Ernest McKnight, the pitmaster and executive chef who helped grow Red Hot & Blue from a Rosslyn, Virginia, barbecue joint to an international chain in the 90s, died of lung cancer January 17. He was 74.
A short, wiry man, McKnight spent more than 50 years in kitchens, working with a level of speed and enthusiasm that immediately caught the attention of Wendell Moore, a co-founder of the hickory-burning, Memphis-style barbecue restaurant that scouted McKnight while he was working at a downtown food court. McKnight went by “Sonny,” but his boss liked to call him “the Blur.”
“He was doing absolutely everything,” Moore says. “I would watch him day after day. I’d never seen anybody work so fast. He had the best work ethic I’ve ever seen in my life.”
The relationship that would spark McKnight’s career got off to an awkward start. When Moore showed up to the food court to offer McKnight a job, the cook didn’t believe the opportunity was real. McKnight’s employer was having legal problems, and he was paranoid something else was going on.
“He thought I was an undercover IRS agent trying to set him up,” Moore says.
At the time, Moore and his three partners were starting a restaurant even though they had no food experience between them beyond working as a busboy. They needed an employee who could lead.
McKnight became their pit master and the principal force behind the restaurant. Red Hot & Blue made Memphis barbecue a hit attraction around Washington when it opened in 1988. Within two months, the Rosslyn, Virginia, restaurant received major recommendations by the Washington Post and Washingtonian magazine food critics. Two-hour lines formed on Monday nights for the 86-seat Rosslyn restaurant for McKnight’s ribs and late-night blues led by touring legends like B.B. King, Isaac Hayes, Joe Cocker, Ronnie Wood, Rufus Thomas, and Lee Atwater, an investor in the restaurant better known as a Republican strategist and campaign manager for George H.W. Bush.
McKnight’s death resonated with his former friends, co-workers, and bosses after a 30-year career with Red Hot & Blue. There was a retirement party for him two years ago at the chain’s Laurel, Maryland, restaurant. But saying goodbye to someone who brightened their days so much is still hard to swallow.
“You could just sense the energy level in the kitchen,” Red Hot & Blue co-founder Bob Friedman says. “When I visited restaurants around the nation, people would ask about Sonny. He would not just teach recipes, he was magnetic and personable. Sonny set the pace.”
Ron Janis knew if McKnight was in the kitchen from the moment he walked into the location he managed in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
“It would just feel better,” says Janis, who was a manager from 2008 to 2010. “Everybody that worked for Sonny, with Sonny, and around Sonny just felt better because he was there. He really improved the atmosphere. … It all came from a place of love.”
Born in Sumter, South Carolina, McKnight first learned to cook from his mother. He liked to tell stories about a long cooking career that included preparing kosher food and cooking big Italian meals in the home of an organized crime boss who asked his dinner guests to lay their guns on the table.
Weeks after Moore’s cumbersome initial job offers, McKnight called with a request to see the proposed restaurant space on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington. At that time, partners Joel Wood, Friedman, Moore, future Tennessee governor Don Sundquist knew they wanted a local joint to eat barbecue, listen to blues, and meet friends.
They had no idea McKnight was about to transform their lives.
“[We were] slammed every night,” Moore says. “The danger we learned was you can have too much success if you can’t handle it. Sonny was the anchor. That food quality was never going to waver as long as he was there. He wouldn’t let it. The people around him don’t want to let him down. The others rose up to meet his expectations.”
“Let ‘em eat!” McKnight would roar as orders flooded in.
“Well, at that time, there was no barbecue culture in Europe at all apart from grilling over a charcoal fire in the garden,” says Maurits van den Bosch, who managed the restaurant for two years before it closed. “Only American tourists and expats who really appreciated it. And now . . . everyone in Holland knows ribs, pulled pork. Red Hot & Blue would be a huge success now.”
Van den Bosch says McKnight adapted to local food options while strictly replicating American recipes. He remembers McKnight’s personality shining through when he bonded with staff over beers during a night at a discotheque.
“He had the ability to win people over with his humor and smile,” Van den Bosch says, “but also because of his ability of telling all the good stories about the barbecue culture in the U.S.”
Moore said without McKnight, the chain would have been overwhelmed by its early success. McKnight’s cooking was always the key. Atwater brought big crowds from his connections as a Republican political strategist and advisor to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, but McKnight kept them coming back.
“You can only draw a crowd for so long,” Moore says, “and either the product is good or people will go away.”
McKnight remained with the chain after a 2006 sale and retired in 2017. Changing public demands made McKnight expand the menu to include healthier options, returning to the kitchen to experiment. He made videos for staff he couldn’t personally train.
McKnight enjoyed teaching as much as cooking. The chain’s original recipes were obtained from Corky’s Ribs & BBQ in Memphis, but McKnight tweaked them to his own perfection. The chef was so instrumental to the brand that Moore quickly gave him one more nickname: “Mr. Red Hot & Blue.”
“Sonny enjoyed cooking from when the food came in the door until [it was plated],” Friedman said. “He lived it.”