Four of Chattanooga’s best backyard grillers talk about their smoky passion
Fire up the grill and get out the smoker—it’s grilling time in Chattanooga! But what makes for a good grilling/barbeque experience? We sat down with four local backyard chefs—Kent Whitaker, Doug Keller, Jim Brewer II, and Steve Ray—to find out their secrets, just in time for one of the biggest grilling weekends of the year.
MEET THE GRILL MASTERS
The Pulse: How did you come to be a backyard chef? Have you always been the cook in the family or is the grill a special place for you?
Kent Whitaker: Grilling has always been part of my family. My Dad, grandparents, mom, wife Ally, brothers, sisters, and now our son Mace all love outdoor cooking as well as cooking in the kitchen. That’s the basis for my newly released grilling book, “Great American Grilling. Grilling”. It’s history, family history, and it’s part of our family’s way of life. I remember gathering pecan wood for my dad and grandfather’s pit in Mississippi. Grilling and long smoke sessions can equal fantastic family time.
Doug Keller: Growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, grilling was usually just a weekend event. When I moved out on my own, I took a big interest in cooking, and grilling was my favorite way to prepare a meal. A grill was one of my first purchases. But then, I discovered the Kamado Joe and achieved a grilling Zen, so to speak. It replaced every type of grill I’ve ever had, and you can cook everything on it with ease. Since I pretty much do all the cooking in my family, my Kamado stays pretty busy—and not just on the weekends.
Jim Brewer II: I’ve always enjoyed a cookout with family and friends. My father raised me around a Weber grill and Kingsford charcoal when I was growing up and I always loved watching him cook up some hamburgers. When I moved into my first apartment at 18, I bought a small Hibachi grill that day and today I cook with a smoker, Green Egg, and a gas grill.
Kent: It’s important to note that there’s grilling and there’s slow smoking, which results in what we commonly call “barbecue.” Sometimes the term “barbecuing” is confused with “grilling.” The only reason I separate the two is that I write history packed culinary books for a living and the two different terms point to two different cooking methods. Grilling is direct cooking over high heat and Barbecue Smoking is low and slow cooking often using offset heat.
The Pulse: Have you competed in BBQ competitions?
Steve Ray: My fellow pitmaster, Dan Griess, and I formed Owls Nest BBQ four years ago. We are a professional BBQ Competition Team. We cook competitions using gravity flow charcoal smokers that use charcoal for heat and we use hickory wood chunks for our smoke flavor.
We do have fun at competitions, but BBQ Contests are a lot like golf tournaments: they’re long and tedious and when you get down to the end with a chance to win…well, losing sucks. As Vince Lombardi said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” In other words, we take it serious.
We are experts in chicken, pork ribs, pork butt and brisket. We have wins and top 10 finishes in each category.
Doug: I mostly enjoy grilling for fun, but do occasionally compete in contests. I have competed in several Chattanooga area competitions. The biggest one was The Chattanooga Market Chicken Wing Competitions. Keller’s Grilled Wings has collected seven first place trophies between the Chef’s Choice and the People’s Choice categories. Those were big wins as I had developed my own dry rub and grilled the wings over hot coals on a grill I built myself.
Jim: The last few years I’ve competed in the Battle Below the Clouds at Ruby Falls winning the Best Butt in 2015 and overall Grand Champion this year. I really did it for the comradery and to raise money for Lana’s Love Foundation and not the competition.
Kent: I won the Emeril Live/Food Network Barbecue Contest and things changed a bit when I started working on culinary writing. I became interested in combining my love of cooking with my love of history—even a recipes history. Let me say this; I’m a big fan of barbecue competitions, as they are like state fairs. Lots of fun.
BARBEQUE SECRETS EXPLAINED
The Pulse: What is the secret to good barbeque?
Kent: Being safe. Wash your hands, wipe up, use handy wipes, avoid cross contamination. You want your family and friends to enjoy the event—not take a trip to the ER a couple of hours later.
It’s all about having fun and enjoying the moment with family and friends. And I always tell people to try new things, but try them once before you invite your new girlfriend’s parents over for a grilling session.
