This past week, Michele and I spent three wonderful days at something called Kingsford University. "KU," as it's called in charcoal-related academia, is an event sponsored by Kingsford Charcoal in which food writers and bloggers are brought together to learn all about how charcoal is made, watch demos on the finer points of grilling and barbecuing, and of course enjoy lots of great food and wine.
I'm happy to report we all passed with flying colors (although a few of the other bloggers paid some nerds to do their homework). We even received a diploma! After I finish this post I'm going to start looking into some grad school options.
The master of ceremonies was world champion pitmaster Chris Lilly. Chris is vice president of the legendary Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Alabama, and Kingsford Charcoal spokesperson. He was really fun to listen to, and I learned quite a bit. I've sprinkled in a few videos of Chris below, so you can get a little taste of what we enjoyed.
The trip began Tuesday evening. After checking into the beautiful Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, we headed out to dinner and introductions at Pican in Oakland. We met our fellow bloggers (a complete list of attendees with links to their blogs will be added to the bottom of this post as soon as available!), Kingsford reps, and other dignitaries, and enjoyed a delicious dinner prepared by Chef Dean Dupuis.
Dinner began with a perfectly crispy fried chicken appetizer (now that's the way to start a meal!). I was even asked to demo my now famous chicken wing de-boning technique. I assume they were mocking me, but I did it anyway. Will this chicken wing trick become my "Freebird?" (FYI - that was a vague, dated Lynyrd Skynyrd reference)
I enjoyed a nice piece of grilled Loch Duarte salmon with root veggie puree and smoky savory cabbage. Michele had the southern classic, shrimp and grits. Everything was great, and as we ate we chatted with our fellow foodies – discussing the differences between food blogging and food writing, and how it's been years since any of us has actually had a hot meal.
At these affairs, no one eats until the pictures are taken, lots of pictures, at every conceivable angle and composition. This shouldn't be taken as a complaint – it's a very small price to pay for the great food and even better company.
The next morning we headed to the Clorox Technical Center in Pleasanton, CA to learn all about charcoal briquets. I'll be honest, of all the things I'd always wanted to learn more about, charcoal briquets wasn't one of them. But I was honestly fascinated by the process, and what could have been a long morning went by quickly.
Like most wannabe backyard grill masters, I already use Kingsford charcoal and really didn't need any convincing it was superior. My own anecdotal evidence the few times I've had to use the bargain brands showed that this stuff is clearly better, but I didn't know why. Now I do.
We watched them make a batch from scratch, and also got to see this really cool room were they do hundreds of burn tests a day. They were really excited to show off a newly designed, "ultra briquet" that promises even better performance despite being lighter and more eco-friendly.
We were not allowed to take photos inside the labs where they showed us the secret proprietary methods with which Kingsford charcoal is made and tested, but outside we did see live comparison demos and testing verses the alternative brands. It wasn't even close. Give or take a few minutes, their briquets lit twice as fast, were ready in half the time, and lasted twice as long. Class dismissed.
After lunch we headed up to the gorgeous Hotel Healdsburg, located in the middle of Sonoma's beautiful wine country. The remainder of KU was held at the Seghesio Family Vineyards and hosted by Peter Seghesio and the rest of his amazing family. The family has been making wine in the area for four generations, and to be able to enjoy their wine during the next two days of classes and demos was a great treat.
We attended a special dinner prepared by Chef Jon Helquist, formerly of the venerable Chez Panisse, in the winery's beautiful Redwood Room. The food was classic northern California fare – fresh, local, seasonal food simply prepared and served family style.
The highlights included Chris Lilly's barbecued pineapple sweet ribs, grilled Tuscan-style game hens, locally foraged wild mushrooms, and charcoal grilled fingerling potatoes with salsa rustica. Chef Jon's offerings were paired with an array of Seghesio's highly regarded Zinfindels.
That evening Chris Lilly showed us his famous low and slow method for cooking pork shoulder (see video). In between his many tips and tricks, we were treated to some very entertaining war stories from the championship barbecue circuit. A live band and s'mores cooked over small fire pits brought the evening to a sweet and smoky end. By the way, this is a man clearly willing to suffer for his art, as he had to get out of a warm bed and come back at 3 AM to tend the fire!
Chris Lilly's Low and Slow Barbecued Pork Butt
Note: this video shot with an iPhone in the dark.
The next day we enjoyed the fruits of Chris' late night labor with what was probably the tastiest and most succulent pork butt I've ever had. After being pulled and chopped, the moist, smoky meat was turned into slaw-topped sliders. Speaking of fruits, they were served with chili-rubbed skewers of grilled banana, pineapple, and persimmon. I thought this was an ingenious and inspired pairing.
After lunch we participated in two hands-on demos. We got to blend our own Zinfandel varietal with the help of Pete Seghesio and his talented team, and yes, it was as fun and interesting as it sounds!
We also formulated our own custom dry-rub spice mix. Chris Lilly showed us a great 4-step process for making a spice rub, which I will explore in more detail in an upcoming article for my American Foods site.
Kingsford University came to a delicious and interactive end as we made and grilled our own pizzas over charcoal. After Chris demo'd an insanely tasty Asian-influenced spicy shrimp pizza (see video), we headed around to the back of Seghesio's wine cellar where a long line of kettle grills waited for us with already glowing charcoal topped with pizza stones.
Chris Lilly's Charcoal Grilled Spicy Shrimp Pizza
After everyone had made a pizza (or three), into the wine cellar we went to share our offerings with each other. The meal was made complete with an impressive array of salads and side dishes from Chef Jon's kitchen, as well as more of Seghesio's delicious wine. What a special way to end a very memorable experience.
Special thanks to Chris Lilly and everyone at Kingsford Charcoal! Who knew learning about charcoal and grilling could be so fun and delicious? I'd also like to extend a very special thanks to the Seghesio family for being such gracious and generous hosts!
You can find a lot more information at the Kingsford Barbecue Facebook page. Enjoy!
Read other recaps on Kingsford University by these very talented bloggers:
The Bachelor Guy
Use Real Butter
Pork, Knife, and Spoon
Kingsford University Class of 2009!