This is the first in our Pitmaster Profiles, a Q&A series with some of the biggest names in BBQ.
Maybe it’s the no-nonsense demeanor—the stout frame and no frills mustache that portray a certain seriousness. Or maybe it’s his willingness to tell it like he sees it. Either way, you’d be forgiven for pegging Chris Marks as a staunch traditionalist; the type of purist that believes BBQ begins and ends with the proteins turned in at competitions. Such assumptions, however, would be a mistake.
In reality, the 8-time American Royal Grand Champion is one of the most personable guys in BBQ, easy to talk to and quick to share tips and techniques. In fact, next to cooking with family—he learned from his father and now cooks alongside his son—teaching might be what brings Chris Marks the most satisfaction. Hosting BBQ classes around the world (he did a tour of Australia earlier this year), he gladly passes on his extensive knowledge to backyard beginners, aspiring pros, and anyone who shares his love of BBQ.
Oh, make no mistake about it, Chris Marks has strong opinions, particularly when it comes to the growing use of technology in BBQ. However, those opinions are more of an indictment against the smokers that need help than the gadgets themselves. Because, ultimately, quality is what defines Chris Marks’ view of BBQ: A quality cooker and ingredients will produce quality food and quality time with friends and family. Those core beliefs are reflected in the products he stands behind—his widely acclaimed Three Little Pigs Sauces and Rubs and The Good One Smokers, some of the best built and most versatile smokers around (the Open Range was named one of our 3 Best Smoker Grills.
In our Q&A with Chris Marks, we took the opportunity to ask about his experience around the pit, as well as the past, present, and future of BBQ.
What is your first BBQ memory?
My first memories of BBQ were when I was 5-7 years old and my father and next door neighbor built a brick grill. We would have BBQs every weekend in the summer and then during the fall and winter for the Chiefs games. We were tailgating back in the 60’s in KC.
How did you get into BBQ and when did you start?
My father Larry Marks (Boss Hogg) retired from Hallmark Cards and needed a hobby to keep busy and we created the Three Little Pig’s BBQ team to compete in the newly formed Kansas City BBQ Society in the late 80’s.
Who did you look up to when you were first starting out?
Our BBQ mentor was Paul Kirk (Baron of BBQ). My father took classes from Paul on how to get started in the world of competition BBQ.
What was your first smoker?
Our first smoker was a cheap side-offset barrel smoker. The firebox broke off during our first BBQ contest in Raytown, MO.
What do you most enjoy about BBQ?
I enjoy meeting people from all over the world who have the same passion as I have for BBQ, [as well as] the continuing friendships after classes and events. I love hearing the success stories after a student goes to a class and his family and friends say what a great product he or she is producing now.
Favorite thing to cook? Eat?
My favorite protein to cook is beef ribs and I love to eat a well-smoked and flavored baby back slab of ribs.
What’s the best BBQ you’ve ever had?
Best commercial BBQ I have ever had is from Q39 in Kansas City. They can produce the same quality every time. When Friends come in, that's where I take them.
Who was the person you were most excited to meet in your BBQ travels?
Steve Raichlen. He is the person I look up to as the BBQ pitmaster/entrepreneur who really [brought attention to BBQ and grilling] with his public TV show and his book The BBQ Bible. He has done great job branding and marketing across the world and continues to have a presence 10 years after kicking off his BBQ show. Steve is not the traditional BBQ pitmaster, he has a very educated approach and presents easy-to-use methods and techniques.
BBQ is bigger than ever, with more newcomers taking it up each week. Do you have any tips for beginners just starting out?
Don’t get caught up in the TV hype and be careful with “YouTube University.” Understand the science behind BBQ smoking and make it You with your own personal style.
Do you have any horror stories that will make a newbie feel better about their first big mistake?
One of our best horror stories is that at our first contest we used green hickory, because that’s what we were told by a BBQ professional (my uncle). The meats were all black and tasted like a railroad tie.
You’re an 8-time American Royal Grand Champion. How has competition BBQ changed over the years?
It has changed to the point where teams are looking for every advantage they can to separate from the pack, but all the teams seem to be doing the same thing and using the same products that everyone else is using. But I guarantee the teams that win week after week are not using the same products. We are also seeing more high-end sponsor’s that are supporting teams across the US, becoming very NASCAR-like. Time will tell what this will do for the backyard guy who is trying to compete. Hopefully, competition BBQ will not end up with 25 corporate sponsored teams competing weekly across the US.
Backyard vs competition: Do you enjoy one more than the other? How does your approach differ?
I prefer working with the backyard guy who is working on simple methods and techniques and wanting to up his game and understand the science.
There are a lot of products hitting the market that make cooking BBQ easier (pellet grills, automatic temperature controllers, WiFi capabilities, etc). How do you feel about technology making its way into BBQ?
I come from a technical background, with over 25 years of experience in IT security. I feel that if you have to add temperature controllers to smokers then the smoker manufacturer needs to re-evaluate the design. As a customer, spending $4,000 on a smoker and then having to spend another $500 for electronics to make it work seems insane to me. I work to keep it simple. If you need to have all kinds of electronics to monitor the smoker, there seems to be a confidence issue with the smoker. Pellet cookers are sold on the ease-of-use, but can never get the “Real Pit” flavor that a charcoal/wood pit can produce. Also, temperature controllers, WiFi capability and pellet cookers all require electricity, which will always add another layer of complexity and possible failure at the worst times.
You cook on Good One Smokers and have a professional relationship with the company. They make unique smokers and are a brand many people may not be too familiar with. What drew you to them?
The Good-One brand has evolved on a true design of thermodynamics—on how air and heat flow and how to control it and maximize charcoal burn for long cooks. We work on making the smokers easy to use, clean and maintain. Good One Smokers are USA made, with USA steel, built from a ground-up design that’s based on engineering, not what I can find at a junkyard (Steel Pipeline, propane tank).
Your Three Little Pigs sauces and rubs get rave reviews. What made you want to put out your own line?
The sauces and rubs were a spin-off of what we had used for years on the competition circuit. They were created in honor of my father and mother after they passed away.
Some people have a very strict definition of BBQ that aligns with the half dozen items you’d find at a traditional BBQ joint. Others see it as an evolving style. What’s your definition of BBQ?
BBQ is ever-evolving across the world. As we become a smaller world with the internet, we can see the different style and methods from Australia, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico and Japan. My definition of BBQ is to make it personal and cook to your family and friends.
What is the future of BBQ?
I think the future of BBQ is going to have more of an international flair, with the ability to merge the different styles, flavors, and techniques to form a new style of BBQ.