Vic Clevenger

Speaker, Freelance Writer, Pitmaster

Category: Comedy

The Chimney Cartel – A place of purpose

Like many school age kids, I hated school. At least this is what I told people when the subject came up. But in reality, I enjoyed many aspects of school. I enjoyed going to school although I didn’t appreciate the time I had to get up to get there. I enjoyed hanging out with my friends and the fun we had, I even enjoyed some of my teachers along with the classes they taught. I enjoyed English class even when we had to diagram sentences or read a literature piece in front of class. I enjoyed my shop class, small engine repair and auto mechanics classes, where I got my hands on something to work with. I even like the reading assignments where I had to read McBeth, not to mention being introduced to Poe and Hemingway.

However, in school I learned so much more than just the “Three R’s.” I learned to get goals accomplished it begins by rising early. I learned how to interact with my peers as well as my superiors (my teachers). Looking back I can see the course of my career was being laid out early on because what I enjoyed is still what I do today, like writing (thus this blog), reading and speaking. As I’ve gotten order I’ve taken a side road here and there on my life’s journey but it I always find my way back to writing, teaching, and speaking. Which brings me to the Chimney Cartel.

A Place to Teach

I’ve been fortunate learn cooking from the school of Mom’s kitchen as well as hang out with world champion Pitmasters. They have taken me in teaching me tricks and tips elevating my skills to a whole different level. This has allowed me to win more contests (finishing Top 10 at the World Food Championships) and more food fans in my neighborhood when I have a dinner party. So when I began the Chimney Cartel as a joke, I soon began to realize this could be a place where cooks can me a mentor to others. So now days, I take the time to teach others how they can be a better cook in their sphere of influence.

A Place to Learn

A great teacher never knows it all but always seeks to try. What this quote is alluding to is in order to be a better teacher, you never stop being a student. I was watching a buddy of mine the other day teach a class on prepping ribs and just when I thought I was doing ok wit this piece of meat, Eric taught me something new. Sometimes what you learn is small or it can be life changing. Another aspect I decided would be a part of the Chimney Cartel would be learning. Not only are tips and tricks shared but questions can also be asked without feeling stupid. In my years of teaching this is the one constant, students are afraid of asking a stupid question. In the Chimney Cartel, when it comes to wanting to learn, there are no stupid questions.

A Place to Have Fun

The one thing I remember about school is the fun I had being there. Don’t get me wrong, some of the classes where soooo boring and when I would get in trouble, this wasn’t much fun. But overall, I had a blast at school. I enjoyed some of my classes but most of all I enjoyed hanging out with my friends telling stories, skipping an occasional class and the football games. This is the what I am hoping the Chimney Cartel becomes as well. A place where it’s fun when we hang out not only at competitions but even here in the cyber world. If anyone knows anything about me is, if I’m not having fun doing something, I don’t want to do it. This is not the case with the Chimney Cartel, this is the place we all can joke and enjoy our common ground, cooking especially over a live fire.

This once a joke of a title will now have purpose as we seek to teach and learn from one another all while having a blast doing it.

The Essentials

When I was in high school I did two years of auto mechanics class where I learned how to tear down motors then put them back together. It was an amazing feeling, especially when they sounded better than when we started. In order to do the job right we had a “tool room” with every tool needed to complete the job, any job. At home the mechanic jobs didn’t require a room full of tools but I did need a tool box of essential tools to do all I needed at the time. This got me thinking about cooking and all the “tools” I not only have in the room formerly known as my garage but also in my back yard. Just about every tool to get the job, any job, done. But, just as in high school, it all began with a tool box full of essentials.

  1. Sharp Knife

This is as essential in a cooking tool box as a hammer is in your home improvement kit. When a chef walks into a kitchen they have their personal knife roll full of knives they need for every task. When you set out to choose knives to begin your culinary journey then I would recommend a chef’s knife, boning knife and a paring knife. Each has its own purpose, but there is little that can’t be accomplished with these three. But don’t just run down to the local big box store to get them, research to get some quality knives. Ones with a good feel for your hand, nice balance and that will hold a sharp edge.  However, learn how to sharpen your knives when needed.

  1. Thermometer

Growing up my first introduction to cooking was watching my mom and grandmother cook everything. If it was something I especially liked, I couldn’t hardly stand the wait, but they always seemed to know when it was done and a lot of times it was perfect. But I did notice they would set a timer so when it rang they would check on it but they didn’t trust it. If it was a cake they would stick a knife or toothpick in it. If it were meat, then the thermometer would come out. You know the one, with the arrow on top and you had to have a magnifying class to read it. However, today is the day of the instant read digital thermometer (with big numbers you can actually see). Spend the money to get a proper thermometer so you will never serve under or over done food again. To get the proper read, only go in your meat half way.

