The disciples of barbecue are everywhere, but few can say the cooking tradition saved their lives. Even fewer assert their expertise with non-meat dishes.
Brian Rodgers can do both. For nearly three years, he has been consumed with developing plant-based menus and preaching the benefits of healthier food options.
But his love of barbecue goes way back.
Barbecue joints were around every corner in his hometown of Kansas City, and every gathering and event included the cuisine. Even his high school baseball team sported its own barbecue cook who fed the team as well as hungry passersby after games. Rodgers became interested in cooking while helping the team chef with meal planning, shopping and preparation.
He became a successful computer programmer and businessman, but during his free time, he developed sauce, rib and pork recipes that won competitions and established him as a respected barbecue pitmaster.
At the age of 44, weighing in at 300 pounds and battling six potentially deadly diseases and conditions, he discussed with his doctor the prospect of gastric bypass surgery in August 2018. “You know, Brian,” he remembers the surgeon saying, “You’re probably not going to be able to eat barbecue anymore.”
Rodgers could deal with other possible outcomes of the surgery, but living without barbecue was a deal-breaker.
“ ‘Honey, we’re out of here on the next thing smokin’,” he says he told his wife at the time. “That’s how the whole philosophy of plant-based barbecue started.”
The next morning, he gave up eating meat, dairy, salt and oils and started counting calories. But he could not turn away from his beloved barbecue. “I took all the methods and styles of cooking that I had learned over the years and applied it to plant-based ingredients.”
It wasn’t the first time he had a pre-pared plant-based barbecue. In 1999, he entered a Smoked Jackfruit recipe in a barbecue competition in the wildcard category and won. And in 2017, he catered a Boulder event and treated hundreds to a plant-based barbecue menu.
He went to work transforming what he knew best. He examined everything he “couldn’t put in his body anymore,” and that included his own award-winning barbecue sauce. Typical sauces are laden with high fructose corn syrup, sugar, salt and honey, for instance.
“I used my original sauce recipe, and once I took all that stuff out of it, it tasted absolutely horrible. It was dis- gusting,” he recalls.
After an internet search, he realized healthy barbecue sauces were nearly non-existent. The experimenting continued. “My kitchen literally looked like a murder scene from ‘Dexter,’” he says, but he soon created an “amazing” Kansas City-flavored sauce that complemented plant-based ingredients.
He admits that the first 30 days of his new eating regime were maybe the worst days of my life.” He persevered and kept himself busy thinking about ways to make barbecue nutritious. “Barbeque was really a savior for me. I feel like I was given a gift to share with people. That’s why I gave up my programming career and focused on this.”
Within six months, he had lost 120 pounds with the over-sight of his doctors and a nutritionist. Another result was Fool’s Gold Plant Based BBQ, a business that sells a variety of his sauces—including one made with Palisade peaches— as well as rubs, spices, salts and seasonings.
Rodgers says while others had done bits and pieces of plant-based barbecue, he was the first to pull it all together.
The cuisine takes less time to prepare than more traditional barbecue, making it accessible for home chefs. Rodgers’ recipe for Sweet Potato Burnt Ends–which he says will hook anyone, even the most ardent meat lover, on the glories of plant-based barbecue–takes about 45 minutes to cook. And you don’t need large, expensive smokers to pre- pare the dishes. Stove-top smokers, which are the size of a cake pan, and smoke-infused oven bags are readily available, including on his Fool’s Gold website.
He learned early on not to compare plant-based food to meat-based dishes. “Ask a world-class pit master if the brisket tastes like the turkey. No. They are completely different ingredients,” he says. “You have to look at it as what it is and make it taste amazing.”
Along with the Smoked Jackfruit, other recipes he shares include Smoked Seitan Brisket and Smoked Chickpeas. He reminds people that some of the best parts of a barbecue meal are the sides. He’s developed recipes for healthy coleslaw (Mamsie’s Cole Slaw) and corn (Cream Cheese & Green Chile Corn), for instance.
Of course, he doesn’t only eat barbecue. He’s a taco, Thai and pizza kind of guy. Rodgers transforms those “gritty, fun, everyday foods that people enjoy” into healthy dishes using plant-based ingredients and heaps them under the label of Mountain Grub. Think Plant-Based Philly Cheese Sandwiches using marinated tempeh and mushrooms, the Philly Mac N’ Cheese Loaf, and Smoked Jackfruit and mushroom burritos.
“I’ve been fighting obesity my entire life. I had tried every diet out there,” he says, but nothing worked until his conversion to a plant-based lifestyle.
To help others in similar situations, Rodgers also established The Next Thing Smokin’ Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting childhood obesity through education, mentoring and scholarships.
Fast forward to early 2020 when Rodgers built out The Next Thing Smokin’ brand. Regular podcasts share his story and recipes, and offer advice on transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle. A book, The Next Thing Smokin’, documents his life change. The Skinny weekly newsletter offers tips on health and exercise and community insights. He also demonstrates cooking techniques and recipes on a YouTube show, often with Lauren Panoff, a dietician, writer and plant-based advocate.
He still walks 3 miles a day and has lost a total of 150 pounds. His expanded operation is headquartered at The Pullman in the Union Station neighborhood, where he lives, continues to develop recipes and tapes the cooking shows and podcasts.
Proceeds from his book and Fool’s Gold sales go to his foundation. So do fees he gets through his consulting services, which he offers to restaurants around the country. He now plans to develop local chapters of the foundation in major cities around the country.
“I made a decision,” he says. “Do I want to build (The Next Thing Smokin’ brand) into a huge business, or do I make it bigger than me? What I want is to help as many people as possible.”
Cream Cheese and Green Chile Corn
This dish is a crowd-pleaser. It doesn’t matter how much you make or how many people you are serving, it will be gone, says recipe creator Brian Rodgers. “I like to sprinkle some smoky paprika over the corn before serving, or for a kick, sprinkle with some Fool’s Gold Kanorado Cayenne Powder.”
1 32-ounce bag of frozen corn (or kernels from 8 ears)
1 pouch of plant-based cream cheese
1⁄2 pound of fresh roasted green chiles, diced (or 2 small cans of diced green chiles)
1 1⁄2 tablespoons of plant-based butter
1 tablespoon Fool’s Gold Smoked Hickory Salt
1 tablespoon Fool’s Gold Smoked Tofu Rub
Combine all of the ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight if possible. Cook in the smoker at 225 degrees for 3-5 hours and flavor with light hickory wood.
Serve as a side with any meal.
Cynthia Pasquale is a Denver writer and editor.
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