Bob’s Got Sauce

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Luisa Porter

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

It takes a while, here in the Deep South, but sooner or later those hot, hazy days loosen their sticky grip. As thoughts turn to crisp weekends and battles on the gridiron, tailgating is never far behind. But we don’t need an SEC showdown as an excuse to lay out an impressive spread. Friends and good food go together anytime, anywhere.

As a crowd-pleaser, tender, succulent barbecue never goes out of style. Award-winning grill master Bob Wiygul of Columbus took time out to prepare a five-star tailgate for Catfish Alley and share a tip or two.

Since opening Bob Robert’s Barbecue in November 2010, the jovial Wiygul has been in hog heaven. Never more content than when manning a grill or smoker, the 44-year-old is having a high old time on top of his hill on Highway 45 South.

After placing second in ribs in his first competitive outing three years ago, Wiygul hit the competition trail, bringing home a trophy or check every time out. No real surprise from a fellow so hooked on cooking, he built a 60-by-60-foot full outdoor kitchen behind his house, complete with 8-foot grill, smoker, shower and flat screen TV.

For our tailgate, the chef known as “the round man” worked his magic on some of “the best prime ribs you’ll ever have on a Chinet plate,” mouth-watering smoked chicken wings, whole shoulder, pulled pork and down-home sides including potato salad, seasoned baked beans, homemade coleslaw and smoked corn on the cob.

Practically everything is his own recipe, although it won’t be found written down.

“Often implicated, but never duplicated,” he laughs, something he does a lot of. “I don’t even own a cookbook. I don’t have a measuring cup. It’s just my own, what I’ve developed over the years.” Then, with a twinkle, “I say it’s ‘Wiygul-ized, not commercialized.’”

Competition cooks keep their secrets close to the vest, but Chef Bob — also known for his fried catfish, crawfish and hearty stews — did share a few observations.

“First, start with a good piece of meat,” he says, wiping fingers on his apron. “If you do, you’ve got more room for error than if you start out with an average piece.”

Cooking temperatures are critical for food safety.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

“A thermometer is a beginner’s best friend. You know where you want to go, but you need to know where you’re at,” he states. “A lot of people will cook a Boston butt but need to realize the meat will only take the smoke up to about 100 or 110 degrees, in my experience. My advice is to get your Boston butt so it’s a color you like, wrap it in tin foil and cook to an internal temperature of, say, 185-190 degrees.”

He cautions against overcooking chicken, something he sees a lot of folks do. “You don’t need it but at about 165 degrees internal temperature.”

Wiygul’s wood of choice for smoking is smooth bark hickory. “Scaly bark can sometimes give food a bitter taste,” he says.

And when it comes to the all-important sauce, “There are so many recipes out there. If you find one you like then you can add things to it to make it your own — like apple jelly or honey.”

For his own elixirs, Wiygul begins with a base that embraces both tomato and vinegar, and builds from there. And no, don’t bother asking him for specifics. Approach with caution, however, any bottle in his restaurant boldly labeled “Extremely Hot!” Wiygul’s eyes light up, and you know a good one’s coming. He doesn’t disappoint. “The label used to say, “This will burn yo’ ass up!” he bursts out, vibrating with laughter.

Innovations in insulated and airtight containers make a barbecue tailgate portable for games or picnics within easy traveling distance.

Wiygul recommends transporting cooked meat in a cooler, after first wrapping it in aluminum foil and then a towel, to preserve heat.

Many find the easiest route to a stress-free tailgate is to let the professionals handle the meat and essentials, which you can pick up on the way.

“And my mama, Adele, makes all my desserts, homemade cakes and cobblers,” said the cook, whose wife, Pam, and 10-year-old son, Wills, help out, too, in the restaurant open Tuesday and Wednesday for lunch and until 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

Turning his avocation into his occupation was a huge step for Wiygul, but also seemed like a natural one. One thing he knew: Any place he opened would be called “Bob Robert’s,” the name his dad, Dr. F.B. Wiygul, always used for him.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my daddy and my mama pushing me,” he said. “I lost my dad April 2, but he got to see me get opened and going. It’s a lot of work, but I’m glad I did it. I’ll be here now ’til the cows are gone. As long as I keep trying to do the best I can and people keep eatin’ barbecue, I shouldn’t have any trouble.”

A special thanks to Wes Davis for the use of his 1955 Ford F-100 truck.