Chow Town

Some of barbecue’s best pitmasters trained by CIA

Southerners and other barbecue aficionados will feel at home in Chicago at Lillie’s Q.
Southerners and other barbecue aficionados will feel at home in Chicago at Lillie’s Q.

What’s with the CIA and barbecue?

Jim Shahin of the Washington Post and I have kicked that question around, wondering why some stellar barbecue pitmasters these days are Culinary Institute of America grads.

Chow Town’s Q39 pitmaster/proprietor Rob Magee; East Coast Grill founder Chris Schlesinger; Florida’s Bad Byron Chism of Butt Rub fame; Maryland’s The BBQ Joint proprietor Andrew Evans; and LA’s Kogi BBQ food truck star Roy Choi, come to mind.

Other talented pitmasters got their training from non-CIA institutions, including the ubiquitous School of Hard Knocks.

On your next trip to Chicago, check out CIA grad, pitmaster/chef/proprietor Charlie McKenna of Lillie’s Q in Bucktown.

McKenna’s CIA training, high end restaurant pedigree, southern roots, and barbecue contest awards make him eminently qualified to star in Chicago’s daily competitive fire and smoke throwdown.

McKenna excels at upscale barbecue, creative southern regional fusion sides, and non-Q plates that resonate splendidly with Millennial, Gen-X, and Elder Boomer palates.

Lillie’s Q is named in honor of McKenna’s grandmother Lillie and his dad, Quito. Lillie taught young McKenna the basics of down south homestyle cooking in Greenville, S.C.

McKenna’s dad, a championship barbecue pitmaster and proprietor of Lillie’s Q in Destin, Fla., taught him how to barbecue.

McKenna has put that combination of learning from Lillie, Quito, barbecue contests and the CIA to good use.

His persistence at getting it right, paying attention to details and years of experience at barbecue pits and upscale restaurants make McKenna one of the most creative and talented pitmasters in America today.

The Lillie’s Q menu is loaded with culinary gems. You could make a satisfying meal on the award winning Brunswick Stew alone, savoring each spoonful between bites of pimento cheese flavored pig cracklins.

Oysters, fried pickles, boiled peanuts, Kool Aid pickles, hush puppies, chicken wings, pulled pork, pulled chicken, tri-tip, hot links, babyback ribs with traditional southern sides, plus smoked fried chicken, crawfish rolls and the CLT: chicken bacon (yes, he makes chicken bacon,) tomato, lettuce and mayo on white bread, will bring you back to Lillie’s Q on a regular basis.

Sample the Lillie’s Q excellent variety of house-made sauces to see what you like best with each menu item. Charlie’s “Non-Q” shrimp and grits, served in a small cast iron skillet, is so delicious you won’t care that it isn’t barbecue.

I always have been and always will be a fan of the faux barbecue shrimp at Gridley’s in Memphis. Now Lillie’s Q shrimp and grits has joined my list of faux barbecue shrimp favs.

Put Lillie’s Q on your culinary agenda the next time you plan a trip to Chicago.

Lillie’s Q barbecue sauces are available locally at Crate and Barrel and Dean & DeLuca in Leawood, or online.

Lillie’s Q in Bucktown is located at 1856 W. North Avenue in Chicago.

The Lillie’s Q French Market store is at 131 N. Clinton St. in Chicago offers half of the Bucktown menu.

Ardie Davis is an iconic figure in the barbecue community. He founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS’s Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on numerous food shows and writes for a variety of barbecue-related publications. He is also the author of a number of barbecue books, His most recent release book is “America’s Best BBQ Homestyle: What Champions Cook in Their Own Backyards.”