class size to 50 intrepid grillers, the sessions were an immediate hit, selling out.This year he moved the operation to a new campus at The Broadmoor Hotel, a perennial AAA Five Diamond award-winning resort in Colorado Springs. It was there that I attended classes and earned my degree.
The syllabus called for three days of scheduled classes from 9 a.m. to noon, followed by lunches that were, well … my mouth waters just thinking about them.Day one began at the resorts Cheyenne Lodge. In a conference room under a 40-foot-high ceiling, the mounted heads of elk, antelope, moose, buffalo and mountain goats accented two soaring walls, or all of the major food groups as one carnivore quipped. The other two walls featured floor-to-ceiling sliding glass windows with a vista that looked past the green grass of the golf course, out to the red rocks of the Garden of the Gods, over downtown Colorado Springs and, seemingly, all the way to the Atlantic. As a classroom it couldnt be beat.At the front of the room stood the diminutive (deities are always smaller in real life) and bearded Raichlen behind a large table laden with burners, a grill and more food than it appeared possible to cook in the course of a month, let alone a three-hour session.Raichlen began to do what he does best, talk about barbecue. He talked about the history of cooking. He spoke of his travels around the world studying how the Thai, the Argentineans, the Aussies and a hundred other cultures each have their own unique way of using fire to make regional cuisine. And how all of us, as a civilization, are bound by the bond of fire. Nobody stands around an oven and watches a cake bake, he says, but everywhere and anywhere there is fire, people gather around a grill to talk and socialize.We begin to get the picture that grilling is much more than just a tangy sauce on a rack of ribs. Once the message about the cultural phenomenon of fire was imparted, it was time to cook.The first days menu called for are you ready?
Honey sesame shrimp. Colorado trout grilled in prosciutto. Java chicken in caf latte barbecue sauce. Tucson T-Bones. Kansas City ribs. Grilled endive with roquefort and walnuts. Grilled corn with coconut milk. And, just to sweeten things up, a raspberry-pear crumble. All to be grilled.With the tact and efficiency of a field general, Raichlen began to marshal his resources. First he selected three students to be in charge of fire and sent them to the deck where the 22 (yes, TWENTY-TWO) grills were to be lit.Then he took another squadron and assigned them shrimp skewering duties. He had others shucking corn and making mop sauce for the chicken (which he had Spatchcocked, a process of taking a whole chicken and butterflying it with very sharp tools), still others cleaned and wrapped the trout in layers of prosciutto using butchers string to tie what had become food-art into tidy packages.Within an hour, all preparations were done and we headed out to the assemblage of hot steel smokers, steel drums, Weber kettles, eggs, wood-burning stoves and a dozen or so of the massive new gas grills that sell for thousands of dollars all fired up and ready to go. The least expensive device was a simple Weber kettle that stood on a rickety triangular stand and sold for perhaps $150. At the other end of the spectrum was a Kalamazoo gas grill that sells for $13,000 and change. (It, by the way, was the least reliable grill of the bunch). But as if to show the democratic nature of the world of barbecue, each had its own role and purpose in the process of preparing our eight-course extravaganza.We gathered around Raichlen in rapt attention as he unleashed the mantras that are now imbedded in all our brains: When you cook you want to keep it hot, keep It clean and keep it lubricated; Always brush your grill with a wire brush and wipe it with oil before AND after you cook. For the next two hours we bounced from fire to fire as we smoked the ribs, grilled the steaks at 700 degrees, turned the corn, flash-fired the shrimp and let the fruit compote ooze in its pan over the crumble.It was a veritable symphony of smoke and fire. Steven made it look so easy as he was completely adept at allowing everyone to participate while he doled out lesson after lesson.Once we finished grilling, we all returned to the classroom that had been set for lunch. While we had been cooking, the staff at the Broadmoor had duplicated the menu in larger quantities and we sat down for the communal act of eating.
Over lunch I had a chance to hear the stories of Raichlens barbecue disciples from all over the country, many of whom had tried for up to three years to get into the limited classes before finding openings this year. There were couples from Missouri, Miami and Phoenix. One woman had brought her father for a few days of bonding over the smoker, just like they always had when she was a little girl. Another man had flown in his two sons and his daughter, who had recently graduated from college, for post-graduate barbecue study. There was a pair of brothers from Chicago who grill for the neighborhood each Sunday when the Bears play. Then there were the four couples from Northern California who travel together and spend their weekends at one anothers houses cooking on their grills.My favorite story was a woman who told her husband she was bringing him to her business conference and then sprung the surprise on him, the night before class started and after they checked in, that this was his 60th birthday present and they were going to be attending BBQ-U.The message was simple and to Stevens point. Cooking with fire is a universal way in which people come together. The social aspects of lighting a barbecue, and spending time with friends and loved ones is so much more important than the recipes and the gadgets and gizmos that are a part of the package in this branded age. It is all about cooking and eating together.The next two days progressed in similar fashion as we all became more confident in our ability to prep the food and manage the fire. By the time the final exam rolled around each of us was inspired to get home, call our friends, plan a meal, go to the butcher, do our mis en place, light the grill and, well frankly, show off our new skills.It may not be brain surgery, but it sure is tasty.