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It's grill season. Learn how the BBQ Pit Boys conquered the world

Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Variety Menu

CHICAGO — It is that time of year and the mind turns to grills.

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

I am not a cook or a grill guy but consider myself something of a rib expert, having eaten plenty (those at Twin Anchors are on top of my current list) and for a few 1980s years served 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 large barbeque competitions.” I remember those days fondly, as I wrote a while ago, “the unity, the harmony and the togetherness of them all. There were, side by side, 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 trouble. If there were arguments, they were about cooking methods or sauces ‘sweet or tangy.’ These were harmonious and hopeful gatherings.”

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

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

He came to Chicago in the early ‘80s, began operating eponymous restaurants in the city and suburbs and worked with a couple of Mike Ditka’s joints. He still operates a few places and consults with others, including recently with some of the most popular grill guys in the world. They are the BBQ Pit Boys and this is how he found them about four years ago: “I was watching TV one Saturday morning and on came this guy with a beard being interviewed about grilling,” Carlucci says. “With my background in music I think I have a good ability to judge star quality and the guy I was watching had it.”

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 BBQ Pit Boys. They talked. They liked one another. They became partners and Carlucci helped facilitate the recent publication of “BBQ Pit Boys Book of Real Guuud Barbecue” (Firefly Books). It is a handsome 256-page, colorful, lively and entertaining book. It is packed with recipes and tips for grilling and smoking a variety of meats, as well as sides and desserts. All the usual suspects are here, such as pulled pork, ribs and chicken wings. There are also recipes for alligator, lamb and venison. There’s fish, soups and sides. There’s a lot.

It also gives you the BBQ Pit Boys origin story, which Ahlgren told me over the phone recently. “Well, I ran a small publishing company and was a serious antique dealer,” he says. “When YouTube first started around 2007, I thought it might be a good thing to spread the word about my business. Then a friend of mine from California wanted to get a recipe for something I grilled for him when he was visiting. I thought it would be fun to do that as a video and I 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 long ago and the checks have gotten larger. The BBQ Pit Boys is now an international fraternal order, with some 18,000 international chapters and 230,000 pitmasters, according to the book. Episodes are posted every week and they have been viewed more than 94 million times.

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

 

The enterprise is based not in Tennessee or Arkansas, as the boys’ outfits might suggest, but rather in Connecticut. In addition to YouTube, the Pit Boys are now spread across the other prominent 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 when it comes to BBQ.

Not surprisingly, Ahlgren has been approached “more than ten times by network producers about doing shows for them,” he says. “But I have rejected them all. They talk about how they can make me famous but I am already famous and I don’t want to be part of fake TV, become part of the reality show world. And I never want to lose control of the content and the way we deliver it.”

This was never intended to be a star-making vehicle. The focus is on the food and that’s one reason why Ahlgren and his pals wear sunglasses and cowboy hats that cover most of their faces. That aversion to the seductions of the mainstream entertainment business appeals to Carlucci, and to another food person who is also a partner with the Pit Boys. Ed Rensi is a former president and CEO of McDonald’s and he and Carlucci are intent on exploring all manner of opportunities.

“Bob and his pit boys have such a broad platform and the ability to reach so many people,” says Carlucci. “But we are going to be true to the spirit of the show and of the people. They never had a business plan. This is just a great fun idea that has blossomed into a wonderful enterprise.”

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

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

“You can’t cook, you know?” he said.

“Yes,” I told him. “That’s why I’m going to try the Cigar Ash BBQ Sauce (page 233) or Bacon Oreo BBQ Cookies (page 255).”

He shook his head and rolled his eyes.


©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit at chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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