The Oakland Raiders’ VoodooMan is gatekeeper of the “wild and crazy” energy of the “black hole” and an alchemist at conjuring up heavenly flavors when he fires up the grill.
For the uninitiated and the curious — those rare folks for whom football is not at least some version of a religious experience — black is the dress code of the Raider Nation, the team’s notorious army of diehard fans whose mission is to intimidate the opposition on their home turf inside the “black hole” at the Oakland Coliseum.
During games and beforehand at the famed pre-game tailgate parties which invariably involve barbecue, people line up to have pictures taken with the VoodooMan (in his skull-garnished Lee Scratch Perry-inspired hat) and several other high-profile Raider Nation figures who dress, wear masks or paint their faces to instill fear.
Who better to share summertime barbecue tips and secrets than a living legend whose voodoo-magic “team” of cohorts is consistently named “best tailgate” at least once each season and who is famed in family circles for his wizardry on the grill?
“I’ve heard you’re a barbecue king supreme,” I say when I call to ask the VoodooMan, a little warily if truth be told, if he will share summertime barbecue tips and secrets with Cuisine Noir readers.
“Sure,” he says, sounding far friendlier than his alter ego. “I’m going fishing on a charter boat on Saturday. Hopefully, if you come round Sunday afternoon, I’ll have some fresh fish to cook.”
And sure enough, he does.
The Raiders’ VoodooMan unmasks as Michael Lambirth, husband to Sharon, a physician with a private practice in San Pablo and father of two daughters (Marquita, 25, a day care teacher and bartender living in Austin, Texas and Remi, 16, still in high school) and a son (Gabriel, 21, who when I meet his dad, is touring Morocco playing the guitar with rapper and R&B singer Ryan Leslie.)
“I was on fire yesterday. The voodoo spirit was sending the vibes. I caught 25 fish (you get to take home 10) right outside the Golden Gate Bridge,” Lambirth tells me when he invites me into the family’s comfy color-filled East Bay home-with-a-view and a large outdoor barbecue area where he grilled for an extended family group of 20 people on Memorial Day.
Except for three whole rockcod, butterflied with tails and heads still on, dry-rubbed in his personal VoodooMan mix (keep reading) — and some filets he has coated with blackened seasoning and will toss into olive oil and a white-hot cast iron skillet over the gas flame — the previous day’s catch has been cut up and frozen.
Lambirth grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. “My people were from Kentucky and Tennessee. Barbecue heaven. What people do there is barbecue. Everything. But normally chicken, ribs and beef.”
He’s gone right outside the box. “At our tailgate parties because of the time constraints we usually do chicken and links but I’ll barbecue just about anything, even a duck,” my friendly larger-than-life uber-hospitable host shares as I follow him from the kitchen to the outside grills and back, learning all manner of things I never previously knew.
“The tailgate experience is an inspiration,” he says when I tell him I’ve never been. “It’s crazy cuisine, from people cooking oysters to whole hogs. On Sunday morning, walk though the parking lot with your camera between 8 am and about noon. You’ll be amazed at what you see being cooked.”
Today, along with the fish, plus pork ribs and tri-tip he started a lot earlier and which he’s grilling for some basketball buddies coming to watch a 5 pm game, he will barbecue the plump fresh asparagus spears that are sitting in a kitchen steamer. “It’s the best thing we got for the kitchen,” he says. “The Southern way would be to cook the life out of the asparagus or even deep fry it. Steaming it retains the flavor (plus keeps it juicy and succulent). Before serving, I toss it on the grill, coated with some of the leftover dry rub.” Fresh corn he cooks on the grill and then transfers to an oven dish and adds garlic, butter and olive oil.
Lambirth came to the San Francisco Bay Area via the military. Duty stations were Monterey and Panama where, along with a stint in Southern California, he trained as a jungle survival expert.
He gravitated to cooking when young.
“My mom wasn’t much of a cook. With four kids and working, she didn’t have the time and cooking takes time — and patience. But my stepdad was an above-average cook. I have a fond teenage memory of a seven-layer chocolate cake he made for my brother and me for our birthdays, which were close. Did we smash on that cake!”
“My stepdad cooked at various restaurants when he was growing up then went on to work as a laborer at a factory. I think he missed his calling.”
“He would start the BBQ and leave it for me to take over. I took instructions well.”
Tips for Great Tailgating and Summer Barbecues
- “With fresh fish like this,” Lambirth says of his catch, “you really can’t get it wrong.” Market fish, he points out, is often frozen for so long, it loses its flavor. He has a small boat of his own for bass and trout fishing on San Pablo Dam and in the Delta.
- Experiment with seasoning, he advises. “Don’t be stuck on one. And be natural. (He uses lots of fresh-squeezed lemons and limes for pre and post cooking.) You can acquire mesquite wood, for example. Stay away from the artificial stuff.”
- The number one secret of good barbecue? “Control your fire,” says Lambirth. The fresh fish will get 15 minutes. The pork and tri-tip? “A slow five hours. You can get them to look the same on the outside pretty quickly, but they won’t be tender and cooked through.”
- His BBQ dry rub? Getting the right blend comes with experience and experimentation. Ingredients — “I don’t use a recipe,” he says — are cayenne pepper, brown sugar, Sylvia’s Secret Seasoning, Zatarian’s New Orleans Creole Seasoning and paprika. “The reason the pork ribs look glossy is that the brown sugar caramelizes. There’s no barbecue sauce slapped on.”
- Go for flavor. “I’m always looking for the ‘wow factor’ in a spice or seasoning,” he says. “The difference between ‘spicy hot’ and ‘hot hot’ is that ‘spicy’ adds flavor and excitement while ‘hot’ takes flavor away.”
- Monitor your time. Don’t make everything from scratch. One of Lambirth’s favorite add-ons is the Roasted Pineapple and Habanero Sauce he buys from Costco. “We eat warmed collard greens from a can.”
- Recycle a spray container. Fill with a mix of Simply Apple (cider) and olive oil and use it. “It puts out the little flames, locks in favor and keeps the meat juicy,” says Lambirth. When he sees he’s running late, he transfers his ribs and tri-tip to an oven dish, adds half a cup of Simply Apple, covers it with foil and pops it in the oven for half an hour. “This makes it more tender. How do I know? Someone in my family told me a long time ago. I tried it and it works.”
- Welcome critics. “When you experiment, some things work, others don’t and my critics here at home will let me know. My daughter is the female version of Gordon Ramsay. My son is not averse to telling me ‘that’s horrible’ either.”
- Theme parties work. He’s learned that from tailgating. So a fiesta theme might inspire all Latino or Mexican cuisine. Or you might try a Southern theme. A theme lends itself to presentation as well as the menu.
- The tailgate and the barbecue might seem like a man’s world — but women are essential! “The lesson I learned, you have to have women involved,” says Lambirth. “Guys forget to bring the charcoal, they don’t bring the condiments or the napkins. Guys have brought 50 pounds of meat — and forgotten the grill. Then there are no salads, no chips — all the things that go into making a great barbecue. Women are meticulous about bringing these. And women delegate. Women make everything run smoothly. They make it all work.”
The home barbecue might be a family affair for Lambirth, but the tailgate and Raiders experience is not. “Sharon isn’t into contact sports. Not boxing, not football — none of them. But it’s OK with both of us. She shares me. It’s just 10 games a year. I get my hall pass. When the season is up, I put away the stuff.”
Which doesn’t mean the VoodooMan gets out of the kitchen. It means they both get into it. “We share the cooking,” he says. These days encouraging 16-year-old Remi to take her turn.
Photo credit: Wanda Hennig