The barbecue master has studied culinary history as far back as the Middle Ages, and now he’s looking ahead to the smoky future.
If you were to strip away all the barbecue references from Steven Raichlen’s extensive résumé, you might believe he was an academic, a professor, or a dean — and he is, in a way. With a background in French literature and a fellowship to study medieval cooking in Europe, Raichlen took a back road to becoming the founder and director of Barbecue University, not to mention the author of 30 cookbooks, the star of cooking shows about his expertise in all things fire and smoke, and a 2015 Barbecue Hall of Fame inductee.
Raichlen remembers that when he was a child, grilling was the family’s form of barbecue, and his ballerina mother was the family grillmaster. “She’d light our charcoal grill with gasoline (not recommended), char steaks black as coal with the inside so rare you could hear the cow’s heartbeat, and serve it just like Tuscans do, meaning with no sauce or condiment,” he says.
As for the traditional barbecue dishes he has mastered today, he didn’t even taste those until after he graduated college. It was while researching medieval cooking in Europe on a Thomas J. Watson Foundation fellowship that Raichlen took a deeper interest in culinary history. “I realized that grilling is the world’s most ancient and universal method of cooking, but it’s done differently in every country and culture,” says the five-time James Beard Award winner.
Once into his historical research, the adventurous Raichlen decided he should also study modern French cooking techniques. He took classes at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and later worked in the City of Light as a translator at La Varenne cooking school. “That’s where I really learned about cooking.”
And learn he did. Despite the emphasis being on classical French cuisine, Raichlen says the techniques and vocabulary gave him the foundation for his work in barbecue, which has been his focus since he published his first cookbook, The Barbecue Bible, in 1998.
Since then, he’s circumnavigated the globe four times, visiting 53 countries on six continents, sampling camel burgers and truffle-encrusted wood-grilled baby goat. Once home, Raichlen takes what he’s learned and tasted and develops recipes for what will work in an American backyard. Compiling his ideas into cookbooks and television programs, including his two French-language cooking shows, Raichlen has filled the pages of 29 cookbooks — plus his first novel, a foodie love story set on Martha’s Vineyard.
For his 30th cookbook, Raichlen decided to turn his attention to another form of live-fire cooking: smoking. “I believe that smoking is the next grilling — that is, it’s about to go from cult technique in American barbecue country to the mainstream American backyard.”
Project Smoke (Workman Publishing, 2016), which hits shelves May 10, is a how-to guide for smoking and includes Raichlen’s seven steps to the perfectly smoked plate. He offers tips on the various types of smokers, how different woods will flavor a meal, and the many ways to smoke — hot, cold, smoke-roasting, smoke-braising, and hay smoking.
And, of course, he offers plenty of recipes: “There’s hay-smoked strip steak and cedar plank-smoked trout. Jamaican jerk chicken smoked on pimiento (allspice) wood logs on a gas grill. Lots of smoked cocktails, including a mezcalini (a sort of margarita made with cucumbers, mint, and mezcal). And the smoked desserts are pretty cool — everything from a smoked bacon bourbon apple crisp to a smoked chocolate bread pudding.”
Smoked desserts may seem like a passing fad, but smoking itself has been around for millennia. And Raichlen believes the technique’s recent renaissance is well-timed. Whereas smoking may have been necessary in the past as a means of preservation and survival, it now provides a much-needed reason to slow down. The process can’t be rushed, so it’s a great opportunity to sit back, socialize, and enjoy the wait. Because all good things come to those who smoke.
Season 2 of Steven Raichlen’s Project Smoke premieres Monday, May 30, on PBS.
From the May/June 2016 issue.