It’s grilling season. How the BBQ Pit Boys took over the world

It’s that time of year and minds are turning to grilling.

For many, the thing to grill is ribs, but almost anything will do.

I’m neither a cook nor a griller, but I consider myself an expert on ribs, having eaten a lot (the ones from Twin Anchors are at the top of my current list) and having served for some of the 1980s as a judge for the Mike Royko Ribfest, generally acknowledged, by no less an authority than “The Chicago Food Encyclopedia” (University of Illinois Press), to have been “one of the nation’s first major barbecue competitions.” I remember those days fondly, as I wrote some time ago, “the unity, harmony and friendliness of all.” Side by side there were groups from Glencoe and West Pullman, Rosemont and Roseland, Austin and Streeterville – white, black and brown. There was no anger or violence, no arrests or unrest. If there were arguments, they were over cooking methods or “sweet or hot” sauces. They were harmonious and hopeful gatherings.

So I was talking grilling with Joe Carlucci, a man I’ve often consulted on matters of food and drink. His name may be familiar to you as he has had an acclaimed and influential presence on the local scene. He said to me, “You don’t know how to cook, you know?

Carlucci was born and raised in New York. After graduating from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh with a degree in psychology, he worked in the music business for a few years, saying, “My first day on the job I had to pick up Bette Midler from the airport. »

He arrived in Chicago in the early ’80s, began operating eponymous restaurants in the city and suburbs, and worked with a few of Mike Ditka’s restaurants. He still operates a few establishments and consults for others, recently including some of the most popular steakhouses in the world. They’re the BBQ Pit Boys and that’s how he discovered them about four years ago: “I was watching TV one Saturday morning and in came this bearded guy being interviewed about the grills,” says Carlucci. “With my musical background, I think I have a good ability to judge the quality of stars and the guy I was watching had that.”

He tracked down the man whose “grill name” is “Bobby Fame,” but his real name is actually Bob Ahlgren, the creator of the culinary phenomenon known as the BBQ Pit Boys. They were talking. They loved each other. They became partners and Carlucci helped facilitate the recent publication of the “BBQ Pit Boys Book of Real Guuud Barbecue” (Firefly Books). It is a beautiful book of 256 pages, colorful, lively and entertaining. It’s full of recipes and tips for grilling and smoking a variety of meats, as well as sides and desserts. All the usual suspects are here, like pulled pork, ribs, and chicken wings. There are also alligator, lamb and venison recipes. There are fish, soups and side dishes. There are several of them.

The cover of “BBQ Pit Boys Book of Real Guuud Barbecue”. (Firefly Books)

It also gives you the origin story of the BBQ Pit Boys, which Ahlgren told me over the phone a few days ago. “Well, I ran a small publishing house and I was a serious antiques dealer,” he says. “When YouTube started around 2007, I thought maybe it would be a good thing to get the word out about my business. Then a friend of mine from California wanted to get a recipe for something I had grilled him at his visit I thought it would be fun to do this in video form and posted it for him on YouTube.

YouTube called him, asked him to become a partner, and shipped him thousands of dollars’ worth of cameras and other equipment. They also sent him a check for $32.

That was a long time ago and the checks got bigger. The BBQ Pit Boys are now an international fraternal order, with some 18,000 international chapters and 230,000 pitmasters, according to the book. Episodes are posted weekly and have been viewed over 94 million times.

The nature of the show hasn’t really changed. It’s always a group of guys around a grill, drinking and making food. Ahlgren is the host, affable and friendly and, as he says, “makes sure we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

The company is not based in Tennessee or Arkansas, as the boys’ outfits might suggest, but rather in Connecticut. In addition to YouTube, Pit Boys are now spread across other leading social media platforms such as Facebook, X, and Instgram. They have 2.2 million YouTube subscribers, are in the top 5% of all YouTube channels, and are number one in barbecue.

It’s no surprise that Ahlgren was approached “more than ten times by network producers to do shows for them,” he says. “But I rejected them all. They talk about how they can make me famous, but I’m already famous and I don’t want to be part of fake television, part of the reality TV world. And I never want to lose control of what content and how we deliver it.

This was never intended to be a star-making vehicle. The focus is on the food, and that’s one reason Ahlgren and his friends wear sunglasses and cowboy hats that cover most of their faces. This aversion to the seductions of the mainstream entertainment industry appealed to Carlucci and another restaurant specialist who was also a partner in the Pit Boys. Ed Rensi is a former chairman and CEO of McDonald’s and he and Carlucci plan to explore all sorts of opportunities.

“Bob and his pit boys have a very large platform and the ability to reach so many people,” Carlucci says. “But we’re going to be true to the spirit of the show and the people. They never had a business plan. It’s just a really fun idea that turned into a wonderful business.

He tells me that a line of Pit Boys sauces and sauces is currently available in 3,000 stores across Canada and that a Pit Boys beer can be enjoyed in Texas. The website offers all kinds of official products.

Then he asked me which of the recipes in the book I was thinking of tackling.

“You don’t know how to cook, you know?” he said.

“Yes,” I told him. “That’s why I’ll try Cigar Ash Barbecue Sauce (page 233) or Oreo Bacon Barbecue Biscuits (page 255).”

He shook his head and rolled his eyes.

Beef and whiskey skewers from the BBQ Pit Boys book.  (Barbecue Pit Boys)
Beef and whiskey skewers from the BBQ Pit Boys book. (Barbecue Pit Boys)

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