Kevin Bludso On American Barbecue Showdown, Family Cooking, And The Next Generation - Exclusive Interview

For Kevin Bludso, getting fired was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to him, though it might not have seemed like it at the time. After earning a college degree, he worked for the Department of Corrections in the state of California for nearly a decade and a half, and while he often cooked BBQ foods (and even did the occasional paid catering job) on the side, working in food full time was the farthest thing from his mind.

Then came a wrongful termination against which Bludso would mount a long legal battle, and while that battle raged, he needed to find work to make ends meet. What did he use to fall back? The same BBQ cooking he knew from childhood and practiced as a hobby. In the two decades since Bludso turned from corrections to cooking, he has become one of the most celebrated BBQ pitmasters in America, opening several restaurants (including an American BBQ restaurant in Melbourne, Australia), launching a line of sauces and rubs, and appearing on successful shows like "American Barbecue Showdown."

During an exclusive Mashed interview, Kevin Bludso talked us through all of it, including how he is working to help pave the way for the next generation of African-American pitmasters. That said, he won't be stepping back from his own pit any time soon: at 56 years old, Bludso is going strong.

How Kevin Bludso started and returned to cooking

Did you grow up cooking from a young age or come to it a bit later in life?

A little bit of both. I spent my summers down here in Texas with my granny, and she ran a little roadside stand. I would come and cook for her for free and she wouldn't pay me. Like I always say, I never knew. Later, I swore up and down I wasn't going into food service because my uncles used to work there and they used to seem so unhappy and whatever. Later on in life, it came back by need after I got fired from the  Department of Corrections and had to fall back on what my granny used to call your "legal hustle." I fell back on what I knew how to do, cook and DJ, and that's what got us through those times.

When did you know that working in food was actually going to be your life's work?

I was DJing a lot and like I say, I'm from the West Coast, and when I was coming up during that time when I was catering, that's when the West Coast was running rap. [Dr.] Dre, Tupac, all of them. I was doing a lot of catering for a lot of those guys [on] a lot of video shoots and people were going crazy over the food. At the time, I was trying to supplement until I finished my case with the Department of Corrections, the wrongful termination ... talking to all those people and it kept going on and on, and people kept saying, "Man, you need to open up a spot, " and bam, we opened up Bludso's and the rest was history.

Pitmaster Kevin Bludso's cooking influences

Who were the culinary influences back in the day that you looked to?

My granny, my mom. I had so many cooks in my family. My uncle Kaiser. We had Texas and LA in our roots, so we had less — I'm 56! Back in my day, there wasn't anyone like Martha Stewart. We had Julia Child. The old French cooking lady Benny Hill used to [spoof]. That was the only thing we had on TV, her and [Graham Kerr's] "The Galloping Gourmet." [When] I was a kid, I used to watch Bugs Bunny and the "Galloping Gourmet" too, so I was checking them out back then. Mostly, [it was] family influence.

Who are your influences today?

I'm a fan of a lot of people. I really can't mention too many of them because I'm going to forget somebody, but I'm a big fan of so many of the pit masters. There's so many different styles. I'm a fan of Big Moe Cason and a few of the competition guys. I'm a fan of some of the OGs in the business, even the Neelys and so many in the business. [There's] two sides of barbecues, there's the retail side and the competition side. I'm more retail. I'm a fan of a lot of the OGs, the Gates Bar-B-Q's, Ollie Gates and people like that."

Who is one chef you would love to have prepare you a meal?

I wish my granny was still here, man. I miss those days cooking with her. I miss the banter. I miss the jokes. I miss all that, and she would always say, "Still have fun with it." Even on a day like today, on a snowy day in Texas, I miss being over at her house, having a drink with her and getting family history while she was in that kitchen, sitting at that kitchen table.

Kevin Bludso on cooking good BBQ

What do you think that people misunderstand about barbecue, both in terms of its history and also the American barbecue scene today?

Barbecue is so regional. Where are you from? That's the biggest thing. Everybody wants to say that [their hometown] has the best barbecue — Texas, the Carolinas, Memphis, and all that. To me, it's all the same. The only difference is you're using different woods, and some people use sauce. Some people don't use sauce. My whole thing is, don't make bad barbecue. Keep it 100 and do good barbecue.

What is some advice you have for people who want to improve their barbecue cooking?

I tell them all the time, learn your pit. It's like an oven. It's like a stove. The key to barbecuing is [even and consistent] temperatures while you're smoking throughout. Learn the hot and the cold spots of your pits. Once you get that down, you're good to go because then, you can start learning how to cook the perfect piece of meat.

