Ray Lampe, aka Dr BBQ, grew up in Chicago. Having participated in BBQ cook-offs as a hobby since 1982, he decided to take a leap and turn his hobby into a career.
Today, he has seven cookbooks under his belt and was inducted into the BBQ Hall of Fame in 2014.
We were granted a meat and greet with Dr BBQ (along with Grillstock co-founders Jon Finch and Ben Merrington) ahead of this weekend’s Grillstock Festival and grilled him to find out what the judges are looking for this year, what BBQ item he can’t live without, and what his top tips are for BBQ beginners – even in rainy Manchester.
Photo: Tobias Alexander/ Grey Trilby
Where did your interest in BBQ come from? How did you start out?
Dr BBQ: “I started cooking in the 1970s in high school. I took a cooking class just as a goof-off class; it was to teach girls how to cook for your family, it wasn’t like a culinary education. We’d get really stoned and go to class. I didn’t realise I was going to actually enjoy the cooking. I always cooked from then on.
“But it wasn’t BBQ at all… and then when I was 25, a friend of mine signed us up for a rib cooking contest in downtown Chicago. So I got a grill and went bought some ribs and I practised, and we went there.
“We didn’t win anything, but it was the cooking that I enjoyed. It was big pieces of meat, and fire, we were drinking a bunch of beer and I realised, ‘Wow – this is the kind of cooking I enjoy!’. That was 1982.”
So when did BBQ become more than just a hobby?
“In 2000 the family trucking business I was running just ended. It was time to move on and do something different, so I moved to Florida and started barbecuing in a parking lot. I was the original food-truck guy!
“Then I started teaching classes and offered myself up as a kind of “BBQ spokesman” – no one had really done that before. I got my foot in the door, I talked a grill company into hiring me, and somebody asked me if I wanted to write a cookbook. Of course I did – and I turned out I was good at it, and now I’ve written eight of them!”
How did Dr BBQ get involved in Grillstock?
Jon Finch (Grillstock co-founder): We were a brand new BBQ competition, there wasn’t really anything like us in England. We were saying ‘We’re going to run this big American-style BBQ competition’ – but we’re not American! So having Ray there in the first year with all these barbecue teams suddenly gave us credibility.
“From the very early days we were a proper competition – American-style – and we’ve built on that since, really.”
What do you look for at Grillstock from a judge’s point of view?
Dr BBQ: “There have been some crazy entries – a three tier pork-pie wedding cake that could have fed a hundred people, and one year Dr Sweetsmoke built a rig where he sat a chicken so it was riding a Harley Davidson, with bacon for the chicken’s coxcomb.
“Kansas City BBQ society is the standard in the US, and is becoming the standard world-wide, and that’s fine, but it’s not really what we wanted Grillstock to be about. Jon and I have crafted the rules over the years to reflect that. With Kansas City rules everything goes on in the back room, it’s very sterile – it’s six pieces in a box with lettuce and parsley – it’s really not much fun.
“Jon wanted to have the judges sat up front so you can talk to them while they’re judging. I don’t disagree with that, but I wanted to make sure it was credible.”
Photo: Paul Box
How different are the entries in the UK compared to what you see in the US?
Dr BBQ: “The food is now almost identical to what I see at the top contests in the US. They’ve all learned, and they want to go and cook in the US, so they’re trying to cook that way.
“Now these guys are going to the US to cook, and they’re very competitive!”
Do you think the teams take the competition more seriously each year?
Dr BBQ: “Absolutely. Even the goofy teams – I mean, the party is definitely as important as the entries! But they’re still cooking seriously.
“The Beefy Boys are a good example – they came down to Grillstock in Bristol just to have fun – drink, meat, play with fire for a couple of days. They came down the second year and took it a little more seriously, then came back the third year and won our burger round. Part of their prize was a trip to the World Food championships in Las Vegas – where they came second! It’s an amazing title to have.
“It’s a really cool story – these four guys started doing it for a laugh, and it’s their jobs now.”
Photo: Paul Box
So what can we expect from the King of the Grill competition this year?
Jon: “We have seven rounds over the weekend, four of them are these very typically American “core-meat” rounds, as we call them; and the other three – they’re the ones that count towards the big prize.
“Last year during the burger round someone did a kind Bushtucker trial burger loaded up with things you’d see on I’m a Celebrity, topped with a scorpion – it was horrible! He knew he wasn’t going to win, but he knew all those judges had to take a mouthful each! The same guy also laced his hot wings with pure chilli extract in Bristol.
“We’ve actually launched a new award this year called the Dr BBQ Award. It’s really nothing to do with the quality of the food, it’s all about getting into the spirit, the real core of what Grillstock is about. It’s sharing the food with the crowd, sharing knowledge with the crowd – getting really kind of into it. This is actually the second biggest prize, even though it’s not about the food.”
Photo: Paul Box
Dr BBQ: I think in short, we’re looking for real American barbecue. But we don’t necessarily tell them that. The judges we have here have a strong idea of what’s going on here as well in the US.
“The guys that win at Grillstock get to compete in Kansas – they pick up tips and tricks, spices and sauces while they’re over there and then that knowledge comes back here.”
What are your top BBQ tips?
— WOW247 Manchester (@wow247manc) May 29, 2015
“Don’t marinade in barbecue sauce – add it as glaze at the end, or serve it on the side as a condiment.
“Slow everything right down.
“Have a cool side and a hot side – somewhere to move the meat when it catches. Patience is key.
“It’s difficult to wrap your head around sitting there for 10 hours while everything cooks, but once you do… once you’re hooked, once you get used to it, you can’t wait to go and sit there for another 10 hours!”
— George Wetzel (@geowx1) May 25, 2015
Given this is Manchester, do you have any tips for BBQ in the rain?
“Don’t be scared of it! Buy a gazebo. It can affect your temperature, so just build a shelter – I’ve seen guys using welding blankets, cardboard boxes. Do what you gotta do!”
What’s the one BBQ item you couldn’t live without?
“Knowing the temperature of what you’re cooking is really important, so it would be a good British Thermapen. That’s what everyone has in their pocket – both chefs and barbecue guys.”
Main photo: Tobias Alexander/ Grey Trilby