How to prep, what to cook and other wisdom from professional pit master and tailgater Ray Lampe
How to Host the Perfect Tailgate
Credit: Courtesy of Dr. BBQ

With fall and football season quickly approaching, it’s time to start thinking about tailgating. However, if you’re professional tailgater and pit master Ray Lampe, aka Dr. BBQ, you never stopped. As a member of the BBQ Hall of Fame and a former judge on Tailgate Warriors with Guy Fieri, Lampe has a lot of experience with tailgating and getting the most out of a day at the stadium. He shared his top tips for first time tailgaters and how to make the experience both enjoyable and delicious.

Arrive early

First and foremost, Lampe suggests getting to the stadium as early as you can and to make sure you’re well stocked before you arrive. “It’s a big deal getting ready for the game, so always allow an hour to settle in and get things ready for the guests,” he says. An extra pro tip: Lampe stresses that some stadiums limit the time in the lot, so check on that, and if they do, be in line so you can get in right when the lot opens.

Prepare everything you can in advance

To give himself more time to actually enjoy the tailgate, Lampe tries to do as much of the actual cooking ahead of time as he can. "One of my favorites is BBQ ribs, but they take a long time so I don’t want to cook them at the game," he says. "Cook them a day or two ahead, cut into serving pieces, brush with sauce and refrigerate. When you get to the game, all they need is a quick grilling session to warm them up."

Plan, plan, plan

Look, if you're running a tailgate, you've taken on a lot of responsibility and Lampe stresses the importance of taking it seriously. Think of it more like a dinner party. "Your friends are counting on you to supply the drinks and good food, and lots of it," he explains. "Don’t wait until the last minute, you should be planning all week to get it right."

Have some food ready immediately

Even if you've prepared a number of things ahead of time, there will still be more work to do, so you need to distract the masses so you can fire up the grill and do some other prep. For Lampe that means having food out before anyone shows up. “I always have something that I can serve quickly, like a cheese dip or even just chips and pretzels,” he says. “The guests will arrive hungry and this will keep them from rushing you while you prepare the main course.”

Don't trust the weather forecast—prepare for anything

Lampe is originally from Chicago and spent many years tailgating outside Soldier Field. As a midwesterner, he knows that weather can turn in a hurry so he suggests always having extra clothes to throw on when the unexpected sets in. "All good tailgaters have warm clothes and a good rain suit so it’s not going to slow down the party," he explains. Also, Lampe stresses the importance of serving weather appropriate food, aka if it’s cold out, something like chili is a great choice, and if it’s raining, pre-made sub sandwiches are a good option.

Don't be gimmicky

For Lampe, tailgates aren't a time to get ironic or clever with your menu. "I’ve never been a fan of cooking lion when you’re playing the Lions or something cheesy when you’re playing the Packers," he says. "That sort of thing is a recipe for bad food. Forget who the opponent is and plan a menu based around things that you like to cook."

Make sure to have a dish ready after the game

It's important to remember that tailgates don't end when the gameclock hits zero. The party can stretch on until the rest of the parking lot clears out and it's important to have some more food stashed away for the post-game celebration. "Last but not least, I always include something quick to eat after the game," he explains. "Cook some hot dogs or cut up a giant hoagie to eat while the traffic clears."