Paul Kirk has almost as many titles as Barnes & Noble. The Kansas cook is sometimes called the Barbecue Guru, Master of the Grill, Ambassador of Barbecue, Certified Master Judge, Yoda of the BBQ Pit, Headmaster of the School of Pitmasters, and more. But Barbecue Baron is the name that has stuck the most.
It's an apt title for this champion of the flame, regarded by many as the world's best barbecue cook and the best barbecue teacher.
For some of us, barbecue season has just begun, but for Mr. Kirk, it's been going whole hog for more than 20 years. Since 1981, Kirk, a former restaurant chef, has competed in contests from Texas to Tennessee and even in Lisdoonvarna, Ireland. He has won more than 400 awards, including seven world championships. When he's not dishing up food for judges, he's writing cookbooks or teaching at his "School of Pitmasters."
"I'm always in search of that ultimate barbecue," he says by phone from his home in Shawnee Mission, Kan. "I haven't found it, and I don't know if I ever will."
It's this search for the perfect barbecued dish - and the desire to develop it himself - that keeps Kirk going despite a schedule that sometimes puts him on the road more often than he'd like. But now that his three children are grown, it's easier for him to crisscross the country.
But even when he first got started and his children were 5, 3, and barely 1, he and his wife, Jessica, packed them and their strollers into their 3/4-ton van along with tongs, aprons, and coolers of meat. (Behind the van, they pulled a trailer with his favorite contest cooker, a 15-by-4-foot contraption with both a barbecue pit and a grill that can handle 150 slabs of hanging ribs.)
"We soon found out - by necessity - that barbecue contests could be great outings for the family," Kirk writes in his latest cookbook, "Paul Kirk's Championship Barbecue" (Harvard Common Press). "A contest is like a long weekend picnic. You can be with your family while your food is smoking, and you can invite friends to visit your cooking and sleeping area."
For those people for whom barbecuing isn't second nature, Kirk is a willing teacher. One of the early lessons he teaches is not to cook too fast over too hot a fire. High heat is fine for steaks, he says, but in his opinion, most meats taste best when barbecued at temperatures ranging from 230 to 250 degrees F.
People often confuse the terms smoking, barbecuing, and grilling. The differences, he says, relate to heat: Under 220 degrees F. is smoking, 221 to 349 degrees F. is barbecuing, and 350 degrees F. and up is grilling.
Kirk is encouraged by growing interest in slow- cooking methods, as seen by the swelling ranks of the Slow Food Movement. "People are realizing how much flavor is in slow-cooked food," he says. "It's not something quick and easy. It takes a while. But it's worth it."
One trend Kirk could do without is the use of foil on the grill, which he calls "Texas Crutch." Sure, this might reflect a rivalry between his home state of Kansas and the other barbecue capital, but Kirk insists that wrapping meat in foil is "a shortcut that is not real barbecue."
Amid the 575 recipes in his latest barbecue bible, Kirk includes an abundance of tips and techniques. Doneness charts and timetables are helpful, as are tips about the importance of befriending one's local butcher, the types of hardwoods and their flavors, and how recipes are merely guidelines that can be easily adapted.
Many of Kirk's recipes are ones he invented and cooked for competition. "To this day," he writes, "I can make up a recipe in my head, never test it at all, and win a contest with it."
Such confidence is crucial to wooing judges. But at the end of the day, Kirk says, one must cook for oneself, one's family, and one's team of cooks - not for the judges, each of whom may have different preferences.
Cooking for his family is just what Kirk plans to do this summer - when he's not on the road. He might try out a new recipe or two on one of his 16 cookers. (They range from a Weber kettle and a Patio Classic to two homemade contraptions. All but one use charcoal.) As always, his daughter Erin, who also competes in barbecue contests, and his wife will be there to help. His wife, Jessica, was the 1985 Kansas State Barbecue Champion (for her smoked catfish).
Barbecuing is indeed a Kirk family affair, and the Baron of Barbecue wouldn't want it any other way. As he puts it: "I study food. I live food. I have no other hobbies other than those that are food-related."
Or as Jessica says good-naturedly: "Barbecuing took over our life. If my husband had a mistress, it would be barbecue."
These kebabs can be made in any size and served as an appetizer or as an entree. The marinade is also good with grilled fish or chicken.
1 cup fresh lime juice (about 16 limes)
1/2 cup light soy sauce
1/3 cup peanut oil
1 teaspoon peeled and grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon pressed garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1-1/2 pounds lean beef sirloin, or boneless chicken breasts, trimmed of any fat and cut into 1- to 1-1/2-inch cubes
3/4 pound red onions, cut into 1-inch squares
1-1/2 pounds bell peppers, seeded and cut into 1-inch squares (can use any combination of red, green, yellow, and orange)
Twelve 6- to 8-inch bamboo skewers, soaked in water for at least 30 minutes and drained (or use metal skewers)
Place marinade ingredients in a medium-size nonreactive bowl and blend well. Put the beef or chicken cubes in a shallow nonreactive baking dish or a zipper-top plastic bag and pour the marinade over them, making sure all the cubes are covered. Cover dish with plastic wrap or seal bag and let marinate for at least 2 to 4 hours or overnight in the refrigerator.
Prepare a medium-hot fire in the grill.
Thread the onions and peppers, alternating with the beef, onto the skewers. Place directly over the coals, cover, and grill about 3 minutes per side, on each of the four sides, for medium rare or to your desired degree of doneness. Serves 6 as a main course.
Adapted from 'Paul Kirk's Championship Barbecue'