Learning Behind the Grill: Steven Raichlen’s Career as a Barbecue Expert
Summer often brings a signature aroma – the enticing smell of a backyard barbecue. While grills and smokers are staples in many American homes, grilling itself is a tradition dating back to the first manmade fire. This long history – and a love of food – inspired acclaimed chef Steven Raichlen (ΦBK, 1975) throughout his distinguished career, one that he could not have originally imagined.
Raichlen is a household name to any avid griller. The author of over thirty books, including The Barbecue Bible, How to Grill and most recently Project Smoke, he is also a television host, a food journalist, a curator, and a lecturer on the history of barbecue.
A future as a grill master, however, was not on Raichlen’s mind as an undergraduate at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He studied the humanities, including history and anthropology, and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa as a senior for his academic accomplishments.
While researching his undergraduate thesis on poet Christine de Pizan, Raichlen encountered a number of French medieval cookbooks that served as first steps on his journey to becoming one of America’s foremost authorities on barbecue. These cookbooks inspired Raichlen to apply for the Thomas J. Watson Foundation Fellowship that allowed him to spend a year in Europe studying medieval cooking techniques.
“They joked that they finally gave a fellowship to someone to eat and drink through Europe,” Raichlen recalled of the fellowship selection committee.
In France, Raichlen attended La Varenne and Le Cordon Bleu culinary schools in order to better understand the techniques described in the cookbooks he studied. That year spent immersed in French cooking launched his culinary career. After his fellowship, he worked as a translator at La Varenne before returning to the United States to pursue his two passions – food and writing.
Upon his return, he authored a number of successful cookbooks and served as the food critic for Boston Magazine. Raichlen’s trajectory into barbecue, however, didn’t begin until November of 1994.
The inspiration to write The Barbecue Bible came to him suddenly, an idea that he described as “hitting like a thunderbolt.” As one of the oldest and most widespread cooking methods in the world, Raichlen wanted to study barbecue around the globe. He believes that his love of travel, history and anthropology came together at the perfect time to develop the book that caused his career to skyrocket.
The project took almost four years of traveling to complete, but since its publication in 1998, The Barbecue Bible has sold almost a million copies and features over five hundred recipes from dozens of countries. His devotion to barbecue only swelled from there.
To Raichlen, barbecue is more than just delicious. He describes barbecue as being both incredibly broad and incredibly deep – broad in that there are so many cultures and techniques associated with barbecue and deep in its historical and scientific contexts. “Barbecue really embraced everything I was interested in,” Raichlen said.
Since The Barbecue Bible’s publication, Raichlen has written several more books about barbecue and has even continued to put his French Literature degree to use – he hosts two French language television shows in Quebec and writes a weekly column for Le Journal de Montreal.
Raichlen credits his liberal arts education as being one of the most valuable assets to his career. To this day, Raichlen uses the skills he learned at Reed to make connections between cultures and across history about the recipes he creates. “There isn’t a day that goes by that my education doesn’t inform what I do,” he said.
In 2012, his love for food and writing came together in a new way when Raichlen published Island Apart, a romantic novel about two people who share a passion for cooking in Martha’s Vineyard. The book is a culmination of a college desire . “I figured then that I would be a novelist,” he remarked.
Raichlen’s career has taken him around the world, well beyond the backyard barbecue. From his many experiences, he encourages others to stay open, to strive to be well-rounded and to travel as much as possible. “You may find that your life will take you in a whole different direction than you thought.”