So You Want to Be a BBQ Pitmaster?

Pitmaster Ray Lampe, aka Dr. BBQ, on the business of barbecue
June 27, 2018 Last Updated: June 27, 2018

Ray Lampe is no stranger to barbecue. 

His first foray into the field was in the 1980s, as an amateur cook dabbling in rib contests. Since then, he’s cooked in over 300 contests, won over 300 awards, and transformed a hobby into a full-time career, becoming Dr. BBQ, one of the world’s top professional pitmasters and TV personalities.

Lampe has traveled all over the country trying different barbecue styles, and landed a spot in the Barbecue Hall of Fame in 2014. His next adventure: a restaurant, Dr. BBQ’s, set to open in St. Petersburg, Florida in mid-July.

Below, the doctor reflects on his path to success.

The Epoch Times: What does it take to become a champion pitmaster?

Dr. BBQ: I credit my entrepreneurial skills much more than my cooking skills. I know how to cook, don’t get me wrong, but I know a lot of guys who know how to cook real well, and not all of them have been successful. A lot of guys can learn how to cook, but you gotta make good business decisions along the way.

And you’re gonna get lucky, too. There are a lot of forks in the road, and sometimes you’re flat out guessing which one you’re supposed to take. But you try to make good decisions when you can, and you work real hard. I’m a Chicago guy. Midwest people have a good work ethic.

The Epoch Times: What’s the culture of competitive BBQ like? Is it cutthroat competition, or just one big party?

Dr. BBQ: I started in the 80s; I was one of the original guys. Back then it was all new, so we were making it up as we went along. We used to show up with a cooler of beer and a cooler of meat, and we would drink the cooler of beer first and see who could cook the meat the best.

It’s definitely a close-knit community. Very few people make a living out of it, so it remains a hobby. It keeps the mentality as, “we’re all out here together.” I’ll set up next to my friend for the competition, and even if he wins every week, or I win every week, there’s never any animosity between us. Because it wasn’t your fault that I lost today; it was those darn judges. And the judging is done blindly in another tent. That way, we all stay friends, and we’re all angry at some evil judge in the sky—we don’t know who it is. It’s forged great friendships and the good camaraderie that happens with it.

But it’s hard to be really good at it if you don’t go there and do it really often. When I did it actively, I would go 20 weeks of the year. Now, these guys go 40-plus weeks. It’s really become a hobby of epic proportions.

The Epoch Times: You went from a trucker to a professional BBQ pitmaster. Why?

Dr. BBQ: I learned how to cook in high school. Shortly after that, a friend signed us up for a rib-cooking contest just to go for the party. I was the only guy who knew how to cook, so I cooked some ribs, and I was just obsessed with it ever since then.

I got out of high school and my family trucking business was in front of me. My father died, so I took over his job and I did it for 25 years. I’m now 60, and I’ve been self-employed since I was 18. But at the end of 25 years, it was just an old business that wasn’t going to be there much longer, so I closed the door and became Dr. BBQ for my job. It was the only other thing I knew how to do; it had been my obsessive hobby. I’d done a little bit of catering and I had become a big name in the competition world, so I figured I would try to do that.

But the business of barbecuing encompasses a lot of different things, and frankly, by now, I’ve tried them all. I bought a trailer in Chicago and I moved to Florida. I was like the original food truck guy: in a parking lot of a produce stand, selling barbecue. I would make money some weeks, but it was a tough going. It wasn’t the lifestyle I wanted to have.

I tried to figure out other things to do. I started writing for a magazine. I wrote a cookbook, and it turned out I was pretty good at it; I’ve now written nine of them. I started teaching classes. I started selling some barbecue rub. A friend got me connected to a grill company, so I worked for them for a year as a spokesman. One time I was next door to Big Green Egg, which is a premium charcoal grill, and I really liked that, so I talked to them and convinced them they needed to hire me as their spokesman, and I’ve done it for 15 years now.

I’ve been lucky at a lot of turns, but you make your own luck sometimes.

Dr. BBQ in action. (Courtesy of Datz Restaurant Group)

The Judge’s Tent

What’s the most important part of good barbecue? Judge rules: the texture.

Barbecue should be “all about the meat,” Lampe said, and “getting the texture just right is the hardest thing to do.” Unlike cooking in an oven or a skillet, barbecue is a different beast: it involves smoking meat low and slow for hours in dry heat.

“Cooking something to 200 degrees internal temperature without moisture—that’s not an easy thing to do,” Lampe said. Knowing when to stop, and keeping the meat tender and juicy—“that’s the skill, I think, that makes somebody a good pitmaster. When I feel you’ve got it cooked perfectly, I would even let you slide a little bit on flavor.”

So what is that perfect texture? Specifics depend on the meat, but in general, balance is key.

Ribs: A bite of rib meat should pull away from the bone cleanly, but leave the rest of the meat intact. “I don’t want to have to gnaw my part off, but I also don’t want it to slide off [the bone] like it was oiled,” Lampe said.

Brisket: A piece of brisket, sliced against the grain, should be almost elastic. “You can kind of stretch it and see the fibers barely holding together, but they are holding together.”

Pork Shoulder: Pulled or chopped, pork should still retain a meaty texture. Avoid mush at all costs.

Chicken and Turkey: “We all know pretty much when a piece of chicken or turkey is cooked right,” Lampe said. It should be tender and juicy, not dry. A pro tip to avoid rubbery, leathery skin: Use a meat tenderizer to perforate it before cooking.