Lillie's Q chef Charlie McKenna.
When we look back on the culinary events of the second half of 2010, we will someday speak fondly of the "barbecue boom." A half-dozen or so 'cue joints have sprung up all over the north side of the city, with more in the planning stages, and all have their individual calling cards. This one does pastrami, this one does boutique BBQ, this one is just a pig orgy - but only one can claim a head chef that turned his back on the gleaming silverware and high-priced tickets of the fine dining world.
Chef Charlie McKenna, formerly of Avenues and TRU, ditched the cloth napkins for the world of sticky fingers, smoked meats and paper towels when he opened Lillie's Q in the Bucktown/Wicker Park area. McKenna is no rookie pitmaster, though - he's been on the competitive barbecue circuit for years, runs another Lillie's in Florida and when we spoke, was fresh from a competition where he and his team took high places in both pork shoulder and whole hog cookin'.
Despite a round-the-clock smoking cycle, we managed to pull him away from the 'cue to talk about his new venture and the local food scene.
Was there any one thing that made you want to leave the world of fine dining? Or did you just think it was time to do something different?
I don't think there was any one thing. I really have a passion for barbecue, and it's just a more accessible food. I thought it was something I could do that was fun and exciting - and sometimes you think it's going to be less stress, but you still own a restaurant so there's still a lot of stress involved. But it's at a price point where people can come two or three times a week, as opposed to two or three times every two or three years.
It's something where you're cooking more for the masses and getting a quality product out there that really exited me - it's a fun atmosphere that's more relaxed and it's more my style, I think. I'm just a good ol' boy from the South, you know?
It's interesting - in the world of fine dining, it's very a la minute and involves a lot of finesse. Barbecue requires hours of long smoking of patience where you don't do much to the meat. It's almost a polar opposite.
The thing that's nice about barbecue is that it's so technical - for cooking that long, you have to have your process down and what you're trying to accomplish with the meat. It's similar in that aspect to fine dining in that it's very technical and you really have to pay attention to what you're doing. There are some similarities, but yeah, cooking fine dining is a lot more a la minute in preparation than barbecue.
I know that competition barbecue isn't necessarily the same as restaurant barbecue. Coming from a competition background as well as a restaurant mindset, Is there a middle ground that you've found?
I try to do all my competition barbecue here. That's what I'm trying to provide to them is a competition-style barbecue to the masses. There's a lot more involved in competition - obviously you're doing a lot more processes to the meat, with injections and different rubs and different times that you're putting different rubs on the meat, which we do here at Lillie's Q. I think what helped me was I've been in fine dining and I've been in restaurants that have done large volume before, so I transferred that from the competition to the restaurant. And so far it seems to be going pretty good.
In terms of taste and what people present the judges in competitions, is there a difference between what competition and restaurant barbecue usually is?
Not really. If you think about competitions, and the judges that are at the competitions, the people who are judging these competitions are very normal regular guests who would eat at a regular restaurant - they're just passionate about barbecue. So they have a lot of their own ideas on what it should and shouldn't be. But I think the masses nowadays are so into food, and the Internet, and talking about food, and foodies and Food Networks - that it kinda translates a little bit. It seems like today everyone's a judge of every kind of food. Every restaurant they go to, they're trying to go home and Yelp about it, or create their own blog - there are similarities that way when you're trying to please a lot of people and deal with a quality product.
Barbecue can be an incredibly variable and hard-to-predict cuisine, whereas in fine dining, I'm sure they hammered consistency into your head as a sous chef. How have you adjusted those techniques to what you're doing now?
When you're doing the smoking, there is a lot of technicality involved, but like you said it's all about consistency. You start to learn your smoker, and learn the times, and learn where the hot spots are, and when you figure those things out you can put out a consistent product but it takes a little bit of time. That's why I only use smokers that I basically helped create and have used on the barbecue competition circuit for years. I knew how to control them, where they need to be for the airflow to go in, how many wood chips to put in at a certain time and when - that's what I gained from so many years on the competition circuit and transferred to the restaurant. I had those processes all worked out all ready.
Here at Lillie's, we smoke 24 hours a day. Those smokers haven't been turned off since we opened 2 months ago. They're always running with product in 'em. Obviously you've gotta cook for more people, so we have to put more meat in and do it for a lot longer time - I have an overnight cook that I've taught the processes and how to run the smokers.
I know you have a barbecue trailer. Ever give any thought to a food truck a la Meatyballs or the Gaztro-Wagon?
We have thought about it. We're still in our beginning stages of seeing where we're at with the restaurant - we're so busy we haven't even started takeout yet. I would love to do some sort of traveling barbecue truck. The truck would probably just be the barbecue, none of the southern sides or dishes we do here at the restaurant. But I think it would be totally interesting to have a truck that travels around town and caters barbecue to people from different spots in the city.
The big thing in fine dining for a while was using offal and organ meats. Ever throw anything like that on the smoker?
I have not! It's basically been me sticking to the competition meats - ribs, pulled pork, pulled chicken, our tri-tip. But I still have interest in that stuff, and that comes from the fine dining where you use those products a lot and try to make them taste good, even though they’re butcher cuts or not as wanted cuts from different animals. So maybe in the future I might run something here and there off something from some of those menus - just to keep your interest perked for the clientele, and also to keep my interest as a chef growing and trying new things.