AUTHOR INTERVIEW: MASTER OF MODERN BARBECUE STEVEN RAICHLEN
Steven Raichlen on the epiphany that led him to travel to 60+ countries and write 30+ cookbooks
Steven Raichlen, known as "the man who reinvented modern barbecue,” is an author, journalist and television host (Project Fire, Project Smoke, Primal Grill, and Barbecue University TV) whose work has had a major impact on today’s world of grilling. With cookout season in full swing, we chat with Steven about his bbq obsession, his newest book and how he plans to spend Father’s Day this year. He describes the epiphany that sparked an entire career and led him around the world to document techniques and traditions of cooking with fire. Join us on this exploration across 32 books, including the award-winning How to Grill, and bestsellers The Barbecue Bible, and Planet Barbecue—three titles available on ckbk.
How did you come to be “the man who reinvented modern barbecue?”
Well, I got a degree in French Literature and took a wrong turn [laughs]. I’ve always been a food writer, a history and literature buff, and fascinated by the intersection of food history and culture. That all came together for me through barbecue.
In Buddhism, there’s the idea of the satori, a moment of epiphany. Mine came over 20 years ago, and it was the realization that barbecue is the world’s oldest and most universal cooking method, but everywhere it’s done differently. I followed that idea, thinking: wouldn’t it be fun to travel and document how people grill in different cultures? That idea became the book The Barbecue Bible. It was the right book at the right time and it really exploded, becoming my first international bestseller.
Can you tell us a little about The Barbecue Bible, How to Grill, and Planet Barbecue. How is each book unique?
The Barbecue Bible was my first book about barbecuing and grilling. In a way, it’s the primer. It takes an international look at barbecuing and grilling and explains the differences between the two.
How to Grill is more of a technique book, a how-to for cooking 150 essential dishes on the grill—with 1,000 step-by-step photographs.
Planet Barbecue is a reprise of themes found in The Barbecue Bible, an exploration of global grilling, but much more global, much more in depth. For The Barbecue Bible, I visited 25 countries in my research, and for Planet Barbecue I visited 60.
Tell us a little about your most recent book, The Brisket Chronicles, and what we’ll find in its pages?
The Brisket Chronicles, as the title suggests, focuses on one meat, and a meat that is sort of the most iconic, epic meat of barbecue. But unlike most barbecue books, the meat is only part of the story. I really explore brisket across cultures around the world, indoors and outdoors. I’ll take you to the best delis in NYC and Montreal, look at Irish corned beef, Italian stracotto, bolitto misto, and a Korean brisket that cooks in less than a minute—totally astonishing. It’s a continuation of my work in The Barbecue Bible and very much more than that.
When you aren’t tending the grill, what kinds of cooking do you enjoy?
I did my training in Paris, right after college where I got my degree in French lit. I moved to Europe on a Watson Foundation fellowship. Because of my time there, I still get great pleasure in cooking classical French cuisine—crepes, French desserts. The other thing I really like to explore a lot is Southeast Asian cooking.
Are you a cookbook collector? How many cookbooks do you own?
I am! I imagine the number in the thousands. It’s funny because I’ve got one space for cookbooks—a fairly big wall in office—stacked floor to ceiling. When it fills it up I just rotate some of the old ones out to make more room.
Are there particular food writers or cookbook authors that you look up to?
Yotam Ottolenghi writes wonderful cookbooks. And very often when I’m doing my own contemporary work, I look at historical cookbooks. For instance, I’m working on a piece on coleslaw, and I find myself going back to Amelia Simmons who wrote American Cookery, the first American cookbook. Also, to Elizabeth Raffald, an English gentlewoman, a housekeeper with the first recipe printed for brisket—a surprisingly modern recipe containing bacon, oysters and red wine. I also give History of Barbecue talks, and for those I go back to the Amerindian and Carib Indian cultures of the early 1500s. I’m kind of geeky in my selection of cookbooks but they all make sense for what I do.
What is the last cookbook you recommended to somebody?
The last book I recommended was Salt Smoke Time by the author Will Horowitz. Will has two restaurants in Manhattan: Ducks Eatery and Harry & Ida’s. He majored in Buddhist philosophy and creative writing, then became a survivalist. He’s very into preserving, pickling, and hunting, and notably he was the inventor of the watermelon ham, a recent viral sensation.
Do you have any Father's Day traditions? How are you planning to celebrate this upcoming Father’s Day?
I am a father—a stepfather—and because Father’s Day always falls over barbecue season, the last 20–25 years I’ve been on book tour, but this year I will be celebrating spectacularly. I’ll be in Portugal and Italy, for vacation and work. I have a new book coming out in Italy, the first of my books in Italian, and I’ll be there on book tour. (Check out Steven Raichlen’s 12 Great Gifts for Father’s Day.)