Red Hot & Blue pitmaster Sonny McKnight of Baltimore dies at 74

Sonny McKnight, right, stands with singer Rufus Thomas at the original Red Hot & Blue in Arlington, Virginia. (Courtesy Red Hot & Blue)
WTOP's Jason Fraley remembers Sonny McKnight (Part 1)

The original pitmaster of the Red Hot & Blue restaurant chain, Ernest “Sonny” McKnight of Baltimore, died Sunday after a long battle with lung cancer. He was 74.

“Sonny was our first employee,” co-founder Robert Friedman told WTOP. “The founders didn’t have any restaurant experience. The first person we hired was Sonny. He brought to us the basics of how to prepare food, how to take care of customers.”

Friedman co-founded the barbecue restaurant in 1988 with Wendell Moore, Joel Wood and former Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist, who all admired McKnight’s presence.

“Sonny just had this personality that everybody just wanted to emulate,” Friedman said. “He had this incredible wisdom, this incredible aura. He was just magnetic. … He was knowledgeable but without being pushy. He was just one of those incredibly charming people. When he would walk into a room, the room would just brighten.”

Born in Sumter, South Carolina, McKnight learned how to cook from his mother. During his over 50-year restaurant career, he cooked everything from kosher to Italian.

“He was kind of like the Forrest Gump of chefs,” Friedman said. “He worked in just about any concept you could imagine as the cook and the head chef. He just had so much institutional knowledge. He did everything and ran such a crisp kitchen.”

McKnight told stories of regularly visiting the home of an organized crime boss to cook big Italian meals. He said guests would put their guns on the table while they ate.

“We found him at the food court at [International Square],” Friedman said. “Sonny was working in there at a pizza restaurant. My partner Wendell said, ‘That is the fastest cook I’ve ever seen in my life.’ Sonny just flew! He could put out the same amount of food with the same quality as three other cooks. Wendell said, ‘We gotta hire this guy.'”

Of course, his specialty was authentic Memphis-style BBQ.

“BBQ is not like other food because every pork shoulder is different, every rib is different, every chicken is different,” Friedman said. “Sonny taught us how to look at the food, feel the food, bend bones, etc., so that we’d know when the BBQ was right.”

In 1988, McKnight became Red Hot & Blue’s first employee at the original location in Arlington, Virginia. He was its first cook and rose to executive chef and pitmaster as the chain grew to 35 locations across the U.S. and abroad. He gained national exposure on NBC, ABC, CNN and Fox News, as well as local D.C. television stations.

“Sonny was one of those people who had a natural presence on camera, one of those people that when he was on TV, you just got sucked in and wanted to hear what he had to say,” Friedman said. “He just had this look, feel and personality of somebody who had been around BBQ for a long time and was speaking from the heart.”

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater was an investor in Red Hot & Blue, allowing McKnight to rub elbows with musicians Ronnie Wood, Rufus Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Joe Cocker and B.B. King when Atwater brought them to dine.

“Sonny looked incredibly like Rufus Thomas, who did the songs ‘Walking the Dog’ and ‘Funky Chicken,'” Friedman said. “One day, Rufus came into the restaurant and we got a picture of Sonny and Rufus together looking like twins looking at the jukebox.”

The original location closed in 2014, but 12 restaurants remain in the chain, including Annapolis and Laurel in Maryland, as well as Fairfax and Leesburg in Virginia.

“The BBQ restaurant trend, which was pretty hot for a while in the D.C. area, really started with Red Hot & Blue and everybody piled on,” Friedman said. “We certainly set the trend, not only here, but as you go around the country and look at what other restaurants have done, you now find barbeque on menus at fast-food restaurants.”

McKnight commuted from Baltimore every day for 29 years until his retirement in 2017.

He is survived by his wife, Jeanette, his two sons, Earnest Jr. and Ronald, and his grandchildren, Ashlee and Ryan. He is preceded in death by his daughter Theresa.

“His presence is still felt when you walk into the restaurant,” Friedman said.

Somewhere, echoing out from the kitchen, is Sonny’s trademark shout, “Let ’em eat!”

WTOP's Jason Fraley remembers Sonny McKnight (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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