Robert Felton, the "Grill King," began making barbecues out of barrels 25 years ago. Still working out of his home, he makes a line of "grills" which are shown on his Web site. Sort of caveman cooking meat over wood fire meets technology. His wife, the Grill Queen, calls it a factory house. We met at a Detroit building he's renovating to be the home of his yet-unnamed barbecue restaurant.
METRO TIMES: How has business changed over 25 years?
ROBERT FELTON: We now make custom-built grills and smokers any way you want them. Of course, we still make the basic grills out of barrels. We use extra heavy gauge steel, anything under 14 gauge. These custom-made grills are the way to go 'cause you can order them in stainless steel or make them out of large propane tanks, any way you want them. Then we put in a cement lining. They'll last forever, plus the cement reflects heat. Make sure it has a raincoat. Weather's what kills those drums. Why would you want to buy a grill that will only last four or five years? When you come back here, I want you to bring a new customer.
MT: How have you avoided opening a restaurant?
FELTON: As you can see, that's about to change. We're just about to open here at 1200 E. State Fair any day now. Strictly carryout. We should be open any day now. By the way, I also do some catering.
MT: How do you cook your ribs? Got any secrets for us?
FELTON: If I tell you my secrets, I'll have to kill you. (Laughs.) Just kidding. I like slow and low, man. I do what's called offset cooking. Everybody's talking 'bout fire boxes off to the side of these smokers that they use out West. All that it is is offset. You can just put the meat off to the side of the fire. You don't need no firebox. Do you know about the Eastern Market competition, Sizzle-N-Sauce? We won the rib competition in July. Anybody can do ribs, but the big boys step up to the whole hog. Barbecuin' is an art. I look at it as being an artist in the city. Different parts of the country use different types of sauces and rubs and different hot sauces and spices. The most important thing is the combination of things that adds up to one specific good product.
FELTON: Right. Me myself, I like to use different woods to give you different flavors also. Just don't rush it.
MT: It used to be that people cooked directly over an open fire before everyone was into covered grills and offset smokers. I always felt that the flavor came from the smoke caused by the fat dripping on the hot coals.
FELTON: Now that's a championship question. You know more about barbecue than most suburbanites that I've talked to. When you go to a steakhouse, you see the flames shooting up to the meat. That's giving flavor. You can also turn the meat frequently to prevent burning, but I like to baste the meat with an au jus mix. If you have a rotisserie, the meat is basting itself, so you don't need to put any liquid on it. You can go to my Web site for some more tips. Am I giving away too many secrets? Milt Goodson, the owner of Milt's Gourmet Barbecue, was killed in a robbery last week. He was my first mentor in this business. He would tease me that I shouldn't give out too much information. I would like to say this also: Milt was a leader in the industry. He set a level of excellence in the community for the barbecue industry.
MT: Will his family keep it going?
FELTON: The legacy I want you to write this the legacy of Milt is important to keep going for his family. That man loved people. Just what he did with kids from the schools who he would hire to help them. And now they are saying that he was killed by a kid. Tragic. He was a legend in this community.
MT: Back to the grills, I maintain that a barrel grill is as good as the most elaborate stainless steel contraption with bells and whistles that costs hundreds, even thousands of dollars on.
FELTON: What I like to say is that it's knowing how to use the tools you have. Before barrels were popular, folks used to use big old washtubs. They produced some of the best barbecue I ever had.
Felton's home shop is at 19645 Hanna, Detroit; 313-368-2766 or 313-478-9767. His new restaurant will be at 1200 E. State Fair Ave., Detroit; 313-368-2766. His Web site is detroitgrillking.com.Jeff Broder does this twice-monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org