Behind the Scenes at Barbecue University
You’ve read about Barbecue University ™ and seen it on TV. Maybe you’ve even attended Steven Raichlen’s hands-on barbecuing and grilling classes at the luxurious Montage Palmetto Bluff in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
But what does it take to stage this one-of-a-kind cooking school—these three days and nights of amazing grills, food, and fellowship?
Steve Nestor knows. Barbecue University ™ graduate Steve Nestor of North Attleboro, Massachusetts, enjoyed his course so much, he decided to sign on as Fire Wrangler for Raichlen’s Project Smoke and Project Fire TV shows. More recently, he became a blogger for this website, writing such popular blogs as In Pursuit of the Ultimate Ribs! and Ribs Take Wing.
Two years ago, Steve returned to Barbecue University ™ as fire and grill wrangler for the school. He volunteered to give us a behind the scenes glimpse of what it takes to stage what the Food Network once called “the best barbecue experience in North America.”
But let’s hear it in Steve’s own words:
Behind the Scenes at Barbecue University™
After 10 years in Colorado, Barbecue University ™ relocated in 2021: Montage Palmetto Bluff in South Carolina’s Low Country between Hilton Head and Savannah. Picture a luxurious resort on 20,000 acres of land on the May River, complete with a nature preserve, riverfront marina, and a Jack Nicholas signature golf course.
Barbecue University’s™ (BBQU) success does not happen by chance. The planning starts long before the students arrive. Steven creates his menus based on the latest trends in barbecuing and grilling—and the timeless techniques that every griller should master—from low and slow smoking and reverse-searing to spit-roasting and “caveman” grilling in the embers.
Next comes a review of the school’s more than 30 grills and smokers, from inexpensive hibachis to $20,000 stainless steel super-grills. Ingredients are locally sourced, when possible (yes, there will be sweet Carolina shrimp), and flown in from as far away as Japan (so students can taste the buttery wonder of genuine A 5 wagyu strip steaks).
Setting Up Barbecue University
A few days before BBQU starts, Steven and his team arrive to set up, coordinating logistics with Montage Executive Chef Nathan Beriau and his staff. Meanwhile, fire wranglers Craig Reed, Jake Klein, Joe Archey, and yours truly assemble the grills, lay out our outdoor classroom, and organize all the essential barbecue and cooking gear used by the students.
BBQU weekend officially begins with a welcome ceremony at which Steven outlines the activities for the next three days, and the students get a taste of the great Low Country fare prepared by Chef Nathan’s staff. Students get their first look at the recipe book when they pick up their swag bags. “Please memorize all thirty recipes,” says Steven, “because, yes, there will be a final exam.” Students look nervously at one another, not quite sure if their professor is serious.
By the time class begins with breakfast at 8:30 a.m. the next morning, Team BBQU has been hard at work for hours. We make sure the grills are ready to go, all the barbecue gear is assembled, and all the fuel is ready (wood, charcoal, pellets, and propane). We load up a dozen chimney starters. (Steven calls for volunteers to light them.) Students get to cook on the same grills, using the same cool tools that Steven uses on his shows.
As class begins, Steven explains the five methods of live-fire cooking and the history of each dish. He demonstrates the essential techniques of the morning’s class: how to trim a brisket, for example, or spatchcock a chicken, or trim artichokes or pineapples for grilling. The recipes come from Steven’s vast repertory accumulated during more than 25 years traveling Planet Barbecue. Teams are selected (each team is responsible for the execution of 2 to 4 dishes), a team captain is named, and the work—make that fun—begins.
The teams take their place at their appointed workstations and fire up the grills. Being a two-time BBQU graduate, I would recommend volunteering to cook a dish you have always wanted to learn, but never tried—something out of your comfort zone. Remember, this is Barbecue University™, and you are there to learn.
The menu for each day includes appetizers, main dishes, sides, dessert, and even a grilled or smoked cocktail. Some of last year’s favorites included grilled shrimp on sugarcane with dark rum glaze, grilled wedge salad with smoky ranch dressing, salmon steaks theatrically grilled on a shovel over an open fire, spice-blasted baby back ribs with chipotle barbecue sauce, big bad beef ribs, smoke roasted strawberry rhubarb crisp, and grilled sangria. This year will have entirely new dishes and menus.
Steven provides feedback and praise as he moves from workstation to workstation and grill to grill, helping students perfect their dishes. In addition to cooking a lot of incredibly tasty food, students learn such indispensable live-fire cooking skills as firing up a wood-burning oven, smoking in a traditional “stick-burner” (offset barrel smoker), reverse-searing, two ways to rotisserie (including a surprising spit-roasted pineapple), grilling over a wood fire, and even learning how to control a pellet smoker with a smartphone.
Time to Get Creative
But what’s even more amazing are what Steven likes to call his “science projects”—spontaneous creations Steven and the students create with ingredients inspired by the Mystery Boxes on Steven’s Project Fire TV show. Such improvisations might include smoked deviled eggs, pastrami pork loin, wood oven-roasted shakshuka, and even spectacular fish tacos created by a student from Mexico. Last year, between the planned menu and Steven’s improvisations, one class served 21 dishes for lunch. Apparently, the Barbecue University™ record is 28 dishes!
Steven continues to supervise the students to ensure that all the dishes are finished in time for lunch. The food is plated and displayed on the presentation table so everyone can appreciate the finished recipes. It is a sight to behold! Cellphone cameras click and flash to capture photos of all the mouthwatering food. Finally, the moment everyone has been waiting for…lunch is served!
Chef Nathan and his team replicate the recipes cooked by the students so family members and guests can join the students for lunch. It gets even better: students get to repeat the process for two more days!
Lunch concludes around 1 p.m., allowing students to spend the afternoon exploring the resort and its unique activities, see the local sites, or just relax at one of the many pools.
Last year, one group went fishing and landed a 30-inch Spanish mackerel for us to grill at the next class.
The evening can be spent enjoying dinner at one of the great restaurants at the Montage Palmetto Bluff. If you’re still hungry for dessert, ask for one of the complimentary s’mores packs to cook over one of the resort’s numerous fire pits.
The final class concludes with the “final exam”—a humorous oral quiz designed to remind you of all the techniques learned during the course. (Don’t worry: Steven and your fellow classmates will help you find your way to the right answers.). Diplomas are issued, names and addresses are exchanged, and students head home excited and ready to showcase their new talents at their next grill session.
Barbecue University is an amazing time
BBQU is a once-in-a-lifetime experience … until you plan your return visit. The hardest decisions students must make when leaving BBQU are when they are going to return and how many new grills they are going to buy!
If you are looking for the ultimate barbecue experience, Barbecue University™ is it. It is a 3-day grill-a-palooza where you will learn everything you need to know to become a barbecue rock star in your backyard. Your family and friends will be envious of how easy you make grilling and smoking look with your new skills.
The next Barbecue University™ will take place at Montage Palmetto Bluff resort on June 12-15, 2022. The course makes a terrific present for Father’s Day. For more information click here: https://barbecuebible.com/barbecue-university/