The Ricky Shack elevates cookout to whole new level
Story by JOHN FEW
Photos by JOSHUA BERRY
One of the best barbecue joints in town isn’t a joint at all. It’s not even a restaurant. It’s a back yard.
More specifically, it’s a unique and charming, rustic outdoor cooking shed that would be the envy of any serious outdoor master chef. Dubbed the Ricky Shack, and built with reclaimed wood from several old barns, it is the pride and joy of Madison resident Richard George.
Entering the Ricky Shack is like opening a family photo album, only without the photos. It’s filled with family memorabilia, each one with a story that draws one’s imagination into visualizing George’s family history. “Our collection consists of ice hooks like those used in my great grandfather’s ice plant, a fly rod and Stetson from my grandfather, hay hooks from my father’s farm and fishing equipment and duck decoys enjoyed by family members,” George said.
Even the lights, made from antique Mason jars, have a special meaning: George’s wife Gayle’s maiden name is Mason. The jars are hung from an old Putnam telephone ladder originally designed for use in telecommunication switching stations. “I have a stone sink with running water from an old five gallon Igloo cooler to help with clean up,” George added.
What might be most memorable about the Ricky Shack, however, is the delicious aroma that fills the cooking shed George expertly prepares one of his mouth-watering creations. A former banker working in trust and investment management, he has found retirement gives him the chance to fully express himself in his passion for cooking on a Big Green Egg.
“A client suggested I join the Kansas City Barbecue Society and the Alabama Barbecue Association to learn to judge barbecue. Thinking this would surely enhance taste buds and various cooking styles, I jumped right in,” George explained. “My initial judging school at KCBS had the five-time World Champion Memphis in May BBQ champion, Chris Lily, and Ken Hess of Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ as our cooks. Shortly thereafter, I completed the Que University BBQ Cooking School in Atlanta and continued to practice cooking and judging.”
Still dissatisfied, George began working to become a Master Judge. “To complete this qualification, one must cook with a professional team,” George said. “Jiggy Piggy of Decatur allowed me this honor. Bob Fite and Steve Blake are truly champion cooks and gracious teachers.” After judging 30 barbecue contests, cooking with a professional team and passing a final exam, George was awarded his Master Judge certification.
Judging has allowed George to learn from the best and add to his love of cooking for others. “My most-requested food for parties is smoked pork tenderloin, and I have cooked as many as forty tenderloins in one day,” George said. “The pork tenderloins are also a favorite for smaller parties, receptions and family gatherings. Smoked salmon on a cedar plank or a filet mignon seems to be my family’s favorite.”
George’s personal favorite? “My preference is just a prime grade ribeye steak or beer-butt chicken,” he said. “I actually use an old Bundt cake pan filled with beer and veggies for the beer butt chicken.”
It was his love for entertaining and for tantalizing the taste buds of others that led George to dream up the Ricky Shack. Cooking outside has its challenges with the weather in north Alabama, and an enclosed area on George’s deck in the backyard seemed to him to be the right answer.
Having a knack for interior decorating and design, George’s wife helped design an area for him to practice cooking. His friend Tom added his own design touches to the mix and built the shed for him.
“We enjoy entertaining and relaxing outside,” George said. “A small area morphed into an enclosed shed, and the deck kept expanding. With reclaimed wood from several old barns in north Alabama and south Tennessee, many windows and pulleys and lots of Tom and Gayle’s hard work, the cooking and deck area was finally completed.” Now it was time to name this cooking shed. “Growing up in Mississippi, my childhood nickname was Ricky. Hence, the ‘Ricky Shack.’”
Two big Green Eggs, a handmade Ugly Drum Smoker and a gas smoker gave George the opportunity to practice his barbecuing skills. “My kids, grandkids and family seem to enjoy being my judges,” George said. “My son David has followed in my footsteps, and he enjoys cooking on a Big Green Egg.” In fact, David and his wife Heather have the formed Cluck & Swine BBQ team to try competitive cooking. “They allowed me to help in a recent competition, and it was quite different to be on the other side of the judging table,” George said.
Speaking of tables, the payoff for George’s hard work comes at the end. That’s when he gets to see the smiles spread across the faces of anyone who has just sampled one of his delicious masterpieces.