I’ve been grilling since I was a kid… duh, I’m from the South. We all think our sauce is the best and we all think even if we can’t beat those television chefs in the kitchen, we would smoke them on the grill. J We want our bark just right, the perfect degree of doneness, and those highly prized grill marks. As much as I know about grilling, I recently got some higher education. I got the chance to attend The Q, a gigantic beachside grilling event at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival where 40 teams from across the country competed for annual BBQ bragging rights. This is one of the biggest and certainly one of the most fun barbecue events of the year. While there, I got a chance to pick up some tips from meat masters Chris Santos, Michael Symon, and one of the most celebrated BBQ chefs in the country, Chris Lilly, just in time for opening day of grilling season.

Chef Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ in Decatur, Alabama has won every major BBQ championship there is. Chef Lilly won Grand Champion three times and is a seven time category champion at Memphis in May World Championship BBQ Cookoff, Reserve Grand Champion at the legendary Jack Daniel’s World Championship BBQ Invitational, Grand Champion at the American Royal Invitational Barbecue Championship and many prestigious barbeque titles. I watched Chris create his magic during the Bubble Q event going as far as to meet him out at the pit at 4:00 AM to help him prep. I quizzed him on his technique, which he’s shared in his new book, Fire & Smoke: A Pitmaster’s Secrets. (Clarkson Potter)  Between the two of us, we’ve got you covered for all of your backyard barbeques and parties this summer.

Here are our top tips for firing up the grill for the first barbecue of the season:

CLEAN. For your first cook-out of the season, clean your grill really well. According to Chris, it is essential to also use a wire brush to clean and then oil the grill grates no matter what kind of grill you’re using. Chris also recommends starting the grill several days before you plan to cook to make sure it is working properly.

PREP. Make sauces, rubs, condiments, or side dishes in the days leading up to the party. The more you have prepped in advance, the more you can relax and enjoy the fun.

ZONE OUT. Chris says to set up two zones for cooking, no matter what grilling method you are using: gas, wood, or charcoal. Create one zone for direct cooking and one for indirect cooking, says our pro. Use the direct zone to sear and seal in the juices and then move it to the indirect heat to finish cooking.

PUT THE TOP DOWN. Chris says when you close the lid on your grill, you are also baking the food so you are able to grill faster without burning. For thin cuts of meat, you won’t need to close the grill lid, according to Chris but for a thick filet, he recommends this technique: Sear the meat over direct heat for about four minutes per side. Move it to indirect heat and close the lid. Use a meat thermometer to check for the perfect degree of doneness.

TAKE THE TEMP. Chris recommends always using a meat thermometer. His favorite is a digital instant-read thermometer like Therma-Pen. Get a good thermometer and go by the recommended internal temperature for the cut you are grilling. This is a foolproof way to achieve the most consistent results. Remember that the internal temperature of your food will increase even after you remove it from the grill.

TOOLS. Other grilling essentials include a pair of extra-long tongs, a fire extinguisher and a spray bottle of water. A cutting board is essential. Transfer grilled meat to a clean one to rest before carving or slicing. Be careful not to cross-contaminate and clean your cutting board thoroughly if you used it to prep raw meat.

WOOD YOU? Chris uses a lot of wood when he’s at the restaurant or in a competition but when he’s grilling at home, he uses a combination of Kingsford charcoal and hickory chips. Make sure to soak the chips before you use them so they don’t burn up immediately. 

BE CREATIVE. “Don’t think you can just grill steaks; grill anything you would cook in your indoor kitchen. My new book has recipes for everything from okra to dessert. I even have a chapter dedicated to cocktails. Grilled fruit makes incredible cocktails like sangria, margaritas, mojitos, and wait until you try grilled lemonade or grilled apple cider” says the BBQ Guru.

ASK FOR HELP. Chris always asks his family and friends to help him with grilling duties on party day; that way they feel more involved.

Get Chris' Grilled Peach Sangria recipe from Fire and Smoke...