reed magazine logospring2007

BBQ Scholar

Steven Raichlen has parlayed his encyclopedic study of global grilling into a virtual empire of cookbooks and products.

By Juliette Guilbert ’89

When Steven Raichlen ’75 faced Rokusaburo Michiba, one of Japan’s
most revered practitioners of the culinary arts, in an Iron Chef-style
barbecue competition on Japanese television, the jig seemed up before
the grills were even lit.

Steven Raichlen in his study, where he has been busy cooking up his latest project: a novel. Photo by Alissa Christine.

 
   

“On my workstation they had an American flag, and on his they had a Japanese flag,” Raichlen says. “And all through the rehearsal, my flag kept falling down.” To add injury to insult, the show’s organizers denied Raichlen’s request for a charcoal grill—although Michiba got one—nor would they give him a propane hookup. He and his stepson, Jake, a professional chef, ripped the guts out of a gas grill, jury-rigged it, and managed to scrounge up some charcoal.

But when Raichlen got wind of the meal his opponent was putting together, he started to get really nervous. “Michiba did this incredibly elaborate thing with lobster and $100-a-piece matsutake mushrooms and abalone,” he says. “All the charcoal and the charcoal grill went to him, he used the $5,000, 200-year-old platter. I thought, I’m never going to be able to compete on that level.”

So Raichlen stuck to what he knows best: baby back ribs, chicken, smoked gazpacho, and a grilled pineapple dessert. After scandalizing the studio audience by committing such Japanese-T.V. faux pas as speaking to the cohost, Raichlen finally got a chance to give the host a taste of his barbarous wares. “I cut a piece of chicken right off the grill and gave it to him to eat with his fingers,” Raichlen says. “And you could see the light bulb go on—‘wait a minute, our guy’s ingredient bill is going to be a thousand bucks, of course his barbecue is going to be amazing. The American is using what we would consider trash food, and look at what he’s making.’” Raichlen won the contest by a rout, and when the vanquished Michiba bowed to his vanquisher, he uttered a single word in English: “Rematch.”

Raichlen admits that, to his relief, the rematch never materialized. But, as the episode indicates, since the publication of his first book on barbecue nearly a decade ago, he has made it his practice to investigate every corner of the global “barbecue trail,” even if it sometimes gets him into sticky situations. He moves easily between the high and low worlds of open-flame cookery, going from third-world markets where street hawkers grill unfamiliar meats on old wheel rims, to hosting a high-concept PBS cooking show, Barbecue University at the Greenbrier.

Raichlen, a James Beard Award-winning author, has written seven books on barbecue (along with a number of other cookbooks, including the perennially popular Miami Spice); he has established a seasonal barbecue school in West Virginia (Barbecue University); and he has launched his own line of grilling gear and condiments, including an instant-read meat thermometer adorned with his grinning headshot (“I watch to make sure you don’t overcook the meat,” he jokes). Driven by a Reedie’s love of cultural exploration and an inborn desire to investigate what he freely calls “obscure topics,” Raichlen has developed thousands of barbecue recipes—from authentic Jakartan satay to reinvented American classics such as grilled Caesar salad and a grilled banana split. His books intersperse recipes with the history and lore of global grilling traditions, dispatches from barbecue joints around the world, interviews with pit masters and mistresses, and a good dose of what he calls “gearhead” stuff: technical specs and tips on grills, smokers, and grilling paraphernalia.

It’s cookbook as cultural reportage, shaped as much by a writer’s storytelling imperative as a foodie’s gourmandise. “I found myself in many places not frequented by most travelers, having experiences that ranged from fascinating to hair-raising,” he writes in The Barbecue! Bible. “In Mexico, I nibbled cactus worms and crickets as a prelude to barbecue . . . In Bali, I paid a 6 a.m. visit to the local babi guli (roast pork) man, who rewarded my punctuality by letting me help him slaughter a suckling pig.”