  1. Tongs

Burning your fingers is never fun but if you haven’t done it then you’ve probably not cooked very much. Our mom’s warned all of us to not touch the stove because it was hot but we still had to and we still do. How many of you have a burn scar on your arm or hand? Enter the super hero cook tool, the tongs. Why call it a superhero? Because superheroes are supposed to save the citizens from getting hurt. Tongs are a simple (mild mannered, if you will) tool in the cooking tool box designed to save us from getting burned. I have several with varying lengths depending on the task but a nice spring loaded pair will do just fine to start.

  1. Wooden Spoon

For many, our first introduction to this small piece of lumber was when it was applied as a correctional tool upon our backsides, but it has so many other uses. Rarely a day goes by when I’m not using my wooden spoon as a stirrer or scoop. In an era of all things modern, a good wooden carries with it a bit of nostalgia. A time when I would watch my grandmother stir up a dough or cake.

  1. Measuring Spoons/cups

Mary Poppins said it best with her proverbial and iconic words, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” What many don’t catch is, she was giving us a measurement (as well as a trick) to aid in the recipe of medicine taking. Many recipes, from rubs to cakes, require an exact measurement in order to reproduce a favorite dish.

  1. Strainer

Essential because of the versatile uses it brings to the tool box. A good strainer can be used for its intended uses like straining out unwanted leftovers such as a vanilla bean pod or impurities from an au jus. You can also use it as a sifter for brown sugar over your ribs or some powdered sugar over some fried apple pies.

  1. Whisk

French Toast is one of my favorite breakfast foods, so much so I’ll even have it for supper. Partly because it brings back childhood memories of my mom whisking the egg and milk together with a fork (you thought I was going to say a whisk didn’t ya?). It wasn’t till I was older, I discovered a whisk for this job is so much better than a fork and not only for this job but for many others like marinades, sauces and glazes.

  1. Salt & Pepper

This is more than just a music group from the 90’s, it’s the foundation of most every great rub and recipe. Although very different seasonings, they are forever married together just like peanut butter and jelly. If I have no other seasonings, I’ll always have salt and pepper. This classic combination was even a key component of Eric Hodson’s 2017 Steak World Championship win. According to YouTube, Aaron Franklin only uses this when seasoning his briskets in his famous restaurant and people stand in line for hours. When all other seasonings fail, legends, like salt & pepper, never die.

This list of essentials isn’t exhaustive by any means but would be a great place to begin as you start down this culinary journey or if you’re looking for a list to give some students at your next BBQ class. Building a tool box can be overwhelming at first but with this list, a good cooker and great meat, you’ll have the neighborhood lined up to eat what you are cooking.

The Core of Cooking

Performing while cooking

It wasn’t until Joey and Michele Rusek sent me a pic of Michele cooking a dessert ancillary on her chimney with the caption, “inspired by Vic” and I responded to with #ChimneyCartel and a “LOL” (I would’ve put a laughing emoji but I’m still learning this young hipster stuff). However, this got me to thinking about cooking and the fun one can have doing it. Honestly speaking, this is why I started because it was supposed to be fun, the way it was as kid when I’d stand on a chair to help my mom. So in this spirit the Chimney Cartel was born. So, I’ve come up with three core values which, for me, has become my cooking and comedy mantra and is at the heart of the Chimney Cartel and really, cooking in general.

  1. Cooking should be experimental. Have you ever had a cook make a beeline to you with a fork and a dish as they holler, “Here, try this.” Almost before you have time to swallow they ask, “Whatta think?!” With all the times I’ve had this happen it’s a wonder I’m not the size of a house, good thing I go to the gym (it’s in the same lot as the pizza joint). Experimentation should be what cooking is all about. It’s with these experiments of trial and error you learn to put spices together, expand your skill set and overcome any fears or apprehensions you may have. I know you’ve heard me say this before, but a day without learning is a wasted day. It’s exciting to walk into the mysterious then come out with something amazing. The great example of this is when Thomas Edison was confronted with all the times his lightbulb experiments failed to which he responded, he hadn’t failed, he just learned a bunch of ways it wouldn’t work. Become a student of cooking.
  2. Cooking should be a teaching opportunity. I’m a teacher at heart but not a fan of the traditional classroom which is I never really enjoyed being a college professor. When I’m performing, I enjoy helping the younger new comics with a joke, their stage presence or with some frustrations which come with the business, it’s just what I do. When I’m at a competition or teaching a BBQ class I look at it as an opportunity to instill passion in others then cultivate it to the point the students become the teachers. For this I harken back to the days when I was just a kid, when many of us were just kids, learning from our parents and grandparents. Licking the beater (especially when mom turned it off) was a reward for all of our hard work in baking a cake or making a pie. What was really happening is, Mom was instilling in me and my brother a love for cooking like she had. I watched her encourage my daughter who is now a pastry chef. This occurred because she wasn’t too busy to be a teacher.
  3. Cooking should be fun. This one phrase is at the root of not only the Chimney Cartel but should encompass any cooking endeavor we undertake. You’ve seen them at competitions, haven’t you? Taking it so serious, they alienate themselves from other competitors and fans. It’s my contention that cooking can be done to perfection while having fun doing it. The great thing I’ve learned about fun is, it’s contagious, which can provide for you the opportunities to be a mentor and drive experimentation. When passersby watch you having fun with food, then maybe they’ll give this cooking thing a try. My mantra for the most part is, “If it ain’t fun, then why do it?”

