Ray Lampe, also known as Dr. BBQ, lets us in on the world of a pitmaster. The key ingredients of barbecue success is simply time and patience. But in a world where time is money the key ingredient doesn’t come easily, and earning the coveted title warrants celebrity status.
By Annelise McAuliffe
Ray Lampe grew up in Chicago. One might not think of the Windy City as the landscape to inspire barbecuing, but after his first grilling competition in 1982, Ray soon found himself traveling the country and making his hobby into a career.
While the official, or unofficial, title may be a new phenomenon, being a pitmaster is nothing new. Recent discoveries have found that Ancient Greeks used portable clay trays to grill their meats over hot coals. To most grillers around the world this makes perfect sense. Whether it is tailgating, camping, or just a beautiful day, it makes sense to have a portable, delicious way to cook and create.
Dr. BBQ has cooked in styles and with seasonings reflecting the grilling techniques from global cuisines, but he insists he has never seen anything like American barbecue. For him, real American barbecue is cooked low and slow with wood added for flavor. If you’re looking for a wood suggestion, it really is up to personal preference. Pitmasters tend to use cherry, pecan, hickory, and oak woods for their smoking. “You can use gas as a fuel as long as you add the right amount of wood for flavor and you can bump the temp up a little from the traditional 225 but if you get too hot you’re just roasting or braising,” cautions Ray. “Wrapping the meat in aluminum foil is totally acceptable, don’t believe all the hype. It’s used by many great pitmasters.” Despite common misconceptions, American barbecue is about the social process and highlighting the meat’s natural flavors, while the sauce or seasoning is secondary. According to Ray,”Real BBQ is NOT about barbecue sauce or too much smoke.”
Being a pitmaster means using the tools you have, but it does not always mean bringing out the expensive gadgets. While the barbecue gadgetry market has been booming in an attempt to make it more assessable, and maybe even bring more women to the pit, one wouldn’t find high-tech devices in the hand of most pitmasters. Dr. BBQ insists that items such as fancy smoke guns or specialized racks are not needed to make delicious barbecue. He prefers a real wood fire and plenty of time. The true secret weapon of a bit master is patience. Low and slow is the reoccurring tune of success for these talented cooks. Pitmaster Ray agrees, “You have to take your time and let the meat bathe in real wood smoke.”
So how does one become a pitmaster? Surprisingly there is no certification, master class, or rigorous test to become a pitmaster. Lampe has been barbecuing and competing with a cold beverage in one hand and a utensil in the other for over thirty years. While he has definitely made his way into the mysterious class of grill gurus, it is not as simple as grabbing a beer and standing in front of a grill to earn such an esteemed title. The entire process takes time and plenty of patience. For Dr. BBQ this journey has included cookbooks, TV shows, participating as a judge, and continuing to participate in countless competitions. One look at his résumé and there is no doubt about his pitmaster status.
Mandatory family outings to the Detroit farmers' market and nightly home-cooked meals cultivated Annelise's respect and curiosity for food. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, she spends her free time in New York City recipe testing, eating breakfast all day, and dreaming up international culinary adventures.