7 Questions with “Dr. BBQ” Ray Lampe
7 Questions is a series of interviews with the culinary movers and shakers you want or ought to know better.
Spring is just around the corner so it’ll soon be time to fire up the grill. Barbecue is one of those uniquely American dishes that vary from region to region. In the Carolinas BBQ means slow smoking a whole hog and sauce of made of vinegar and little else. In Memphis it’s about spare ribs with a dry rub – sauce is optional. Kansas City is famous for all cuts of meat and a sauce that is thick, sweet and sassy. Texas BBQ revolves around beef brisket and sauce of any kind is frowned upon. Most of the rest of the country enjoys some combination of these with the occasional local spin like the white BBQ sauce of Alabama, San Francisco’s SFQ Sauce with dark chocolate and coffee or New Orleans’ BBQ shrimp which are actually sautéed in butter having virtually nothing in common with what most folks call BBQ.
With so much diversity it would be nice if there was one “go to” resource for all things barbecue. Someone to whom the masses could rely on to help, enter Ray Lampe aka Dr. BBQ. A native of Chicago, Lampe now makes his home in the Mecca of barbecue, the Deep South, specifically Lakeland, FL.
Dr. BBQ’s trademark snow colored goatee and flame covered bowling shirts have made him an icon of the nation’s barbecue aficionadi. After securing a reputation as a talented BBQ cook-off contestant, Ray has now established himself as well seasoned judge both on the national circuits and on televised spectacles for the Food Network.
Recently I spoke with Dr. BBQ and he was courteous enough to answer 7 Questions:
Where did the name “Dr. BBQ” originate?
I was living in Chicago and started cooking in BBQ contests. It was starting to become an obsessive hobby and I’d bought a new van to carry my stuff around. Illinois had started allowing us to have vanity plates about the time I got the new van so I figured I’d better get some kind of BBQ plate. I listed three options to choose from and I honestly don’t even remember what they were. They sent me the Dr. BBQ plate and I put it on my van. I really didn’t know I was creating a brand.
When did you start doing the BBQ thing on a professional level?
Mike Royko, the old (Chicago) Tribune columnist for many years, decided to have this rib cook-off at Grant Park right there where the ball fields are. We had a rib cook-off there in 1982. It actually continued on through to 1990. I knew I cooked pretty well but I wasn’t a BBQ cook really but a friend of mine signed us up for it just to go down there and party. I decided if we were going to go I might as well learn how to cook some ribs. That was the start of it all.
When did you hit the national circuit?
In 1991 I was looking around for something to replace it (Grant Park cook-off) and I saw a thing in the newspaper they were going to have the first Illinois State BBQ Championship in West Chicago. It was going to be sanctioned by the KCBS – that was the first Kansas City Barbecue cook-off in Illinois.
If it weren’t for cooking what other career could you see yourself in?
Actually I had a successful family trucking business. When my father passed away I took over. By the year 2000 after 25 years trucking had changed and the whole climate had changed. Things were changing and things weren’t going to be the same anymore.
What lead to the transition from the BBQ circuit to media?
In probably ’04 barbecue was becoming popular and I was one of the guys that had been around the cook-off circuit for a long time and I had the silly beard and the silly haircut and I could speak in public. Frankly I was really the only guy trying to become a BBQ spokes model so it was kind of an open field. AndI pushed my way into that and ended up with Big Green Egg. I started writing an article for Fiery Foods Magazine, Dr. BBQ column. Dave (DeWitt – Fiery Foods editor) connected me with a publisher and I wrote my first cookbook. It’s really a story of breaks and doors that opened for me and I just walked right in. These days I still work for Big Green Egg and I’m starting to write my sixth cookbook.
Of the various regional styles of barbecue do you prefer one over the others?
I wrote a book called Dr. BBQ’s Big-Time Barbecue Road Trip! and I spent a lot of time eating in what are the big four regions of BBQ along with every place in between and what I found was it’s not quite like people think it is. In Memphis I found that a lot of places serve ribs wet or dry because that’s what’s always written about. But I did find in Memphis was that almost every BBQ restaurant in Memphis serves with BBQ spaghetti as a side and almost all of them serve smoked bologna topped with Cole slaw as a sandwich. Now I thought Cole slaw on a sandwich was just a Carolina thing. I found a lot of that stuff and I thought it was interesting. Memphis BBQ, I like Memphis BBQ a lot. I think they ar ahead of the curve using dry rubs.
What’s next for Dr. BBQ?
You know, I don’t try to plan it. I just try to react and see what’s happening. You know I really enjoyed doing Tailgate Warriors so maybe there’s a TV show in my future.