Before you hop on Facebook to join the Chimney Cartel (like all the other cool kids) turn those three pillars in questions to ask yourself. Are you willing to be experimental (learn stuff) when it comes to cooking? Are you willing to be a teacher (mentor) to all those who come to you for knowledge? Are you having loads of fun cooking? If you can answer yes to each of these, then you’re not only ready to become a member of the Chimney Cartel but more importantly, ready to be a great pitmaster, grill master and cook.

Speaking about communication

BBQ Equals Pals

Pals #ThinVic and steak World Champion, Eric Hodson of Boars Night Out BBQ Team

I love westerns. Everything about them and what they represent – good guys always win, being outside, and loyalty. One of my favorite (non John Wayne movies of course) is the classic, Young Guns. This movie has it all, gun fights, adventure and pals. Billy the Kid, in the movie, used this word “pals” a lot to describe his band of Regulators, especially those closest to him. At the end of the movie (spoiler alert) someone carves pals on his headstone. In real life, however, Pals is carved right into the marble and there’s actually a cool story behind it but I’ll leave that to you to research.

Who needs pants when you are taming the west?

While watching this movie again for the countless time, I began to notice some similarities with this and the BBQ life especially when it comes to pals. They came from different backgrounds and regions but yet these band of brothers were linked by a common goal and mutual desires. As I look around at the pals I’ve made in BBQ, we’re the same. Classically trained chef’s alongside backyard cooks all discussing the best way to smoke a perfect brisket or grill a pineapple upside down cake. The best part of this is these “pals” treat each other as equals because they know they each can help the other become a better cook.

Out on the BBQ circuit we make a lot of casual friends and acquaintances but pals ratchets up friends another notch or two. These casual friends/acquaintances are all over our social media friends list and when we’re at the latest cook-off we’re cordial, even inviting them in to our site for a drink. But “pals” are those whom you can call when you’re stuck in the mud or just want to hang out. Most immediate example of this is the Mini Pot Mafia started by fellow Team B & B Ambassadors Mark Lambert, Eric Hodson, Allen Smith, & Malcolm Reed. There’s no trophies on the line, no major cash prize just a bunch of pals who’ve invited a bunch of other pals to hang out and cook in a 1-quart pot.  Why? I think there’s two reasons for this. First, they just enjoy hanging out with each other. They’re “pals” who can call on each other when the chips are down but more than just that, they genuinely like one another.

The second reason and another attribute of being a pal is they aren’t afraid to learn something from some each other. Hanging around with these guys I’ve heard on more than one occasion, “What do you think if we tried this? You think it’d work?” What impresses me the most is these World Champion Competitors aren’t afraid to try new things and teach it to their pals. I sat listening to Mark at Memphis in May talk about doing some sort of Argentinian style of cooking and the next thing I know, at the American Royal he is setting up this contraption to try a new way. I say this all the time (and this won’t be the last time you read this from me), “A day without learning something is a wasted day.” Successful people know this and it’s displayed in how they live.

Pals love seeing their pals succeed and aren’t intimidated by it. When I was in Memphis in May this year, the team I was cooking with, Boars Night Out, got a top three call. In a nutshell, this means the top three in each category must give one more presentation for the judges. This can be nerve racking because the judges judge everything not just the food. They look at your site, the presentation (eat with your eyes remember) and the actual verbal presentation long before they take a bite of your food offering. When this happened for BNO, teams from everywhere came to see if there was anything we needed. In front of our site was a mud pit (it’s called Memphis in Mud for a reason) but while we were concentrating on the table side presentation, someone brought all of their sod to cover the mud. I still don’t know which team it was, but this is just what pals do.

This is what BBQ means to me, relationships, friends, partners, or just pals. Better still, to me BBQ is family.

Writer’s Block

Trying to get something written

I have something I need to admit to you today. It’s not something I’m proud of nor am I eager to let you in on my secret. This is the thing about secrets, they are secrets for a reason. However, a new buzz word going around is transparency. In the spirit of being transparent I’ll let you in on this. As much as I like you, I’m not going to tell you all of them, baby steps for right now. So here I go. You might want to be seated. Well, in case you didn’t know, I have Writer’s Block. Yes, I know it’s horrifying but as nervous as I am for opening myself to you like this, I do feel better.

