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Exclusive: Ray 'Dr. BBQ' Lampe on 'Chopped,' pig ears and perfect barbecue

Examiner spoke exclusively with Dr. BBQ on April 22, 2014.
Examiner spoke exclusively with Dr. BBQ on April 22, 2014.
Photo courtesy of Ray Lampe, used with permission

With the arrival of summer just around the corner, scores of amateur chefs are moving out of the confines of the kitchen to test their culinary chops on the backyard grill. On April 22, Examiner spoke exclusively with former "Chopped" winner, cookbook author and barbecue expert Ray "Dr. BBQ" Lampe. The affable guru of the grill shared a number of great tips, including the secret to barbecuing perfect pork chops, how to give meat a smoky flavor using a gas grill, and how to score a chance to win a backyard makeover from the National Pork Board.

I know you were involved with your family's trucking business for 25 years. How did you make the leap from trucking to barbecue guru?

Lampe: [Laughs] Well, I'd like to tell you it was really smooth, but it wasn't. It was forced, basically. The trucking business was a family business but it was just done. Things had changed in the whole economy and it was time to move on and do something different. The only other thing I knew how to do was barbecue, so I got a wristwatch tattooed on my arm that says 'one minute after five' and I moved to Florida and became a full time barbecue man. But it was a wild ride along the way, I can tell you that. It wasn't always pleasant.

That's a dramatic career change. I can see how it would be a little bit crazy sometimes.

Lampe: Yeah, I was 43 years old. It wasn't like I was a kid making a conscious decision. I had to do something different and I knew better than to try to stay where it was cold. As a barbecue man I had to move somewhere warm so I just packed up and moved.... Most of my friends thought I was insane [laughs].

Let's talk a little bit about grilling. What are some of the best tricks for creating healthy meals on the grill?

Lampe: I'm all about pork chops this week. I love cooking pork chops and I think the grill is a great way to cook them. But a lot of people make the mistake of over cooking them. We certainly were all brought up that way with grandma cooking them to death. It's not the right way to cook pork chops and we know better now, so I'm all about teaching people how to cook them right. My secret is to cook them like a steak. Whether you're cooking a rib-eye chop or a porterhouse chop or a New York chop, as your guests how they want it done. Do they want it medium rare or do they want medium? If they want medium rare, use your internal-read thermometer and cook 'em to 145. If they want medium, cook 'em to 160. Don't cook 'em more than that. Give 'em a three minute rest when you get done and you'll have pink and juicy perfect pork chops every time.

What's the strangest thing you've thrown on the grill?

Lampe: Uh, pig ears. Pig ears were in the case one day ad we were drinking some beer and it seemed like a good idea. But we really didn't know what to do with 'em and we grilled 'em for a while and it didn't work out well.

Oh. Did you actually eat it?

Lampe: No. They weren't cooked very well. I really didn't know what to do with 'em. We had other things to cook as well, we ate other things. Now I've eaten some good pork skin sandwiches and I've eaten some properly cooked pig ears, but we didn't know what we were doing. We were young and it didn't work out that well. I'd stick with the pork chops if I was making a recommendation.

Speaking of recommendations, what do you recommend in terms of spices to add flavor to different meats?

Lampe: I'm a dry rub guy, so I usually start out with a dry rub, and I think that's a great way to go. If you go to porkbeinspired.com, there's some great recipes there including two brand new ones from me. One is spice crusted pork chops with mango sauce, and I just think that's a great way to approach pork chops. Make a dry rub, cook 'em properly, and serve a sauce on the side. That's how I like to do it. You know, people want to use barbecue sauce, which is fine if that's what you like, but don't put it on too early because it's a lot of sugar and a lot of tomato and it will burn, so save that for the end... or serve it as a condiment. That's typically how I like to do it. Get your flavor from a nice spice dry rub and maybe some wood chips, a handful of smoked wood chips and throw 'em right on the fire. A little wood flavor, a little dry rub flavor, and I think the sauce should just be served on the side.

My husband and I have both a charcoal grill and a gas grill. Which one is better?

Lampe: I'm a charcoal guy all the way. I'd rather have you cook on that gas grill than not grill outside, but I'm a charcoal guy because I think the food just tastes better. I think charcoal adds a flavor that the gas does not. However, you can take those same soaked wood chips and put 'em in a piece of foil, fold it up and poke a bunch of holes in it, and put it right down on top of those cooking bars, and you get some nice smoked flavor as well. But I'm a charcoal guy.

What's one word to describe being a contestant on "Chopped"? It looks brutal to me.

Lampe: Yup, brutal's the word that comes to mind. That's exactly what I was going to say. It's real. They do not mess around. The timing is the timing. It's TV so you fake opening the basket 20 times, but when you finally open it, you literally have a few seconds to look at the stuff while you take it out as Ted [Allen] introduces it and they say go and you've got the real amount of time. It is on, no tips. The only ingredient I knew was in the basket was the giant fish and that was because I smelled it standing in front of the basket out there in the desert [laughs]. Other than that, they give you no tips and it is real. Brutal is the right word. I don't know if I'd ever do it again. It was fun, but it's hard.

It looks awful. It's entertaining to watch, but it looks like it must be horrible for you guys.

Lampe: Well, the potential to make yourself look bad is so huge, and in that second episode [the "Chopped Grill Masters" championship], I did. I under-cooked the sardines and it didn't go well.

Tell me a little about the chance to win a backyard makeover.

Lampe: Well, you know when we all go to the grill to cook pork chops, we get a little swagger and you think yours are the best. We're all like that. And the National Pork Board has stepped up and is having a contest to find America's top chop griller. You got a 140-character entry, kind of like a tweet, but you go to their website, porkbeinspired.com, and you... tell us why you're pork chops are the best, and somebody's going to win a $15,000 backyard makeover plus a Big Green Egg [grill]. And a year's worth of free pork.

For more information on Lampe, visit his official website. "Chopped" airs on the Food Network.