There has always been good barbecue in Detroit. While the magic of marketing it with upscale trappings and killer beer menus is a decade young in these parts, barbecue stretches back in our history much longer than that. It only makes sense in a city where a significant chunk of the population considers the South to be "the old country."
One acolyte of old-time barbecue is Detroiter Robert Felton, aka "The Grill King." Felton got his start under Milt Goodson, of now-defunct Milt's Gourmet Barbecue, and his barbecue was popular with Mayor Coleman Young. The 60-year-old has spent decades barbecuing for the masses, as well as designing and building his own smokers and grills, coming up with his own rubs and sauces, and sharing his skill and knowledge along the way.
Speaking to us from his home and workshop on Hanna Street, he says, "I tell people all the time: Barbecuing is an art form that brings everybody together." On this particular afternoon, he's still recovering from cooking up a storm the day before at the Taste of Dearborn, of which he says, "They went crazy on me, man."
It's been nearly 10 years since Metro Times really sat down with Felton, and much has happened. The restaurant he opened on East State Fair was just in time for the economic meltdown, and quickly closed. He's faced other challenges too, being diagnosed with diabetes and having undergone a knee replacement. One of the saddest reversals of that period was the death last year of his mentor, Michigan barbecue maven William "Billy Bones" Wall. Wall had made it his business to advise and assist up-and-coming barbecuers, and gave Felton the advice he often doles out: Get serious, write things down, be meticulous.
With his signature humor, Felton tells us: "When I met Billy, I would talk smack to him like, 'Billy, can't no white man beat a black man at barbecuing.' Billy looked to me and he said to me, 'Hey man: I've got over 300 championship trophies, plus I'm rich. You can keep doing what you're doing.' So I said, 'OK, Billy, I need some help, man.'"
Felton's barbecue mentor also introduced him to Garden Fresh's "incubator" program, which has assisted other local businesses, including Scotty O'Hotty. Among other things, the program helps local small food producers get their commercial certification, something Felton is still working on. The product he's developed sounds like a sure thing: Retired cooks from the legendary Green's Bar-B-Q helped mix their historic recipe with Felton's, creating a sauce Felton says is "off the chain."
Felton says he's continued learning and innovating. Last year, for instance, he got the first-place trophy and a $500 cash prize at the Made in Michigan festival in St. Clair Shores. After telling us, he recalls the words of his mentor "Billy Bones": "Billy told me, he said, "Bobby, trophies are nice, but money is better." And I agree with him all day long. ... If it don't make dollars, it don't make no sense to me."
His grills have gotten more elaborate as well. His latest, the "Superman" grill, is made of 11-gauge steel. He builds them in his workshop with an arc welder, and most of them can cook at least eight racks of ribs at a time.
As Felton explains the art of barbecue, we begin to see that it's not as simple as it would seem. There are the different kinds of open cooking: grilling, barbecue, offset smoking, even something Felton calls "semi-racking." You have the various processes you can put the meat through: tenderization, smoke impregnation, different sauces, even dry rubs.
"There's just different levels to it," he tells us. "I mean you've got guys that wanna smoke ribs for 20 goddamn hours. Just give me an hour-and-a-half with the right wood."