Writer’s Block is one of those impediments a lot of people suffer from but not a lot of people take seriously. For someone who considers themselves a creative person, this setback can be cataclysmic. Most of the time this debilitating hindrance is temporary but even temporary is a subjective timeframe and at the moment feels like it will never end. When I was a wrestler in high school we had to work out almost every day. Often during those workouts, we would hit the proverbial wall which seemed impenetrable, I couldn’t push any more. My limit met until my coach came yelling for me to push through the pain, which I did and the lessons had been learned.

This can also be said of having a Writer’s Block difficulty, you just have to push through it. When I don’t feel like writing a blog (vicclevenger.com), article or even a joke I must push myself to get past this wall of interruption. The best way I’ve found to do this is, well, write. I get my journal out and put my pen to paper, not lifting it until I’ve completed three hand written pages. This allows me to get my mind off of this wall blocking my creativity until I find the door allowing me to write again.

However, I need to take steps in preventing future relapses of Writer’s Block. When I look back on those days I’ve suffered from Writer’s Block, I noticed there has been gaps in my daily journal writing. So, I need to take those extra efforts to write even on the days I don’t really feel like it. When I open my journal and put words on paper sometimes it’s a little rough but when I’m finished I’ll have something I can use in some aspect of my writing life. Prevention really is the best medicine when it comes to Writer’s Block for all who write, create or just try to deliver their best but find themselves hindered from their goal.

I also have noticed I’ve allowed myself to become distracted from my goals. Do you remember the movie Batman Returns? It’s the one with Danny DeVito as the Penguin. He had a goal of seeking revenge on all the kids of rich folk because he felt cheated from his birthright until Max Shrek (Christopher Walken) steps in suggesting he could be Mayor. Go watch the movie and realize distractions do happen but it is up to you to regain your focus when it does.

Do what you can to prevent your own version of the crippling Writer’s Block but when you come face to face with it, then I hope you can find what helps you to refocus and get back on track.

Dreams, Goals and Aspirations – Part 2

Teaching at the NBBQA in Ft. Worth, TX

I loved being a kid with all the adventures which comes with it and I had several. On more than one particular Saturday, I climbed trees and lurked through the woods like Tarzan. If only I had vines and a monkey to live in a tree house. Mom said I wasn’t allowed to pretend my little brother was my monkey. There are pictures of me with a cowboy hat and a pair of six shooters just like the Lone Ranger wore. The Lone Ranger with his sidekick was a superhero to me and I would dream of riding the west with him placing the bad guys behind bars then quietly slip away.

As I grew older fishing began to fuel my passions and I still love to go wet a line whenever I can. For Christmas and my birthdays gifts revolved around fishing. Subscriptions to fishing magazines, tackle fishing poles and more saturated my wish lists. My brother and I subscribed to Bass Pro Shop catalogs devouring what they had to offer. We dreamed of fishing on the big circuit with our heroes, Bill Dance, Jimmy Houston and Roland Martin (two of whom I’ve met). We even tried saving money to buy our very own Bass boat. Do you know how many quarts of blackberries you would have to pick and sell?

Then career thinking began to form in my head because every time I’d turn around an adult would ask me the question, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” I honestly didn’t know but what I did know is I enjoyed being on stage with no problem with people looking at me. Back in the day it was called, “Being a Ham.” So what can I do with what skills I have? I’m a talker. I’m a teacher. Well, the teacher part came later of sorts but talking, I had that down pat. Maybe at the time I was a diamond in the rough but I did know I could stand in front of people at talk.

With each year the dream of being a talker has taken many forms. A preacher, college professor, corporate speaker and comedian each having their own challenges as well as joys. But this dream continues to evolve but the core remains and that is one of being a talker. Now I’m wrapping up food, specifically BBQ, into this aspiration of being a great talker, teacher and writer. The question still remains, however, “Why do dreams change?” The simple answer is I get older and my interest continue to evolve.

Looking for my place in this world using my passions to make a difference and leave a legacy has steered me to where I am right now. Years of speaking, writing while dabbling in a little cooking has brought me this point where I want to bring a message to people using food. Robert Frost talked about a road less taken and this is where I find myself on this day. The Lone Ranger me of years gone by never had a clue the Lone Ranger me of today would be where I am. Nevertheless, I’m here because as I got older my dreams, goals and aspirations have change. Remember our example last week, Danica Patrick, with all the changes she has gone through in a year? She gained maturity and with that came a change in her dreams, goals and aspirations so do not be afraid if yours do the same.

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