Vic Clevenger

Speaker, Freelance Writer, Pitmaster

Category: Writing

Three Essentials to a Successful Business

Teaching presentation skills at the NBBQA

The old saying, “If you love what you do you will not work a day in your life” has never been truer than when it comes to the world of BBQ and especially the business of BBQ. This passion has contributed to making BBQ one of the fastest growing cuisines in the United States. BBQ in its purest form, has been at the center of civilizations since the beginning of time and in this world of “retro cool” may be one of the reasons many are drawn to this cuisine. Although, in the earliest of days, cooking with fire was a necessity, it was this passion which turned these early cooks into the first pitmasters. This sense of community around food cooked over or adjacent to a live fire continues to draw people together and this is great for the business of BBQ.

Another buzz word today is “fusion” which is a fancy way of bringing two or more distinct entities together into one new item. One of those unique business of BBQ “fusions” is right in New York and the exploding New York BBQ movement. Self-educated pitmasters and restaurateurs have filled the Big Apple with smoked kissed meat with what has traditionally been viewed as a southern cuisine. This “fusion” has made such an impact in New York, they hold the yearly “Big Apple Block Party” celebrating this business of bbq and drawing such big name pitmasters as Chris Lilly and Mike Mills. At the core of this fusion is not just the bringing together of regions but of flavors. The willingness pitmasters, such as Billy Durney, have in bringing BBQ to the land of the “best pizza” displays the risks these cooks are willing to take.

This snapshot of the business of BBQ teaches us three essential lessons for success, the first of which is simply, passion. BBQ can require long hours manning the fires to obtain the right level of smoke and this doesn’t happen if there is no passion for a great end product. Secondly is educating yourself to be a master of your craft. Every pitmaster worth his or her salt takes time to educate themselves on how they can do what they do better, embracing the concept of “knowledge is power.” But success never comes without risk, which is the lesson we learn most from those New York pitmasters. The city that never sleeps was virtually barren wasteland when it came to BBQ but a few brave pitmasters took the risk which has paid off in a big way.

These three pillars are what not only holds up the successful business of bbq but what also holds up every successful business.

It’s Been Awhile

Teaching presentation skills at the NBBQA

I miss this blog...the writing of it…the evolution of it. But I’ve been so busy I’ve just not had the time to devote to it. Time is so finite. 60 seconds in every minute, 60 minutes in every hour, 24 hours in each day, and 168 hours in a week but yet there still seems like there’s not enough. It’s not like I haven’t been busy, just the opposite is true. I’ve been busy writing, traveling, speaking and slinging jokes. The writing I’ve been doing has been fantastic and has opened tons of doors however this, my favorite, has been neglected.

As many of you know I love to write and this won’t change. I’ve been doing it for 30 plus years but off and on I’ve neglected it. Perhaps if I had stayed focused I would have been published more and even written one of those books which are still in the thesis mode. Shoot, maybe I would have been paid more for it but who thinks of this at the time. This is all about to change as I close in on the half way mark of 2019. I am beginning to get more contracts for my writing and starting to shift back to speaking, humorously of course. This all goes hand in hand with the goals I have for my career.

It’s been a while since I have been in control of my own career and honestly, I’ve missed it. So I am feeling pretty good about my upcoming schedule as I shift everything towards my strengths. All of my degrees (yes, I have more than one) are in the communication area from writing to speaking to teaching so I’m going back to my communication roots.

Cooking in the Culinary Fight Club

I am shifting it to some degree to the food industry. I always said there is room in the food world for everyone and I’m going to take my own advice, using my skills in this industry.

I am still going to travel, which I have loved since I started driving and I’m still going to sling some jokes but I am shifting the emphasis of how I do it. If you are having trouble with your presentations, I will be your man. If you need content for your blog, then I will be your writer. If you need a speaker who is funny, then I will be the humorous keynote you’ve been looking for. The Chimney Cartel will continue to grow as I continue to cook, learn, teach and most of all have fun.

So it has been a while….but I am back and back to stay.

