Charlie McKenna Makes High Tech Lowdown 'Q

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Photo: Michael Gebert

In the recent rush of barbecue openings, Lillies Q stood out for the twin pedigrees of its chef, Charlie McKenna. On the one hand hes a veteran of haute joints like Avenues and Tru; on the other, hes an award-winner on the competition barbecue circuit, from a family whose original Lillies Q is a barbecue stand about 40 miles down the beach from Pensacola, Florida. Were always captivated by any chef whose idea of fun is to spend his free time doing even more cooking, so we stopped by Lillies Q early one morning (too early for barbecue, alas) to find out more about McKenna and the unique smokers he uses and, it turns out, helped develop.

So youre burning real wood and charcoal and not gas? It doesnt seem smoky enough in here for that.
Yes I am. Theyre called DW Kountry Kookers, with a K. The guy who builds them came out of building air conditioning systems, so he really understands airflow. Its a gravity-fed system that burns the charcoal and the wood we use peach wood and pushes the smoke down on the meat.

Its designed to produce very even temperatures. There are no hot spots, so theres no rotation youre not opening it all the time to move meat around. And its very well insulated, so it uses less charcoal. Our two smokers have actually been burning continuously since we did a family and friends preview our first week.

But you cant use something like that in competition barbecue, can you? Isnt it too high tech and fancy for that world?
No, there are guys using these. I dont use them in competition because there, youre just babying five racks of ribs all night. But Ive had one for a couple of years, just for myself, and Ive worked with the guy who makes them, giving him feedback and design tips based on how we use them. I actually sold my old small one to Willie at Honky Tonk BBQ for him to play around with now.

With your background in fine dining, why did you decide to do a BBQ place in Chicago?
You know, chefs are like plumbers, you come home and the last thing you want to do is what you did at work all day. But it was discouraging living here and not being able to get the food that I loved.

Our place in Florida is set up like Smoque you get your food on a tray and go sit down on the porch somewhere. I didnt want to do what they already did. So we made it a bar, and added other kinds of food so you can come here even if theres three people who want barbecue and one who just wants Brunswick Stew or a salad or something.

Right, nobody has to just eat french fries for dinner while their friends chow down on barbecue. So lets talk about the other Southern food on your menu, like Brunswick Stew.
The Brunswick Stew is awesome. Some of the barbecue competitions have auxiliary categories, and weve won awards for it.

But theres no squirrel in it, right?
No squirrel. Lots of pork and tasty stuff, but no squirrel. You know, when I was younger I was making something in my grandmothers kitchen, and I found this whole squirrel cookbook. And I was like, you gotta be kidding me! But no, people ate squirrel. And possum. Now those are nasty-looking creatures.

How have the boiled peanuts gone over? Thats a classic Southern thing, but some of the people at our table for the preview were kind of put off by the texture, its not like what we Yankees are used to with peanuts.
Ive had people say they didnt like them, and I said, how did you eat them? Because the way to eat them is to crack them and suck the juice out, then eat the peanut. I tell them to try that and then I say, did you like the flavor? Then you should be able to get used to them.

Southerners who come in here, though, they love them. I had a woman the other night ask if Id sell them by the bag. I gave her a bunch in a paper bag and said hey, thanks for the idea! I will now!