Champion pitmaster Tuffy Stone shares his barbecue wisdom.

It’s not every day that a barbecue legend is born in Virginia. But Tuffy Stone is anything but your average pitmaster, with the former Marine, French-trained chef, and six-time World Barbecue Champion standing tall amongst the titans of the Carolinas or Kansas or even the great Lone Star State of Texas. In 2018, he was induced into the Barbecue Hall of Fame, and even without that knowledge, it doesn’t take long to realize that “the professor,” as Stone is fittingly known, is a legend among us, teaching his hard-earned wisdom with a cool grace and sly sense of humor to anyone who asks. On the eve of Independence Day, and in the thick of grilling season, we did just that. Read on to learn for yourself.

When did food first pique your interest?

I've got a lot of memories when it comes to food—my dad grilling in the driveway on his Weber kettle, my mom frying eggplant, my grandmother’s two bullet-style smokers outside her kitchen door. She would smoke turkeys for the holidays. I still remember that smell. Probably one of my first memories of making my own food, I was a teenager and I did my version of surf and turf. I like to hunt and fish, so I pan-fried some squirrel that I had harvested and also some native brook trout that I caught up in the mountains. In the Marine Corps, we liked to cook on weekends, and when I moved to Richmond to go to college in ’86, I started a modest collection of cookbooks. I was waiting tables and tending bar at restaurants to help pay my bills. Eventually I made the decision to work in the kitchen instead of the dining room, never thinking of it as an occupation but a domestic skill set that could always serve me well. My thinking was I could always benefit from knowing how to be a good cook.

What were some of those early cookbooks?

The Joy of Cooking. Julia Child. Jacques Pepin. Southern Living.

Your first job was at La Maisonette in Richmond. When did you begin to recognize the craft, not just the utility?

There, under Chef Alain Vincey. When I went into his kitchen to interview, he had stock simmering on the French flat-top stove, he was turning potatoes with a paring knife, his sous chef was fileting a whole fish. It was fine dining and a from-scratch kitchen. There, I learned how to make pâtés and terrines and Dover sole in parchment paper. I made things like crème pâtissière and crème anglaise and crème caramel and chocolate marquise. There was a connective process there that I really fell in love with. There’s a part of me that’s always enjoyed the arts. I collect art. I like to play records. I like photography. Even when I was in the Marine Corps, I would get to whatever country we were having liberty at, I would set out to explore. I had a backpack, a Sony Walkman, and a film camera; I'd take off and go and meet the people and food and culture. I remember sipping hot apple tea in Istanbul, chatting about politics and rugs with this guy who owned a carpet shop.

What records are on your turntable?

Dire Straits’ Communique. Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend. I've got Lucero. I've got Steely Dan. Jerry Jeff Walker. Miles Davis. Diana Krall. Randy Travis. I could go on. 

How did you come to barbecue?

My wife and I started a catering company in 1993, which will be 30 years old in November. By 2004, we had grown the company to a size where I was no longer cooking like a chef, but mainly managing the business. I was missing being in the kitchen. I knew I needed a new culinary activity to reconnect as a cook. For whatever reason, I knew in my mind that I wanted to learn how to cook with an all wood-burning fire, and how to make barbecue.

Why barbecue?

I had been in a white chef’s jacket for a long time, where I had focused on fancy foods. There was something stripped away and straight-forward about cooking tough cuts off meat on a wood-burning fire that really appealed to me. Because I could make sushi, temper chocolate, bake bread, make French food, Italian food—I thought I would be able to figure out barbecue. So I bought a pit, got a load of hickory, made a rub, seasoned some pork butts, built a fire, and put all this meat on the pit, and ruined a big ole load of meat. I was surprised and very humbled, but I was hooked. I started becoming more and more concentrated on figuring out the process, and over time, I got better. I fell in love with the process of taking big, tough cuts of meats, with simple ingredients and all wood burning fire, and try to coax something great out of them.

Why do we like fire cooking so much?

It is an opportunity to disconnect. We cannot seem to get way from work these days. Between our phones and laptops, we never get a break from emails and responsibilities. For me, going outside, lighting the fire, and cooking is a time where I can get away, take a pause, and focus on the moment. 

What are the most important things for you when cooking barbecue?

One is smoke. I like to treat it like salt and pepper, like a seasoning. The bigger the cut of meat, the more smoke I want on there. The thinner the cut of meat, the less smoke. One mistake that many of us make when we first start making barbecue is that we over-smoke our meat. The taste of the meat we are cooking should always be the star, and the smoke, rub, and sauce should be complementary backdrop flavors. And the other is trying to cook the meat to the perfect doneness. No one likes tough barbecue, but the best barbecue will have a nice tender chew. Learning to cook meats to the perfect tenderness has been a key step for me in making better barbecue. 



You’ve mentioned that it’s vital to have a good, clean smoke. How do you recommend achieving that?

Good airflow. A fire needs to breathe. A fire that is starved for oxygen, a fire that smolders, is going to create creosote, and creosote is going to be bitter and off-putting and not give as pleasant a taste. So you manipulate your logs to allow for the fire to breathe. I build my fire with what I call a log cabin style, meaning you stack the wood crisscrossed to allow openings between. Sometimes with a good burning fire, it’ll be running so clean, you won’t even see any smoke coming from the exhaust stack, but that flavor will still be there.

When do you bring cast iron into the mix?

Cast iron can be a such a great portable cooking apparatus when all we have to cook on is fire, when you’re fishing or camping. It becomes your portable grate, if you will, and it can go from breakfast to dinner in one pan, from eggs and bacon to steak and potatoes. I'm a sucker for taking little teeny potatoes and seasoning them and then roasting them in my cast iron until their crispy and tender.

Any other go-to tools for fire cooking?

I always have a pair of leather gloves handy, which give me the ability to work with fire and grates and hot cast-iron skillets. I like a good pair of Edlund tongs, because they’re flat and grip the food well. I like to spritz and spray when I’m cooking, so I usually have a bottle loaded with an apple or pineapple juice or brown butter. And then a high-quality thermometer to help guide you in terms of doneness. I'm a big fan of ThermoWorks.

Read Stone's New York Strip recipe in Family Receipts.

Photographss courtesy of Jay Beaumont and Ken Goodman.

June 29, 2023 — Dennis Powell