Essential South: Fired Up



There’s something primal and undeniably fun about cooking over a live fire.

“Nobody gathers around the stove to watch a loaf of bread baking,” said grilling guru Steven Raichlen. “But when you light a fire, it’s a party.”

When Raichlen was looking for a new location for his famous Barbecue University program, one thing was clear: “The South and barbecue go together like salt and pepper,” he said. “Barbecue is deeply woven into the culinary fabric of the South.”

That made the Lowcountry an ideal landing spot for the annual live-fire cooking fantasy camp. On June 18-21 — Father’s Day weekend — Raichlen will bring his program to Montage Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton.

“I’m a water guy and for some reason all of my Barbecue Universities have always been in the mountains,” Raichlen said. “When the opportunity came up to move the school to the seaside near the ocean, I just leapt at it.”

Palmetto Bluff’s executive chef, Nathan Beriau, saw the event as a unique and wonderful opportunity for the resort.

firedup2“It’s incredibly exciting,” Beriau said.

The classes will take place at Cole’s, a lodge and restaurants on the property. It’s the ideal space for the event — it boasts a state-of-the-art classroom and outdoor burn area, complete with an Argentinean-style fire pit, that was designed in part by barbecue pitmaster Myron Mixon.

There are 50 spots available for the three-day-long cooking program, and Raichlen said Barbecue University events tend to sell out fast. Rates start at $1,495 per night. 

Barbecue University attracts everyone from “people that arrive on private jets to people who have saved up 10 years to come. You have fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, groups of friends,” Raichlen said.

Participants will prepare eight to 16 dishes each day using one of the five methods of live-fire cooking: smoking, grilling, spit-roasting, ember roasting and indirect grilling. All of the participants stay on site for the event and have access to Palmetto Bluff’s other amenities, like boating, golf, horseback riding, and the spa.

firedup3“It’s a beautiful property,” Raichlen said. “And it’s an area that has a rich local cuisine and culinary traditions. There’s a Lowcountry cuisine that is very well-developed, and I was excited to bring the school to a place with such a deep food culture.”

Beriau echoed Raichlen’s sentiments. 

“If you look at the barbecue trail in America, it takes you smack dab into the Carolinas, which is pretty darn cool,” he said. 

Raichlen also was excited about the opportunity to use locally sourced products: “The South has oysters, incredible fish, crabs and shrimp — all the foods of the Carolina coast.”

In fact, Raichlen said the event will kick off with a Lowcountry oyster roast.

“That’s a very specific style of live-fire cooking that you find in South Carolina and really nowhere else on the planet,” he said.

It’s also a reminder to participants that the program will go beyond traditional pork barbecue to focus on what Raichlen calls Planet Barbecue. 

“I look forward to doing an exchange of my global grilling techniques with indigenous food,” he said. 

The program is also focused on education.

firedup4“When I plan my menus, I am thinking about pedagogy and the body of knowledge that I want to impart,” he said. “We will cover all the major proteins: beef, pork, poultry, seafood; we’ll also do a lot of work with grilled vegetables. We’ll do grilled breakfast dishes, grilled lunch dishes, and grilled dinners.”

Raichlen said that Barbecue University is one of the highlights of his year every year, and that if there is enough demand, additional sessions could be created. The camaraderie that develops among students is inspiring, he said.

“The conviviality that’s involved is really quite extraordinary,” he said. “Every class, we start with 50 people who don’t know each other and over the course of three days, they become this incredible team.”

Raichlen didn’t plan on dedicating his life to cooking over live flame; he earned a degree in French literature in Oregon’s Reed College. He won a fellowship to study medieval French cooking and ended up in Paris, exploring the intersection of food, history and culture. 

“In 1994, I had an epiphany,” he said. “I heard these words from heaven that said, ‘Follow the fire.’” 

Raichlen is the author of 31 books, including 10 on barbecue. He is in the process of writing his next book, a “vegetable-forward grilling book.” He has also hosted several cooking shows. 

For more information on Raichlen and Barbecue University, go to