Summer is here, people are hungry, and grills are begging to be fired up. When everything goes right, a perfectly seared steak or slow smoked brisket can be a life affirming piece of iron-rich happiness. But when things go wrong, you might be looking at a three alarm fire. Or at least some really burned beef and a backyard full of grumbling guests.
To show that you’re not alone in these struggles, we enlisted a handful of the best barbecue chefs and experts around the country to share their personal barbecue disasters. Because things happen, and those things aren’t always positive. These are their stories.
“Maybe 10 or 12 years ago I was doing a demo on how to make beer can chicken for the Washington Post and Morning Edition on NPR. I was using a grill I’d never used before that had the smoker tray in the center, not off to one side. I put the chicken on and was involved in a million other things. I heard and smelled something not quite right, and when I turned around my chicken was engulfed in flames like the burning bush of the bible. Fortunately, I caught it fast enough, turned off the flame and put it out. Somehow, it turned out to be the crispiest and most luscious beer can chicken I ever made. So I recovered, but for a few minutes I looked like a complete idiot in front of two media outlets I very much respect.”
“We were in New York to cook at a big event, but the cooker they arranged for us was not going to work. Our briskets show up really late and the firewood arrived even later. There was too little wood and it was nothing like what we wanted, but we had to make do with what we had. We finally started cooking. Around 3am we checked on the briskets and they looked horrible. Then, of course, a huge storm blew in, and we’re standing around in water as lightning strikes around us. Suddenly, I smell something distinctive. Grease fire! I open the lid and it’s like a scene from Backdraft—a sheet of fire erupts around the whole cooker, so I just start pulling out briskets in the rain.
“Finally we get the fire out and these briskets are nowhere near ready. We eventually get the meat back on, cook through the night and check on the briskets at about 11am. Waves of irrepressible joy shoot through us—it’s rendered, it’s tender, it actually looks pretty good. Then the gates opened and hordes of people bum rushed our tent. For the next three hours, we had long lines until we ran out of meat. Somehow we pulled it off. The moral of the story: Never give up.”
—Aaron Franklin, chef and owner of Franklin Barbecue in Austin, TX. Pick up his book, Franklin Barbecue: a Meat Smoking Manifesto, for the full story and more tales, plus pro tips and recipes.
“When I was growing up, my dad, Jack Mixon, ran a barbecue takeout business in my hometown of Vienna, Georgia. He was tough as nails and always had me doing his grunt work around his barbecue pits—things like toting wood, firing up pits, loading fire barrels and so on. My dad was a real pitmaster, right down to making his own coals. He didn’t use these fancy smokers back then. He used a masonry pit smoker in our backyard. The pits cooked the food over the hot homemade coals, which needed to be shoveled every now and then to keep the heat at the right temperature.
“We never used thermometers to gauge the temperature of the smoker or meat. We had to feel and know the temperature of the pit, based off of how hot the tin on top of the pit felt. I was about 11 or 12 years old and my dad left me alone to look after the pit while he ran to the store. He told me not to touch the pit, but being eager to impress my dad and show off the skills he had taught me, I decided to move the coals around on my own. Well, I ended up starting a grease fire on one side of the pit and ultimately burned about 15 pork shoulders. Boy did I get a whipping when he got home. Safe to say that I never touched that pit again unless he told me to do so!”
—Myron Mixon is a four-time world barbecue champion and the “winningest man in barbecue.” He’s the star of two television shows—Smoked and BBQ Pitmasters—and a bestselling author. Check out his latest book, Myron Mixon’s BBQ Rules.
“When I first began cooking barbecue, I started with a hand-me-down vertical cabinet-style pit. The pit was probably designed more for ribs or sausage, not the well marbled briskets I was using. At any rate, it’s what I had to work with. I’d cooked on the pit several times and thought I had the hang of it. Propane log starter at the bottom, rack for wood above that, water pan above that and then the cooking grates. I was about seven hours into the cook and things were progressing nicely, so I went back inside to watch TV. Next thing I know, there are thick plumes of smoke filling the air. I go outside and flames are shooting about six feet in the air through the smokestack. Needless to say, the briskets were toast. The water had evaporated and the pan filled with fat drippings which quickly overflowed and caught fire.”
—Justin Fourton, along with his wife Diane, is the owner of Pecan Lodge, an award-winning barbecue joint in Dallas.
“One day I was at my restaurant and I had a smoker full of brisket, ribs and pork butts going. They had been cooking for about an hour around 225 or 250 degrees with a combination of lump charcoal, pecan and oak logs. The airflow on the smoker was wide open, plus both side vents on the fire box and the chimney. The day was already pretty hot outside—somewhere around 90 degrees. I walked back inside the kitchen to work on some more production. All of a sudden my dishwasher walked in for his shift and he immediately said, ‘Good morning chef, the smoker is cooking pretty good outside. It looks really hot!’
“I went outside and was like ‘Holy shit!’ The smoker looked like it was about to take off. Black smoke was coming from the chimney, which is not a good sign at all. The thermostat was only reading 310 degrees Fahrenheit, but I looked at the bottom of the smoker and some fat and oil apparently caught fire in the bottom of the base and was billowing out black smoke. I immediately closed off all airflow to get the fire out. I transferred all of the meat to my smaller smokers along with the embers and logs to save the meat. Once the smoker was cool enough, I cleaned it out, pressure washed it and allowed it to air dry for several hours. I do this now every few days because the experience scared the shit out of me! I’ve literally had nightmares about it ever since.”
—Kenny Gilbert is a Top Chef alum who’s cooked all over the world, developed his own line of rubs, spices and seasonings called Chef Kenny’s Spice Blends and currently operates Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen in Florida.
All photos: Twenty20