A Teacher at Heart

Mom teaching Rebecca in the kitchen
Mom teaching Rebecca in the kitchen

I hated school. I know that sounds like a shock to you and perhaps a little too transparent but the fact remains, I hated it. Well, not all of it. I did enjoy hanging out with my friends and the mischief we caused. It was nothing serious which would keep me from being elected to office (as if I would want to be) but just regular stuff while hanging out before and after classes. It was the classes I genuinely disliked. Well, I did like a couple of them like English and literature, some of it anyway. The other classes however, interfered with my social activities. So you can see why many were surprised I went to college and not just college but decided I needed a Master’s Degree but not stopping there, I set out to get a second one (maybe I’ll finish this one someday) because a person can never have too many degrees.

You can probably imagine their shock when they find out not only have I furthered my education but I’ve also been an adjunct professor at two separate universities, corporate trainer, motivational speaker, writer and comedian (ok the last one they wouldn’t be all that shocked about). As I look back over what I’ve done in the 30+ years since I left high school there seems to be one theme constant in all I do. Whether it’s taking my daughters fishing or standing in front of a group at a conference this single thread running through my life is teaching. I’ve done communication classes (my degree focus) taught someone how to change a headlight and even taught a beauty queen contestant how to give a great 2-minute speech, so teaching is what I do. Which is something I’ve always known, just never really admitted.

So when I began the Chimney Cartel this component seemed to me a no-brainer, although I wasn’t sure why. With the essence being learning to do something new and different (cooking on a starter chimney for instance) it is no large leap that teaching would be another major element of the Cartel. I keep going back to Edison and his light bulb because each of us have dozens of these little items illuminating our homes. A constant reminder of someone trying something new, failing, not giving up, then succeeded only to teach this to others who have not only learned the lessons but in some ways surpassed the teacher, which is what teachers truly hope.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been around great teachers my whole life (although I may not have recognized them at the time) and it’s them who have placed me on this path of teaching. But let’s not get carried away with questions as to why I’m not a school teacher or a college professor (although I am toying with this one). Quite frankly, I’m not disciplined enough to grade papers, so that’s the answer in a nutshell. But I thoroughly enjoy my makeshift classrooms in someone’s back yard, or at an outdoor cooking show or even at a conference where people come to learn or see something new. Watching the proverbial light bulb go on for someone is always exciting because it shows they just realized they received a nugget of knowledge and you as a teacher had a hand in this.

So pillar number two (stop it with the #2 jokes, I already thought of them as I was writing this) is basicly sharing with others what you know – teaching.

A Concert of Flavor

Layering flavors on a turkey for a holiday

This is a fun time of year especially if you enjoy wrapping paper, crowded stores and countless cookies to bake. As you sit here reading this, thoughts of what you have yet to accomplish during this final Christmas week race through your mind. You have questions about everything from the dinner menu items to stocking stuffers to the amount of invisible tape you have left. In the midst of all of this there’s the last minute family drop-ins,Christmas parties you “just have to go to,” then add in the Christmas caroling and/or Christmas Concerts to attend, which I go to be present for tonight.

I’ve seen a lot of concerts in my time including everyone from George Jones to Marvin Hamlisch. But tonight’s 10-person choir was at the very least, impressive. The five men had a vocal range of high tenor all the way to bass and the bass singer was a Barber Shop Quartet winner. Then there were the five women singers with ranges of soprano to low alto which I didn’t even know was a thing. If you ever get a chance to hear the Voices of Liberty at Disney’s EPCOT don’t pass it up because they will knock your socks off with their talents.

If you’ve ever listened to a well-trained vocal group whether it is a choir like I heard tonight or a quartet, then you’re probably like me and impressed with how they layer their voices together. Each voice so different from a high soprano to deep bass with everything in between and they sing in a way one voice doesn’t stand out above the other. Just when you think you can hear the baritone its blended in with the others, yet not masking or overwhelming it but rather complimenting it. Apparently this is called harmony and what a great harmony this group had tonight which resulted in a well-deserved standing ovation.