Another nugget of advice is that you really need to understand the differences between grilling and smoking. Direct heat, off-set heat, slow and low, etc.—if you want to go beyond burgers, dogs, and chicken thighs. I guess a basic understanding of cooking skills is what I’m talking about. You don’t have to know the classic sauces, and your knife skills will not be graded. But knowing how ground beef patties cook over direct heat as compared to smoking a huge pork butt is some good information to have. Basic information helps understand how different foods cook, cooking times, heat levels, planning, and so forth.
Doug: I’m sure every Chef has a secret to good barbeque. I believe it is loving what you do and practice, practice, practice. I have had my share of disasters on the grill. But you learn from your mistakes and improve on them. And you will finally get certain foods just the way you want them.
ALL ABOUT THE SAUCE
The Pulse: Dry rub or sauce it up? Or both?
Steve: Barbeque in the South is sweet. All of our product is sauced with a blend of BBQ sauce that is sweet, savory and hot. We buy and mix our sauces to get the perfect blend of taste and twang. For those at home that want to replicate the recipe, simply use Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauce and mix it with honey. You’ll be the king of the cul-de-sac.
The biggest mistake backyard chefs make is they don’t cook their meat long enough. You have to cook it until it’s done. And by done I don’t mean the meat is falling off the bone. That’s overdone. Done is when you bite into the meat and the texture, or tenderness, is like silk—it pulls gently from the bone and the juice drips down both sides of your mouth. If you bite the meat and think, “Boy, this is chewy,” you haven’t cooked long enough.
Good barbeque is done. It’s that simple. The meat is moist and has texture. It’s flavored with a sweet sauce and don’t be afraid to salt it more than normal. The sweetness overshadows the salt making a great savory flavor. The next time you have a tomato, slice the tomato and instead of putting salt on it, sprinkle sugar on it. It tastes nothing like you think—that’s savory.
PICKING THE MEATS
The Pulse: Tips for fish vs. chicken vs. pork vs. beef? (All of the above if you have them)
Kent: Seafood—fresh seafood if possible—ROCKS! My tip for fish fillets such as tilapia and swai is simple: don’t overthink it. Drizzle with lemon juice, add a sprinkle of seafood seasoning and even a dash of Creole seasoning if you wish. Grill it until it flakes—done!
Chicken thighs are budget friendly, packed with flavor, and very versatile. By far my favorite piece of chicken on the grill. I prefer cuts with skin on, with bones. A boneless and skinless chicken breast is a great thing, but tend to dry out for many people starting on the grilling road.
Pork is as versatile as chicken. Chops and pork steak varieties seem endless depending on your grocery store. You can go lean, a little fatty, thick, thin, chops, steaks, ground, hams, Boston butts, and ribs. The common ingredient that works with all of them: apple.
With beef, start with a tender cut when selecting a steak for grilling. My go-to steak is a ribeye. Top grilled steaks with a small pat of butter or flavored butter before serving.
Jim: It’s all about heat management, moisture, indirect heat for some and not over cooking but getting the right temperature understanding that meat continues to cook. Most of the rubs are comprised of the same seasonings for barbeque, but I do prefer to slather on some Sweet Baby Rays and char ribs at high heat at the end. I love Montreal seasoning for steaks and I’m all about Texas Pete and butter for wings.
Baby Back Ribs I like to put in metal pan covered with Dale’s seasoning for several hours at about 250 degrees then pull them out and cook low and slow for another hour. Sauce them up for the last 15 minutes at high heat
I like to brine chicken drumettes with Kosher salt for a day in the refrigerator, then cook on direct heat about 350 degrees. Melt a stick of butter and mix in some Texas Pete hot sauce. Once the wings are done I swirl them in the hot sauce and put them back on for another five minutes
For filets or ribeyes, I like to place on a ceramic plate with Kosher salt and leave in the refrigerator uncovered for several days. Once out, I add Montreal seasoning and let them get to room temperature before cooking on direct heat with charcoal on one side of the grill and steaks on the other. Tent the steaks at the end.
VEGGIES OR NO VEGGIES?
The Pulse: What is your stance on vegetables? To grill or not to grill?
