Interview: Pitmaster Chris Lilly from Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q
"I've been doing the Big Apple for eight years and every year it gets bigger and better."
If you're in New York City this weekend, hopefully you're already planning to be at the 8th Annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. It's the largest barbecue event in New York, bringing 17 top pitmasters to Madison Square Park to serve up their best barbecue for the masses. But no trip to the Block Party would be complete without some of Big Bob Gibson's pulled pork shoulder.
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q has been a Decatur, Alabama staple since 1925, when Robert "Big Bob" Gibson first started serving barbecue at a makeshift table in his backyard. The Big Bob Gibson team is now headed by pitmaster Chris Lilly, who's been at the reigns of the business since 1992 and has brought ten World BBQ Championships, six world titles at Memphis in May, as well as the American Royal International Cook-Off and BBQ Sauce Competition to the name.
I got a chance to sit down with Chris Lilly and talk barbecue in an effort to help all you Serious Eaters navigate the immense amount of smoked meats you're about to encounter. (Read Ed's Block Party guide too!)
What's your earliest barbecue memory?
It was going to a barbecue shack a few miles from my house with my father and not only going to the front of the house, but going to the back of the house and looking at the pit room. It was an old-fashioned brick pit that had a separate burn pit where you burned down the wood and shoveled the coals up underneath the meat that was smoking on a wire rack.
So that was barbecuing with direct heat?
It was really direct heat, but it was far enough away from the meat that you got the low temperature. What you find nowadays is pretty much people barbecuing with indirect heat, but a flavor is missed when large cuts of meat, such as pork shoulder, render and the fat falls down and hits the live coals and you hear that sizzle. You always get a charred flavor cooking with the coals directly under the meat that you don't get cooking completely indirect.
How would you define Northern Alabama barbecue?
North Alabama is Big Bob Gibson and you define Big Bob Gibson by two things: pulled pork shoulder and barbecue chicken with white sauce. White sauce is a sauce Big Bob Gibson originated back in 1925 for his whole chickens.
What type of wood is that smoked over?
Hickory is the predominate wood. When I talk about wood from different regions, I typically find where you're cooking really dictates what wood you use because it's predominate in that area. So I tell people to to use a wood that you can get a hold of really easily and learn to cook with that flavor, as opposed to importing wood from all over and trying to work your flavors for the wood.
What's your meat of choice for barbecue?
Where I'm from, it has to be pork, without a doubt. We've been most successful cooking pork shoulder; we've won eight world championships cooking just pork shoulder, but I like to experiment with all parts of the pig, everything from pork belly to jowl meat. Anything coming off the pig is divine.
Sauce on it?
I like to taste the meat without the sauce and then add my own.
Sides with that?
Absolutely. We've got four side dishes in the restaurant: baked beans, potato salad, coleslaw, and potato chips. We've had those sides forever. That's what Big Bob served and that's what we still serve today.
What does the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party mean for you?
I've been doing the Big Apple for eight years and every year it gets bigger and better. When I look across the country and start talking about festivals, it's without a doubt the best barbecue festival out there—it's something really special and it's something New Yorkers appreciate. For me, it's about coming up here and spending several days in New York City, cooking and looking out at the lines of people who've traveled from all over and seeing the enthusiasm and desire and interest they have in my barbecue. It's funny, I've been doing this for eight years and I've never heard one person in my line complain it's too long. Everybody is always happy. The reason I come back is because of the people, that's it.
How many pork shoulders are you cooking?
I want about 408 whole pork butts and about 440 pounds of Kingsford charcoal. If I have my butts and my Kingsford, I'm good.
So what's that in pounds?
You've got 408 pork butts, average about eight pounds per, yield is about 50%, you're looking at about 1,632 pounds.
What's your schedule like to get all that pork cooked?
I would love to get started on Friday night about 6 or 7 o'clock. We start prepping by injecting our pork with a solution of apple juice, sugar, salt, a touch of Worcestershire, maybe a little bit of lemon—just a light injection because we want to pull the flavor all the way through to the bone. So we inject it with that solution and put a dry rub on it and put it on. Typically an eight-pound shoulder will take 12 hours at 225°F. At the Block Party it's sort of a push and pull depending on how many butts you put in, how thick it's loaded, and also how much time you actually have. So we'll adjust our temperature based on that, when our pork is delivered to us and when we actually fire up the cooker. Sometimes we're cooking at 225°F and sometimes at 250°F.
From your years at the block party, any advice to Serious Eaters trying to navigate the event?
Here's what you want to do: lines open at 11 a.m. and I would suggest you get there early. Say you get there at 10:30, you're still going to have a line, but come with a pack of friends. Put one friend in each line, and when you go through you buy multiples. So each person buys four or five portions. Then you all meet up in the park and have a picnic and compare barbecue.
Any parting barbecue tips?
Keep it simple. There are too many people out there that hear about a brine and a dry rub and a sauce and an injection and a marinade and try to apply everything at once, and they end up with a mess. Start simple. The most important thing about barbecuing is learning how to cook the meat and once you learn how to cook the meat, you can get a little more complex on your flavor profile.