A pitmaster’s day is never done. From the moment he or she gets up in the morning to that last blink before sleep, a boss sees, thinks, and breathes barbecue. The same is true for Chris Lilly, pitmaster and partner at Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Alabama.
“I get very meditative,” he says. “I’m in the pit room every morning and it’s honestly my favorite place in the world.”
Big Bob Gibson’s, which opened in 1925, was founded by a railroad worker who honed his skills in a hand-dug barbecue pit. Five generations of family ownership later (Lilly’s wife, Amy, is Gibson’s great-granddaughter), the restaurant is famous for its original white barbecue sauce and holds more than a dozen world championship titles for everything from pulled pork to brisket.
“Barbecue is more than just the meat. It’s more than just the protein at the center of the table,” Lilly says. “You can cook anything outdoors that you would usually cook in an oven or on the stovetop, and you can cook it better because you can add another layer of flavor that you just can’t achieve indoors: the char and the smoke create extra flavor, and that works the same with vegetables and side dishes as it does with meat and protein.”
These days, Lilly spends the majority of his time figuring out how to best maintain and enhance the flavor that his customers have come to expect from Big Bob Gibson’s over the past 90 years. And forget weekends: like most pitmasters, when he’s not in the restaurant, Lilly is on the road, travelling to competitions across the U.S.—and globally.
“It’s actually a way of life,” says Darren Warth, a competitive pitmaster and owner of Smokey D’s BBQ in Des Moines, Iowa. “My life is 100 percent devoted to barbecue.”
And while the food and the fire and the travel are certainly exciting, Warth—who operates three locations and a food truck—is all-too-familiar with the day-to-day, nitty-gritty challenges of running a barbecue restaurant. When he’s not travelling for a competition, he begins each day walking through the restaurant, assessing needs and attempting to identify any problems: Is there enough product to meet customer demand? Have employees shown up for their shift? Were deliveries made on time? Is all of the equipment running?
“The first thing I ask is, ‘What’s broken?’” Warth says with a laugh. “I’m always putting out fires and doing quality checks. You know, that’s just what restaurant owners deal with.”
No Time For Pit Stops
Because pitmasters are faced with the daily challenges of a highly-specific niche, it is important for them to build relationships and develop partnerships which can accommodate the fast-paced, high stress demands of the barbecue segment. A particular difference with the preparation of menu items is that barbecue is not made to order like most meals.
“You can’t snap your fingers and it’s ready,” Lilly says. “Our pork butts take 12 hours to cook.”
The quality of the meat is of critical importance. For the past several years, Lilly has worked with Smithfield Culinary to ensure he is serving the best possible product to his customers.
“I can look at a piece of raw pork before it ever touches the pit or the grill,” Lilly says, “and I know instantly what it’s going to taste like—is it going to be moist, juicy, and tender, or is it going to be dry? Once you’ve done this as long as I have, you can easily decide those things at first glance when you see a raw product.”
Knowing how much cook time is required for a particular piece of meat is important to ensuring a consistent, flavorful product for customers. Coloring and marbling values also play an important role in determining whether a piece of pork or beef maintains its juiciness and flavor during necessary resting periods, and whether food served at the end of the day tastes as good as when it came off the pit.
“Consistency is the number one thing that ties my competition barbecue to my restaurant business,” Warth says. “Whether I’m putting food in front of customers or competition judges, I need it to be exactly the same. Once I’ve found what people like, I have to repeat it over and over again.”
One of the most challenging parts of running a barbecue restaurant is making sure you don’t run out of product in the later dayparts—and also that you don’t have leftovers. At Smokey D’s, Warth’s staff stages ribs multiple times per day in order to keep them as fresh as possible.
Relying on customer counts throughout the day, and from previous weeks, Warth determines how much product will be needed in the afternoon and evening, and how much should be prepped for the following day, based on typical traffic patterns, and any local events or festivals which might drive more customers.
Over the past four years, Warth has also worked with Smithfield Culinary to develop tight specifications for the products which serve his restaurants—ensuring the pork butts that come in are all roughly the same size so the Smokey D’s team can rely on consistent cook times.
“I know all of my pork butts are going to weigh 8-9 pounds every single day,” Warth says. “If I didn’t have that consistency, I’d have to sort out the fact that a 2 pounder cooks in 6 hours and a 12 pounder is going to take 15 hours, and that would really impact our efficiency in the restaurant.”
Fuel for the Fire
Despite their commitment to providing consistent and reliable flavor to their customers, pitmasters are also incredible innovative. Lilly says he expects to see a lot more experimentation in barbecue in 2019, particularly on the competition circuit. The rise of the global foods trend has begun to infiltrate the barbecue segment, with ethnic flavors from Asian, Middle Eastern, and South American cuisines pairing particularly well with pork.
“When I travel, I always have my eyes and ears and taste buds wide open,” Lilly says. “New flavors give me inspiration and I take those ideas back to my pitroom to create Southern barbecue made with ethnic flavors inspired by ingredients I’ve encountered during travel.”
For example, he recently prepared an Argentinian side dish of grilled butternut squash with chimichurri and goat cheese. By taking a traditional Southern barbecue side and cooking it with the techniques of traditional Argentinian cooking, Lilly says he was able to transform a relatively simple side dish into something unusual and delicious.
“Barbecue is a science,” Lilly says. “It’s less about the staples of brisket, pork butt, ribs, and whole chicken, and more about what you can do with those cuts—such as chargrilling—and how you can create interesting sides to go along with them.”
In order to execute that creativity, Lilly relies on relationships with vendors that really understand his day-to-day challenges as a pitmaster—which are oftentimes very different from problems faced by chefs, but can also be very similar.
Thanks to his partnership with Smithfield Culinary, Lilly has access to a wide variety of resources and has the opportunity to communicate regularly with industry experts—from distribution specialists to meat scientists, who give him a better understanding of the genetics behind the pork as well as the science behind its production.
“When I better understand the quality aspects of a cut, such as color and marbling,” Lilly says, “it helps me to put a better product in front of judges at competitions—and in front of my customers at Big Bob Gibson’s.”
In addition, Lilly’s contacts at Smithfield help him to develop and innovate new ideas that he can then use to improve food in his restaurant and at competitions.
“Sometimes it takes someone on the outside to give me new ideas,” Lilly says. “Smithfield is like my sounding board. They’re like part of my team. If I have an inspiration or idea, I know I can work with them to find the best and most cost-effective way to make it happen.”