Saturday, July 3, 2010

A World Champion Pitmaster Navigates the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party

This weekend marks the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party hosted by Danny Meyer and Blue Smoke's Kenny Callaghan to benefit the Madison Square Park Conservancy. 17 champion pitmasters from across the country will descend on the area to hawk $8 plates of their regional specialty (admission is free) from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday.

As you can imagine, the masses pour out of the woodwork rain or sweltering heat and the lines can be maddening even with live music keeping spirits up. For advice on navigating the event, Feast looked to Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Alabama. Lilly headed north for the inaugural party eight years ago and hasn't missed a chance to return. Here, the pork specialist and author of last summer's tome Big Bob Gibson's BBQ Book dishes up tips to on what to eat and how to tackle the crowds.

How long have you been doing the Big Apple BBQ?

Every year, this is year number eight. I was invited up and I think there were five of us the first year and it was held in front of Blue Smoke. It rained and the crowds still came and they keep coming.

How did you get involved?

Union Square reached out and I think Kenny Callaghan from Blue Smoke personally called me and told me about the fascinating concept that they had. You don’t get too many opportunities to fire up your cooker in the middle of Manhattan. It’s an annual trek. This is not something we go to, to make a ton of money; it’s because the people in New York City.

Does New York need this because we don’t have good barbecue here, as people tend to complain?

I look back to when I first started coming here. It seems to me that the barbecue is getting better every year. To say now that New York doesn’t have great barbecue. I don’t agree with them. And events like the Big Apple BBQ that draw interest put chefs in a position that they have to serve what’s authentic. Now New Yorkers have had a taste of the regions.

How has the event changed since the first one?

I think the logistics and organization get better every year. What’s great about the Block Party now is the people they have coming up. We’re talking some of the best pit masters in the country doing their specialties. This is without a doubt the best barbecue event there is.

How big is your entourage?

I’ve got my mother and father-n-law, my bother, and my right hand guy. The rest of the people are friends who I’ve met who’ve volunteered to help. I probably have the biggest crew I’ve had yet. The total is probably 12 plus Union Square provides staff as well. And we need it because the intensity there is there.

What are you making?

Friday night we’ re prepping 204 whole pork butts. We are cooking 408 over two days. You’re looking at 408, 8 pounds per butt. We inject our pork butts with a mild solution of apple juice, sugar, salt, worcestershire, and lemon juice - 8 oz of liquid to each one. Seasoning and dry rub go on the outside, and we cook them on our huge rotisserie cookers, over Kingsford charcoal and hickory, 12 hours, 225 degrees until the meat just falls off the bone. We’re going to serve it as a sandwich with Southern Mustard Coleslaw and a medley of sauces: sweet red sauce, habanero, and a white barbecue sauce that Big Bob Gibson’s is known for. It’s vinegar-based but the mayo gives it the color. It’s a tangy, peppery flavor since there’s a lot of black pepper in it and a vinegar twang.

Since you have eight Block parties under your belt, how do you suggest people navigate with the masses?

The best thing and the best strategy is if you come to this with a bunch of friends, you want to come early and split up. Put one person in each line and have that person buy multiples. And that way you can compare the different specialties. The problem with trying to do it all yourself you may wait in one line for 45 minutes and another for a half hour and all that adds up. The best strategy is to come with friends then go sit down, listen to some of the fantastic music, and have a big picnic. That way you spend the least amount of time in line.

What should people not miss eating?

I would go of course, to Big Bob Gibson, would be number one - come see me, and Ed Mitchell’s whole hog from North Carolina, and you might want to try some of the local fare, Hill Country and Blue Smoke.

What will you be eating?

What I tend to gravitate towards is specialties that I don’t get in Alabama: beef brisket, sausage. There’s a pimento cheese stuffed sausage I want to try and you can’t beat Ed Mitchell’s whole hog.

Is the barbecue at these events any substitute for going to the actual restaurants, can the food really compare when you’re off-site in a makeshift location?
To be totally honest, the meat coming off my pits is going to be as good or probably even better because we are puling it straight off the pit and onto the sandwich, the same with everybody else. We’re cooking to order and as the day goes on so there’s no way that a New Yorker could get any fresher barbecue. I’m cooking like I would at a championship and I’ve won eight world championships.

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