John Manion, the chef at Berwyn’s Babygold Barbecue, is well-known for his open-fire cooking. We’d dined several times at his La Sirena Clandestina in Fulton Market (now closed) and at El Che (still going strong), so we were eager to sample what he’s serving at Fitzgerald’s. We were knocked out by his smoked meat, and so I asked him to offer some tips for home BBQ chefs and other amateurs (such as myself) who smoke meat at home for friends and family. 

HAMMOND: What is a key guideline that you’d offer the BBQ amateur?

MANION: Get good meat. It’s that simple. Choice grade meat is fine; you don’t need Prime, but I wouldn’t get Select [usually the lowest grade of meat commercially available]. And you don’t have to shop at expensive places and spend a lot of money. I’ve purchased some great meat from Carnivore, but Prime is sometimes unnecessary. You can always get your meat from the world’s largest butcher, Costco; the quality is good, and they turn it over fast. What you want to avoid is supermarket meat that’s sitting around shrink-wrapped and all grey and sad.

HAMMOND: Gas or Charcoal?

MANION: I would go with charcoal. With my smoker, I get it going with charcoal and then I just feed it chunks of dry wood. I don’t soak the wood or the wood chips because that steams the meat, and when the meat is steaming you don’t get that good bark [the highly desirable, super tasty, darker, and chewier exterior that’s usually sought after by BBQ enthusiasts]. Bark production will usually be better with charcoal; as a side-by-side test, if you cook meat over charcoal and cook meat on a gas grill and compare the two, the bark will be better on the meat you cooked over charcoal.

HAMMOND: Lighter fluid or a chimney?

MANION: A chimney [cylindrical canister, stuffed with paper in the bottom and charcoal on top, designed to help get charcoal started]. Lighter fluid has a nasty chemical smell, and I know it’s going to burn off, but I always still taste it on the meat. I don’t like it and I don’t trust it.

HAMMOND: Does it matter what kind of wood you use?

MANION: The kind of wood you use does matter because wood imparts flavor. A wood like hickory can overwhelm the subtle taste of fish. A fruit wood has a sweetness that goes great with pork. I use mostly oak, which has a somewhat neutral flavor and imparts the right amount of smokiness to our food.

HAMMOND: Many barbecue enthusiasts put sauce on the side but don’t add it to the meat before serving. So, to sauce or not to sauce?

MANION:  It is 100% personal preference, though there’s certainly a popular philosophy that it’s all about the smoke and that sauce goes on the side; that’s a very Texas way of thinking about BBQ. If the sauce is on the side, though, it’s a condiment, and I think it should be an integral part of the experience. For me, I like a saucy rib, that’s the Chicago way, and the commingling of rendered pork fat and sauce is magic.

Feature image: John Manion, photo Tom Gallagher, Eleven 9 Studio

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...