When Alabama-born chef Chris Lilly ran out of seasonings during a Manhattan barbecue block party, he injected Snapple peach tea into the meat, creating Peach Tea Smoked Rack of Pork. That’s just one of the creative recipes you’ll find in his new book Fire and Smoke (Crown Publishing Group, April 2014).
He also shows how to flash-fry charcoal-seared trout fillets in a cast-iron skillet nestled in “ripping hot” charcoal, grill lemons for grilled lemonade and sangria, and bake a blackberry cobbler in the spent coals while dinner’s in progress.
It must have been fate, Lilly says, that made him fall in love with the great-grand-daughter of one of the South’s most revered barbecue masters, Big Bob Gibson. As a boy, Lilly had helped his dad tend burgers and steaks on a rickety cast-aluminum charcoal grill and accompanied him to local eateries, where they watched the pit masters shovel coals. Like most Alabamans, he was familiar with Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, founded in 1925 by its namesake, who started out serving his specialty from a makeshift plank table in his back yard.
In 1991, one year after Lilly earned his marketing and finance degree and started selling surgical scrubs in Tennessee, his new father-in-law, a third-generation Big Bob’s restaurateur, made him an offer: Come home to Alabama and run the new Big Bob’s location on the south side of Decatur.
While “working the pits” seven days a week, Lilly was also grilling at home. In a word, barbecue took over his life. Now executive chef of the restaurant chain, Lilly spends much of his time testing new recipes and catering at private events nationwide. He has won nearly 20 world barbecue championships and is the official spokesperson for Kingsford Charcoal. You’re as likely to find him in New York cook ing at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party as in Miami at the South Beach Food and Wine Festival as in his hometown at a local barbecue contest.
In his new cookbook, Lilly explains the gamut of cookers and grills, from kettles and barrels to hibachis and Cuban roasting boxes. But more than the equipment, he wanted to show the versatility in grilling—and that smoke makes just about anything taste better, from asparagus to cobbler to beverages.
His personal favorite is Iron Skillet Macaroni and Cheese made with Muenster, sharp Cheddar and Velveeta. As the title Fire & Smoke implies, Lilly does a delicate dance among fiery hot heat, for charring and searing, and indirect subtle heat, for slow cooking and smoking, achieving vastly different results.
Right now on his Decatur back porch, Lilly has a Tandoor, a Kamado, a Big Green Egg, a Weber Ranch, and a grill he designed and built himself. “But I can certainly wheel more out of the garage,” he says. Sounds like his life’s work isn’t over.
Chris Lilly’s Grilling Tips
• Marinate and do other prep work ahead of time.
• Have the proper tools ready: tongs, a couple of spatu- las and a pair of heavy gloves.
• Create a two-zone fire, with charcoal on one side of the grill and a vacant space on the other. “For indirect cooking the bigger meats, I shift them away from the coals,” says Lilly. “Then for smaller meats, I shift them over the coals for the high- temperature grilling.”
• Think beyond meat. “Try vegetables and fruit, something simple like pineapples and peaches with a little maple syrup. Grill them and then serve a little ice cream on top. Some- thing that simple is absolutely phenomenal.”
• Give yourself time to learn. “[Grilling] is an art,” he says. “The more you do it, the better you get at it.”
Check out three of Chris Lilly’s on-the-grill recipes below!