He's got it

If you’re going to pursue any sort of artistic endeavor in life—and, to preface the words ahead, food is most certainly an art form—and pursue it well, you’ve got to respect the history and those who came before you, and you’ve got to be passionate about it. After spending an afternoon with Zardrell McKnight and absorbing a fraction of his encyclopedic knowledge of barbecue, I know without any doubt that he’s destined for greatness.


Anyone with an intense zeal for something—whether it’s Z discussing the cooking techniques that provide for a more authentic flavor, Mark Heimann explaining the differences between each model of McCulloch chainsaws or Kellie rehashing every detail of the “Harry Potter” series—is inspiring in its own way. There are several topics I could bore the average person to death rambling on about (lately, it’s been movies and detective novels), but if you aren’t interested in anything outside of your work and your core existence, chances are you’re pretty boring.


And Zardrell was anything but boring: I joked that I had finally realized my dream of hosting a “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” style TV show as we walked into the kitchen at the Grundy Community Center, and he laid out the massive slabs of meat that would sell out in 20 minutes the following day.


He took great pains to explain the regional differences in BBQ to an idiot (me) who had more or less operated under the pretense that it was all just meat with some sauce and baked beans or mac and cheese on the side. Virginia/Carolina style (he’s from Richmond) focuses on pork and mustard based sauces, Memphis is known for dry rub ribs, and Kansas City style is all about the sauce (and less about the meat). But Z’s true love is Texas style—the Austin area, to be exact— and its offset fires, massive cuts of brisket (beef is king in the Longhorn state) and the tradition of serving meat until it’s gone and then closing for the day.


From there, he even branched out to expounding on his love for Korean BBQ, pontificating on which cities have the most up and coming scenes (surprise, surprise: New York and LA) and dishing on some of the other establishments he’s tried since he moved to Iowa—suffice it to say that none of them are quite like Z’s. I watched him chop the wood himself, reveling in the tiniest details and pulling up a chair as he personally oversaw every step of the process.


It didn’t take long to address the elephant in the room: he’s a young black man from halfway across the country setting up shop in one of the whitest counties in America, and we should feel lucky that he chose to do it here. As he tells it, BBQ is yet another black art form that’s been made more palatable through white interpretations (Chuck Berry and Elvis, anyone?), but he’s doing his part to bring a southern tradition with a personal twist to a state best known for its potlucks and tenderloins.


Zardrell could’ve gone to Chicago or New York or Minneapolis or D.C. or even Austin and been successful. He’s got the skill set and the passion to make it anywhere, but he wasn’t content to follow a trend. He wanted to blaze his own trail.


Judging by Saturday’s success, he’s well on his way. I arrived at 11:20 and barely managed to snag the last beef ribs of the day before he was completely sold out. And trust me, they were worth it.


We joked that with Mexican, Chinese, American, pizza and now BBQ all contained within a community of 2,700 people, Grundy Center could easily become the next small town hipster food destination. Now if we can just Guy Fieri here, I think Z may be on to something.