Pitmaster Kevin Bludso explains how he learned to barbecue growing up in Compton – San Bernardino Sun

Kevin Bludso’s cookbook isn’t just a collection of 90 recipes, it’s a compelling memoir.

“I was born and raised in Compton, California, with a police officer father and a Black Panther-supporter mother,” it begins. “Every summer to stay out of trouble, I went to Corsicana, Texas, to work at my granny’s illegal, bootleg BBQ stand.”

He was 8 years old when he started those trips to Texas but eventually he was the only one granny trusted to smoke brisket. Granny, Willie Mae Fields, was his father’s aunt. His actual grandmother worked at the Bluebird Café in Dallas where she was shot by a White woman who mistakenly thought she was having an affair with her husband.

The aftermath of that tragedy is why the family moved to Compton, where his father met his mother. Fast-forward to Bludso’s life today: He’s risen to celebrity chef status as a judge on Netflix’s “The American Barbecue Showdown” and as a recurring guest on “Bar Rescue.” He’s also made appearances on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and “Bong Appétit.” His “Bludso’s BBQ Cookbook: A Family Affair in Smoke and Soul,” will be released Tuesday, April 12.

As a restaurateur, he opened Bludso’s BBQ in 2008; that small takeout stand in Compton closed permanently in 2016. But Bludso still has a restaurant in Hollywood, another called San Antone by Bludso’s BBQ at the Crown Casino in Melbourne, Australia, a concession stand at the LAFC Soccer Stadium and another at LAX.

Yes, he’s a talented pitmaster who catered barbecue chicken dinners while still in college. But through this book, readers find out that he also draws on a wealth of heirloom family recipes and down-home dishes: smothered chicken in a rich gravy; elegant bread pudding with bourbon sauce; his spin on Oysters Rockefeller (Oysters BBQ Fella) with bacon and cheddar; and a silky barbecue sauce made with butter which creates a rich caramel finish.

So the book isn’t just a primer on how to smoke meats from brisket to leg of lamb, tri-tip and more, it’s also a trove of rib-sticking recipes for appetizers, sauces, sides and desserts to grace the Sunday dinner table. We had to find out more about the book and ask Bludso how it feels to be riding the wave of America’s barbecue boom.

Q. Pitmaster Kevin, you have a terrific backstory, so this is more than a cookbook. How did this project come about?

A. I didn’t know how to write a book and I didn’t even know I had a story worth selling. … But you never know until you tell the story. To me, I was just living life. They used to call me the Huckleberry Finn chef because I would go so many different places and do so many different things. I never thought that the story of my life would come out in print.

Q. Tell me about the collaboration with Noah Galuten. You had worked together before in the restaurant, but this was a little bit different. Who were you writing the book for? I’m guessing grownups because there’s some cussing in here.

A. Noah just wanted it as real as possible. So after we did recipe testing all day we would have a Cognac and sit out here on the lake with Noah not even asking questions but us just talking and me telling a story about good times and bad times. Noah made it so easy. He just always made it like a conversation. And when you’re doing that with somebody you love and respect, it’s not like it’s work. It was like two homeboys just chillin’.

Q. Everybody barbecues. But how many home cooks smoke meat? Is this a growing trend?

A. Everybody wants to be a home pitmaster, it’s at an all-time high. And I’m only the second African American to come out with  a barbecue cookbook after Rodney Scott.

Q. Some writers are speaking about the barbecue boom in a very scholarly way. In “Black Smoke”  Adrian E. Miller says Blacks created this cuisine and they shouldn’t get left out. Other writers are saying that Black pitmasters aren’t getting enough credit because a lot of it’s about White hipster chefs discovering woodfire cooking. What’s your take?

A. I always say it like this, this is part of our culture and it’s part of everybody’s culture. There’s enough room for everybody in this. …There’s plenty of arguments about it, but I know for a fact that my granny knew people who cooked on plantations. So I’m still around talking to people who know the true story about barbecue and where it came from. Sometimes, when your history is not being told, you’ve got to demand your history be told.

Q. Miller also writes that there are three kinds of Texas barbecue. There’s Central Texas with the brisket; South Texas with the Latino influence; East Texas, which is a Southern pit barbecue that comes from an African American tradition. It seems like Pitmaster Kevin does it all, and he adds New Orleans, Mexican and Asian flavors. Is there one style you relate to?

A. I like it all. I love Texas, but I put an L.A. influence on it. L.A. and California don’t get their props for barbecue. I say that all the time. … Back in the day,when you had so many people migrating from the South, moving through L.A., we didn’t have just have one style of barbecue. We had people from Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and more open up restaurants all along Central Avenue back in the ’60s and ’70s. So we had barbecue from everywhere, and then the influence that we have with Mexican cooking and Asian cooking and all that. My chicken recipe, I make the seasoning based off the Mexican street vendors’ pollo asada. I took that and I made my twist off that and just smoke it.

Q. So, if you’re a beginner, what kind of smoker should you buy? 

A. I tell people all the time get yourself a nice offset smoker for $150 to $200. And learn your smoker. It’s almost like cooking in the oven once you know how to control it. Anybody can do it. It’s not just a man thing. I taught my daughter when she was 9 or 10.

Q. Along with the smoker recipes there are some great sauces, sides and desserts in this book. You use ingredients like Liquid Smoke, Kitchen Bouquet Lipton Onion Soup Mix and ranch dip mix. That’s the way people really cook at home. Do you think it was important to be honest in this book?

A. Yeah. I like Liquid Smoke. We use it in sauces and stuff like that. When people put it on meat, that’s not what you’re supposed to do. But I don’t mind putting it in some other things, or something like Kitchen Bouquet in your gravy. Those things are must-haves in your kitchen cabinet.

Q. I really loved the cornbread recipe. It’s not sweet but it reads like you’re making a layer cake. You use enriched cornmeal, you whip the egg whites until stiff. You use butter and two teaspoons of oil. Tell me what the two teaspoons of oil do.

A. It’s mainly just for that moistness and it’s a binder too. The top is always shiny, but when you cut into it and that inside is shiny — that’s what I was trying to get.

Q. That is your grandma’s recipe, right?

A. Yes, that is hers.

Q. It reminds me that Southern cookbook authors like Cheryl Day and Vivian Howard are finding a really good audience now. Marcus Samuelsson edited “The Rise” cookbook with some of these kinds of recipes. Do you think there’s a newfound respect for these heritage recipes from the South?

A. Food TV controls everything now and there are a lot of shows realizing the heritage of this country is pretty incredible. Southern cooking is relaxing and especially now, after the pandemic, people have been inside, so they want to get together with family. They wanna barbecue. They wanna have Sunday dinners. And that’s what this book is, this is Sunday dinner all day long.

Bludso’s BBQ Cookbook: A Family Affair in Smoke and Soul

Author: Kevin Bludso with Noah Galuten

Publisher: Ten Speed Press

Release date: Tuesday, April 12

Price: $29.99

Personal appearances

Saturday, April 23 at 5:30 p.m., Kevin Bludso will give a chef demo of his Down-Home Mac and Cheese recipe at the Disney California Adventure Food & Wine Festival. Demos are free with admission to the park.

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