Doug: I say always grill your veggies! There isn’t a vegetable that can’t be grilled and they are much healthier and tastier from the grill. Grilling brings out the flavor in broccoli, cauliflower, squash, zucchini, mushrooms, asparagus, etc. Basically, you name it, you can grill it, and it will be better. My favorite grilled side dish is proscuitto wrapped asparagus.
Steve: I think vegetables should be prepared inside the house in water by your spouse or significant other. Everyone says they like grilled vegetables, but they all taste like tire rubber to me.
THE SIDE DISHES
The Pulse: Can you share any recipes or recommendations for good side dishes to go with barbeque?
Kent: By barbecue I’m guessing you mean this tasty classic: Pulled Hickory Smoked Pork.
When I’m ordering, I go with cole slaw, beans, onion slices, and either a diet coke or sweet tea. That being said, I’m a freak for broccoli salad. Sweet Broccoli Salad is a fantastic side dish for just about any meal but it fits perfectly in with grilling and barbecue.
Here are Kent’s Broccoli Salad Rules: First, broccoli salad should look creamy, not runny. That means I prefer to make my batches as close to meal time as possible. Second, it’s okay to have some big and smaller pieces. I shoot for a nice combination of semi-full florets as well as smaller pieces. I always try to include as much of the broccoli as possible including stems. That’s where the fine chopping comes in. Nobody wants chunks of stalk the size of a golf ball in their salad. Third, add some stuff. Why stop at broccoli and mayo? Get creative with bonus flavors from added ingredients ranging from other veggies to bacon bits. Lastly, broccoli salad is perfect for trimming calories from a recipe. Low fat mayo, sugar substitutes, low fat cheese, and other items can all be used.
Well, if you plan on using fake bacon bits you should add those just before serving. The fake bacon bits tend to puff, get mushy, and even have colors that run.
ADVICE FOR THE NOVICE
The Pulse: What is one word of advice you would give to a novice griller/smoker?
Steve: My advice to beginners is this: don’t spend a lot of time making rubs and sauces. Nothing you can make is better than what has already been made. Find something at the store that you like the taste of and use that. Secondly, don’t buy a cheap offset smoker—that’s a round barrel looking thing with a box sticking off the side.
The single best cooking device on the market today for making great BBQ is the Weber Smoky Mountain Smoker. Some people call it the Weber Bullet. No matter what you call it, the Weber SMS is affordable and will do everything the more expensive egg style cookers do. And at a fifth of the price, it just can’t be beat. More barbeque contests have been won with the Weber SMS than any other smoker. And finally, don’t be afraid of salt and cook your product until it’s done.
Jim: You’ve got to be patient and let the grill do its job. I’ll fix a smooth whiskey or Bloody Mary and get out my 36” Paella Pan and put on gas burner and fix some appetizers to keep busy rather than stare at the grills. I avoid lighter fluid. Did I mention that garlic works on everything? Hell Yea!
Doug: My best piece of advice for a novice griller/smoker is to go to Southeastern Salvage and put the money down on a Kamado Joe Grill. The KJ Ceramics have a lifetime warranty so you will never have to buy another grill again. And this will alleviate you having to buy a new grill every few years. It will allow you to smoke, bake, grill and sear all kinds of foods. And buy a good instant read thermometer.
The Pulse: Final words?
Kent: I know this: Doug rocks with his blend of seasonings and the man can flat out cook some awesome chicken! Steve...Steve...ohhh you dog you! Cool ideas on traditional sauces, slow smoked flavor, a barbecue man and foodie. I’ve never dined with Jim, but if you’re included with us—three goofy foodies, grilling gurus, and barbecue junkies—then you must know how to fire up the charcoal, gas, and hickory.
Steve: Well, being an associate of Mr. Brewer, but never having the Sunday Open House invitation delivered to my door, I can only assume his expertise as he stated—or he knows how to read a cook book. I have seen pictures of food at his house on Facebook, but photoshopping these days is rampant. Mr. Brewer has been invited, and been present, at several of my cooking and contest venues, so my narrative is proven.
There is a Barbeque Competition on July 9th at Virginia College where Mr. Brewer can set up right next to me and compete in pulled pork, brisket and pork ribs. I am even willing to bring the smooth brown whiskey and appetizers so he will not have to stare at the grill.
Can I get a “Hell Yea” to that?
Jim: Hell Yea!