Charlie McKenna Makes High Tech Lowdown ‘Q

Photo: Michael Gebert

In the recent rush of barbecue openings, Lillie’s Q stood out for the twin pedigrees of its chef, Charlie McKenna. On the one hand he’s a veteran of haute joints like Avenues and Tru; on the other, he’s an award-winner on the competition barbecue circuit, from a family whose original Lillie’s Q is a barbecue stand about 40 miles down the beach from Pensacola, Florida. We’re always captivated by any chef whose idea of fun is to spend his free time doing even more cooking, so we stopped by Lillie’s Q early one morning (too early for barbecue, alas) to find out more about McKenna and the unique smokers he uses— and, it turns out, helped develop.

So you’re burning real wood and charcoal and not gas? It doesn’t seem smoky enough in here for that.
Yes I am. They’re called DW Kountry Kookers, with a K. The guy who builds them came out of building air conditioning systems, so he really understands airflow. It’s a gravity-fed system that burns the charcoal and the wood— we use peach wood— and pushes the smoke down on the meat.

It’s designed to produce very even temperatures. There are no hot spots, so there’s no rotation— you’re not opening it all the time to move meat around. And it’s very well insulated, so it uses less charcoal. Our two smokers have actually been burning continuously since we did a family and friends preview our first week.

But you can’t use something like that in competition barbecue, can you? Isn’t it too high tech and fancy for that world?
No, there are guys using these. I don’t use them in competition because there, you’re just babying five racks of ribs all night. But I’ve had one for a couple of years, just for myself, and I’ve worked with the guy who makes them, giving him feedback and design tips based on how we use them. I actually sold my old small one to Willie at Honky Tonk BBQ for him to play around with now.

With your background in fine dining, why did you decide to do a BBQ place in Chicago?
You know, chefs are like plumbers, you come home and the last thing you want to do is what you did at work all day. But it was discouraging living here and not being able to get the food that I loved.

Our place in Florida is set up like Smoque— you get your food on a tray and go sit down on the porch somewhere. I didn’t want to do what they already did. So we made it a bar, and added other kinds of food so you can come here even if there’s three people who want barbecue and one who just wants Brunswick Stew or a salad or something.

Right, nobody has to just eat french fries for dinner while their friends chow down on barbecue. So let’s talk about the other Southern food on your menu, like Brunswick Stew.
The Brunswick Stew is awesome. Some of the barbecue competitions have auxiliary categories, and we’ve won awards for it.

But there’s no squirrel in it, right?
No squirrel. Lots of pork and tasty stuff, but no squirrel. You know, when I was younger I was making something in my grandmother’s kitchen, and I found this whole squirrel cookbook. And I was like, you gotta be kidding me! But no, people ate squirrel. And possum. Now those are nasty-looking creatures.

How have the boiled peanuts gone over? That’s a classic Southern thing, but some of the people at our table for the preview were kind of put off by the texture, it’s not like what we Yankees are used to with peanuts.
I’ve had people say they didn’t like them, and I said, how did you eat them? Because the way to eat them is to crack them and suck the juice out, then eat the peanut. I tell them to try that and then I say, did you like the flavor? Then you should be able to get used to them.

Southerners who come in here, though, they love them. I had a woman the other night ask if I’d sell them by the bag. I gave her a bunch in a paper bag and said hey, thanks for the idea! I will now!

Charlie McKenna Makes High Tech Lowdown ‘Q