Barbecue is deceptive. Oh, it's delicious to be sure, but its reputation as a picnic-tables-and-paper-plates affair disguises the labor that actually goes into it. The heaps of rich, smoky meats and glistening, savory sauces require a heck of a lot more thought and care than just plopping a couple of freezer burgers on the grill. That isn't to say that it's not still the ultimate American comfort food, just that you should probably take a minute to appreciate the artistry of your next pulled-pork sandwich, and almost no one understands that better than Chris Kelley, the head pitmaster at Dickey's Barbecue Pit.
Kelley, while no stranger to the kitchen or the restaurant business, didn't come from the robust barbecue-king background you might expect. "I'm from Texas, so I don't think you can grow up as a young man in Texas without at least grilling a hamburger or a hot dog. But I did not!" Instead, he says, "The second I got hired, I went and bought a pit, and I literally smoked on that thing every weekend."
But on top of that, he added a diploma from Dickey's Barbecue University to his wall. A shorter and more delicious version of college, BBQU is required by every pitmaster at all 600+ Dickey's locations. The three- to four-week program runs down the basics of barbecue and helps set up pitmasters for success, but Kelley says the most important takeaway is that old maxim, "low and slow." "There are a million ways to skin a cat, there are a million ways to do barbecue," Kelley says (though Dickey's specializes in Texas barbecue), but it's low and slow that ties them all together.
So what does your day look like once you've mastered the skills and you've got your own pit? "It's an 8 a.m. arrival, it's a hit the door runnin', rock 'n' roll, go check your pit, see where the meat is, see if it's ready to come off," says Kelley. The stores open at 11 a.m., but that early arrival time is essential to make sure Dickey's longest smoking meat—such as the brisket and ribs, which go into the smoker the night before for a 13- to 14-hour smoke—achieves perfection.
That doesn't mean the work is done once you walk in each morning, though. "You literally continue to load that pit until about 10, 10:30 in the morning," says Kelley. That's because the different meats all have different smoke times, from the max at 14 hours all the way down to just 20 minutes. There are timers, checklists, and systems all in place working together to help the pitmaster stay on top of it all.
At the end of the day, Kelley says you can't lose sight of what you're really there for: "You gotta have fun with it, and I say this all the time, it's not curing cancer or puttin' babies on the moon, it is barbecue." Barbecue is a craft to be honed, but it's a family affair at its heart. The earliest days of barbecue involved a huge chunk of meat and a literal pit in the ground, and out of that a sense of festivity and community was born. After all, without a fridge, you've gotta have a party to eat all that meat!
Photos courtesy of Dickey's Barbecue Pit.