By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
Now that it is barbecue season, I’d like to say that I am really cooking with gas. Unfortunately, that flammable substance not only is what my grilling usually produces in people, but it’s not the best thing to cook with if you want to be a barbecue champion.
I got this hot tip from Phil Rizzardi, a barbecue champion who has cooked at the American Royal Barbecue Competition in Kansas City, Mo., and the Jack Daniel’s World Barbecue Championships in Lynchburg, Tenn. He also has won barbecue contests in his home state of New York, including “Big Wiener” at Willie Palooza. His trophy is topped by the figure of the back end of a horse.
If that weren’t impressive enough, Rizzardi is the founder of BBQ Brethren (bbq-brethren.com), an international organization whose logo features the words “Brothers in Smoke.”
Because smoke gets in my eyes whenever I barbecue, with the result that I either overcook or undercook whatever I am cooking, and I end up getting cooked myself by washing it all down with beer, I invited Rizzardi over to my house for a private lesson.
“Wood chips are the way to go,” said Rizzardi, who brought his son, James, who at 15 is a wood chip off the old block.
Rizzardi also brought his grill, an old, rickety contraption on which marinated magic is made.
“Do you ever use this thing?” he asked when he opened my grill and saw that it was practically spotless.
“All the time,” I replied.
“Let me guess,” Rizzardi said. “You knew I was coming, so you cleaned it.”
“It was a little greasy,” I confessed.
“That’s OK,” Rizzardi said. “It’s a flavor enhancer.”
In barbecuing, grease is the word.
I told the champ about my first gas grill, which I had to assemble myself. “It took me a week,” I said. “And then there were parts left over. I figured I would blow myself to smithereens, so whenever my wife wanted me to barbecue something, I made her start the grill. I felt like a mob boss who makes his wife start his car.”
Eventually we got another grill, which came preassembled, but the ignitor conked out, so I had to turn on the gas and throw matches at the thing until I heard a big whoosh. Our present grill is the starship Enterprise by comparison.
“A little kettle like mine may not look impressive, but it’s better and it lasts longer,” said Rizzardi, who uses it when he gives barbecue classes (bbq101-li.com).
“A lot of guys need classes,” Rizzardi said. “At a typical barbecue, a wife will marinate a steak, make potato salad and set the table. Then she’ll hand her husband the steak and tell him to hurry up and grill it. The steak will end up charred on the outside and raw on the inside, and the family will say, ‘Great job, Dad. Call 911.’ The poor guy doesn’t know what he did wrong.”
To do the job right, said Rizzardi, a barbecuer needs a good meat thermometer that measures the temperature instantly so heat doesn’t escape.
Also imperative is a chimney, a cylindrical metal holder in which to heat the wood chips. “You can put paper at the bottom to get them going,” Rizzardi said. Copies of this column would work nicely.
“Never use lighter fluid,” warned Rizzardi. “Don’t put meat directly on the flame. And don’t keep opening and closing the lid. If you’re looking, you ain’t cooking.”
Rizzardi, 50, a technology analyst whose biggest barbecue payday was $3,000 (grand champions in national competitions can win up to $15,000), brought two hanger steaks, one to cook on his grill, the other to cook on mine. To help me along, he made a “smoke bomb,” a handful of wood chips that he wrapped in foil, which he then perforated and placed in the corner of my grill. “It’ll help give the steak a smoky flavor even though you’re cooking it with gas,” he said.
When the steaks were done, we had a blind taste test. It was no contest. “Phil’s steak is much better than yours,” said my wife, Sue. I had to agree.
“Next time you want me to barbecue,” I suggested, “I’ll invite him back.”
Copyright 2010 by Jerry Zezima