Pitmaster Bludso on the Kingsford Preserve the Pit fellowship

What inspired the Preserve the Pit program and why were you glad to be a part of it?

The African American pitmaster is left out of the history of American barbecue. That's why I give so much props to Kingsford for bringing that back and letting them know that the African Americans played a big part in barbecue and making barbecue so popular in America. It's so hard for African Americans, especially young African Americans, that don't have the money to get a business, that's the hardest thing about opening up a business, is getting funding. The first thing you [have to do], you go to the Small Business Association, you go to them and they want to see some type of credit. They want to see some type of history. They want to see some type of credential on why they should give you that money. And 10 out of 10 times, the young African American is not going to get funded. Kingsford is stepping in and taking that place and helping funding and helping these dreams come true and strengthening the future of the African American pit master. I got nothing but love for them.

What do you want someone who is an up and coming Black pitmaster to know about the program? How do people get involved? Who should be involved?

They can go right on the Kingsford website and find out about it, learn about the fellows. They can get in touch [that way]. We had the graduating class last year that are doing amazing work right now and then the new fellows that are going to be coming in. We have an amazing staff that right at your fingertips that [new fellows are] able to work with. They have access to me and Bryan Furman and Rashad Jones, even Pat Neely now, and Dr. Howard Conyers and Amy Mills and DaVita Davis –  so many that they have access to. That's the hardest part about business, man — when you start, who can you run to? Who can you talk to, to get with somebody, to keep it at 100 with you and get you through those good and those bad times, man? That's where Kingsford is coming through. I'm very proud to be part of this.

Chef Bludso talks American Barbecue Showdown

What was the best part of being on the "American BBQ Showdown?"

Working with the people. The cast and the crew on there is so cool. The chefs that were there, the personality. In fact, I'm leaving on Monday to do Season 2, believe it or not. I'll be leaving for Georgia on Monday. [The show] was different. It was competition, but it was different. We were cooking possums and raccoons. Nobody else has done that, but to be able to do that and [feel] the heart and get to know these people and their heart and soul — I always like to hear stories. I want to hear where you came from. I want to taste it on that plate and we got to do all that. Man, it was a historical show and I was glad to be part of it and I'm looking forward to Season 2.

What was the absolute best thing you ate on the show?

Oh man — I know one thing that I did eat that I couldn't believe was so good, Rasheed made some crackling [BBQ skin] out of beaver tail. I tell people all the time that was some of the best crackling I had. They all did so good. My guy Ash, it [was a] barbecue show, but he still made probably the best cheeseburger I ever had in my life ... Sylvia did some Korean beef short ribs that were out of control. They all did so good, man. We probably gained 20 pounds. That's the only show [like that] — usually you eat and sample and keep it moving, but we were going back and forth into people's foods on that show.

Off camera, was their relationship between the judges all the same as you can see there on the screen?

Oh yeah. It was real. Everybody got along real good, but the serious arguments, those were serious arguments — the few times when we disagreed. Like I said, everybody is passionate and even with the judges, sometime one judge is from one part of the country and I'm from another part, so we don't see a lot of stuff eye to eye with a lot of the contestants, so that came out on the show, too.

Is there anything you can tease about Season 2, or should we just wait and stay tuned?

Stay tuned, but if you thought it crazy was with the possums and all that, it's going to get even crazier than that.

Chef Bludso's favorite things to cook and eat

Do you have a single favorite food to cook yourself?

Man, I still love cooking Jamaican cuisine. I love cooking oxtails. I love cooking soul food. I got a pot of oxtail stew on right now, man. You should come on over and we can talk about albums and stuff, because I'm an old DJ and I got about 10,000 albums. Come on over and drink some Hennessy with me and let's play some albums and chill.

Is there a single ingredient that's your can't live without?

Believe it or not, I got to have cayenne pepper. I have to have it. I tell people that all the time, not only for spice, but it's flavor enhancing. People don't understand that. I put it in almost everything I cook. I'm not really one for sweets like a lot of people, but any type of stew. I show people how to use it and they can't believe it ... you can use it in place of MSG, because like I said, it brings out flavors.

When you're not eating barbecue, what's your favorite cuisine?

I like soul food, but I mean, I love Mexican food. I love Italian food. I'm out here in the boonies now, so I got to do most of my cooking myself, but more than likely, soul food.

And then do you have a favorite fast food?

Oh man, yeah, a McDonald's sausage and egg McMuffin and a hash brown and an orange Hi-C is my go-to, with some plum jam on [the McMuffin].

Follow chef Bludso on his Instagram profile and learn more about the Preserve the Pit fellowship at the Kingsford website.