Spring brings on the ’cue; Be your own pitmaster!
Chicago q’s Lee Ann Whippen (left) says there is no school for perfecting ’cue . | photo courtesy David Hammond
Updated: May 20, 2012 8:18AM
Signs of springtime are at hand: birds chirp, flowers bloom, BBQs smoke.
Pitmasters Lee Ann Whippen, Gary Wiviott and I all honed our barbecue skills on Weber Smokey Mountains, bullet-shaped smokers, fueled by hardwood, empowering amateurs to turn out knockout ’cue in their own backyards.
I still use my Smokey Mountain. Whippen and Wiviott, however, have moved on.
Not long ago, I had the pleasure of eating BBQ from these two pitmasters, who now work hard to achieve hand-crafted quality on large commercial smokers in their respective Chicago kitchens.
“You can’t go to school to learn how to use this,” Whippen said at Chicago q, her Gold Coast restaurant, as she put a hand on the door of her Southern Pride, the spacious stainless steel “Cadillac of smokers.”
Whippen smokes brisket, whole shoulder, Kobe ribs and other meats on her big machine. She contends “you can’t tell the difference” between what she serves to her customers at Chicago q and what she turns out on the competitive circuit, where she’s scored multiple championships.
At Lincoln Park’s Barn & Company, Wiviott smokes BBQ classics such as baby back ribs and pulled pork with a Fast Eddy by Cookshack, which uses pelletized wood. Wiviott, author of Low and Slow, a how-to for aspirant pitmasters, told me, “We experimented with different pellet types and found hickory pellets from BBQr’s Delight burned the cleanest and imparted the best smoke flavor. To further enhance smoke flavor we use Mojobricks, a clean-burning compressed wood product, cut to our specifications.”
I mentioned to Wiviott I’d heard that big smokers “do everything for you,” automatically setting cooking times, rotating meats, alerting you when the meat probably is ready to serve, rendering the pitmaster almost a passenger on the ride to perfect ’cue.
“Balderdash!,” barked Wiviott, arguing automated smokers “can’t tell you when meat is done or what rubs, sauces or techniques work best for optimal taste.”
At large restaurants, there’s no way around robotic smokers, though there’s still room for the pitmaster’s personal magic.
“One can approach an industrial smoker with a ‘paint by numbers’ attitude,” Wiviott says. “But you have to go outside the lines to get the best out of your smoking gear and your meat.”
David Hammond is an Oak Park writer and contributor to WBEZ (91.5 FM) and LTHForum.com. E-mail email@example.com.