As I sat there listening to what could only be described as remarkable, I began thinking about food, more specifically about how we season our food. With every meal there’s a teaspoon of this and a pinch of that along with a choir full of other great stand-alone spices which, when brought together, should be sweet music to the taste buds. Just like sitting there tonight listening, if I concentrate I can pick out the individual “flavor” but it isn’t long until the collective takes over again which is far more satisfying. This is exactly how layering flavors should be after all, a savory chorus of seasonings coming together for the perfect bite. My buddy, Eric Hodson, a World Champion Steak cook says it this way, “I don’t want my flavors to be offensive to your taste buds.” He works hard at blending the right amount of pepper with the right amount of salt with the right amount of his signature rub, White Lightening, to come up with just the right bite.

With the holidays upon us along with the myriad of cooking we’ll be doing, pay special attention to the seasonings, allow them to bring sweet flavorful music to your tongue. Blend your spices like a well-chosen choir about to perform their greatest concert, because this Christmas (which is only 8 days away, in case you hadn’t thought about it) you will have a spread only rivaled by the one you prepared a month ago for Thanksgiving. Then once the meal is complete and your guests have loosened their pants to take an after meal nap, if you should hear, “WOW, everything sure did taste great!” take your bows because you deserve them for you, my friend, were the director of this concert of flavors.

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.

IMPACT the Pond You’re In

Lake Toho in Kissimmee, FL

Growing up where I did my brother and I did a lot of fishing. We loved it so much we’d get fishing gear for our birthdays and Christmas. We even had a plan to hit the pro fishing circuit. However, there were many a Summer afternoon when the fish weren’t biting and we would be bored. One of the ways I’d entertain myself on those lazy days was to wait until my brother was daydreaming then I’d toss a rock in just out of his line of vision. I’d ask, “Did you see that fish jump?” Of course, he wouldn’t be fooled so we just would just start skipping rocks and count the number of impacts each rock made as it sailed across the top of the water.

If you’ve ever done this then you know exactly what I’m talking about and how much fun it is. One of the most intriguing things, to me, is the ripples each impact makes on the pond, like little waves washing ashore. It has since dawned on me, with every impact, no matter the size, there is always a ripple effect. This ripple continues moving long after the initial impact has faded but because of the ripples the impact isn’t forgotten. This has got me thinking about the IMPACT one makes in his or her respective ponds.

You’ve undoubtedly have heard a variation of the phrase, “I’m just a little fish in a big pond” or “He’s a big fish in a small pond.” What each of these phrase reference is the IMPACT one makes regardless of the body of water they find themselves swimming. Too many rely on the pond to determine their impact and the size of the one made. But this simply isn’t the case. Everyone makes an impact, it’s the ripples which give the lasting effects. So here are a few tips on how you can IMPACT the Pond You’re In.

  1. Identify your strengths and talents. Have you heard those people, perhaps you’re one of those people, who says they have no talent or can’t do anything? This simply isn’t the case, everyone has a talent and many have more than one. You simply have to identify yours and if you can’t figure it out ask someone you trust.
  2. Mentor those around you (and be a mentee). Being someone another person can trust to help them grow is a great honor as many of you already know. Why do you know it? Because you recognize you are a mentor to someone but more likely than not, you have been mentored by someone you greatly respect.
  3. Passion will move forward. I kept telling my youngest daughter she should be a pastry chef, it’s where her talents lie but she just wasn’t having any of my “wisdom.” Well, not until she came home after having a horrible experience and simply said to her mother, “I’m so upset I just need to bake something.” Its then it dawned on her this was her passion.
  4. Action is necessary. It isn’t enough to just say, “Something should be done” when you have the ability to accomplish it.
  5. Communication is the key to any success. From relationships to businesses, their success rises or collapses with good proper communication.
  6. Time is your friend because helps bring a lot of clarity and teaches patience. There’s a lot of emphasis place on one’s impact but the real success of it is the ripples seen over time. It allows you to focus on big picture thinking and not just the immediate splash.

If you’re sitting here reading this wondering about your pond and how you can make an IMPACT in it, here are six simple ideas to help. You may not see immediate ripples to your IMPACT but they are there. However, the real first step in making an IMPACT is ask yourself if you really want to.

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.

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.

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