The zen of barbecue

A classically trained chef goes elemental

Before the cookbook and the cooking school, before the (James) Beard House dinners, before the restaurants and the television series, the media tours and autograph seekers, before the competition wins—before all that, Tuffy Stone got into barbecue because he wanted “a new culinary activity that would reconnect me with cooking,” he says.

A classically trained French chef and co-owner of the upscale Richmond catering company A Sharper Palate, Stone had spent his career practicing the complex reductions and artful platings, the “hard-to-pronounce foods” of gourmet cuisine. But he felt a pull towards something more accessible. More elemental. Fire. Smoke. Meat.

Though drawn to barbecue’s apparent simplicity, however, Stone quickly discovered the surprising challenge of it. “What blew my mind is that barbecue can be really hard to make well,” he says.  His first backyard attempts: failures. “I didn’t know how to manage smoke. I didn’t know how to run a clean fire.”

And so was born a quest, a study, an obsession. Fire, smoke, meat – he would plumb the mysteries of this equation. “I would watch that fire so much. I would watch the stack. I would watch the meat.” When he entered the competition barbecue circuit, that pursuit of knowledge earned him the nickname “the professor.”

That’s Stone’s origin story. Everything that has followed leaves him marveling at what barbecue has wrought for him. The four Richmond locations of his restaurant, Q Barbecue. The competition team, Cool Smoke, which took its first Grand Championship in 2013. And the television show, BBQ Pitmasters, which furthered his ascent into the ranks of “celebrity chef,” someone whom strangers regularly ask to have their picture taken with. The cooking school is his (barbecue, naturally) and the cookbook comes out next spring.

Yet it doesn’t seem to have gone to his head. Stone remains friendly, approachable (“I’m never going to be a jerk”), eager to talk barbecue with anyone interested. Mostly, though, he’s still that guy enjoying the primal, elemental pull of his craft. “My Zen moment is when I get to light a fire and just cook some meat.”

From Virginia Living.*

*I wrote a related story for this piece, asking whether Virginia was the “true motherland” of Southern barbecue. As research for both these stories, I attended a barbecue competition in Smithfield, VA (home of Smithfield hams), where a Smithfield (the company) employee with a PhD in meat science (no joke) demonstrated, with a crosscut saw, how to break down a whole hog.

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