Vic Clevenger

Speaker, Freelance Writer, Pitmaster

Tag: Blog

Why Cook?

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.

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.

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.

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.

Lead With Your Left

With Dad and Elisabeth at her graduation

With Dad and Rebecca at Bass Pro Shops

Yesterday was Father’s Day and what a difference it is than Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day is full of flowers, diamonds and dinner she didn’t have to cook. Then you have Father’s Day where there’s no flowers, no diamonds and most of the time dinner is cooked by Dad, himself. Now usually they are nice big steaks and he does a way better job anyway. However, if the kids decide to surprise him by going to his favorite restaurant they encourage him to get whatever he wants on the menu. Which he does because he knows his favorite people are going to pay for it with his credit card and he doesn’t mind at all.

However, when you celebrate Dad you can’t help but think about all he has done for you as you grew up. The stories of how he walked to school uphill both ways in the snow even during summer permeated my childhood. Truth be told, my dad grew up where I grew up in eastern Kentucky and there are a lot of hills there. He ran those hills all summer long mostly without shoes. So he taught me to tell great stories to my kids as grew and continue as the occasion warrants. He took me and my brother fishing at Grayson Lake when one of the coolest things happened. 20 or 30 yards out a snake was swimming along when we made a bet that Dad couldn’t hit the snake with a rock. Well not only did he hit but the rock hit the snake square on the head.

If your childhood was like my childhood you helped your dad work on the family car a lot. Replacing spark plugs, changing the oil and if you’re my age you can remember helping to adjust the headlights so they didn’t shine up at a tree instead of the road at night. Also if your childhood was like mine, your helping work on the family car was more about holding the flashlight steady. We had to put a deck on the back of the house and I was finally allowed to help. I got to hammer, haul lumber and paint. Come to think of it, this helping dad work on something wasn’t really that much fun. I take that back, it really is one of my fondest memories even if I did jam a nail into my foot jumping off.

Then there was the one thing most dads teach their boys, lead with your left. He didn’t want me picking fights or being a bully but he did want to make sure his boys knew how to handle themselves if the need arose. For me, it arose a little more than the average kid and I remembered those words, “Lead with your left.” I enjoyed this so much I joined the boys club and took up boxing but this is not what my dad intended because he knew my competitive spirit. He just wanted me to be able to handle myself, lead with my left.

One of my questions I asked my dad was why lead with the left when my right arm is dominant? The left is me weakest but it still serves a purpose. It would keep my opponent at arm’s length setting them up for the knockout punch. When you’re in a fight like this you will probably land more punches with the weakest hand but this doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. Now it won’t ever be as effective as your right hand but is still an asset in getting the job done.

In their book, Now, Discover Your Strengths, Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton wrote about our weakness never being our strengths. They write about us putting so much effort into our weaknesses trying to make strengths which they’ll never be. So their premise is let your weaknesses be just that and focus your attention on improving your strengths making them stronger. However, I contend and I think Buckingham & Clifton would agree, work on your weaknesses to make them stronger so they will actually accent or aid your strengths. The greatest of all boxers was nothing without leading with their left.

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