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Daniel Delaney on Brisket, New York, and the Future

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Daniel Krieger

The 26-year-old Daniel Delaney does not fit the profile of the conventional barbecue specialist. He grew up in Jersey, studied fine arts in Philly, and wasn't born into the tradition. Delaney practically stumbled upon barbecue fresh out of college, while traveling around the country producing videos about street food. Somewhere along that journey, he met Wayne Mueller and Aaron Franklin, Texan pitmasters known for their dedication to taming one of the most challenging and mysterious kinds of barbecue there is: brisket. "I never thought it could have that power," says Delaney of his first experience trying Mueller's specialty at an event in New Orleans. From then on, Delaney devoted himself to learning the craft, first tinkering with brisket on his New York balcony and, a few years later, going all-in and buying a smoker in Texas. He drove it all the way back to Jersey and parked it at his parents' house. What followed were a series of successful pop-ups called BrisketLab, which made way for BrisketTown, a brick and mortar that opened in Williamsburg last November. It's been slammed since then and — by most accounts — for good reason. In the following interview, Delaney talks about his story and his methods, addresses the issue of pricing and barbecue in New York, and explains how what he's doing will always be a work in progress.

How did this all start?
I grew up in North Jersey, just seven miles over the bridge. My food journey is really like a domino kind of thing. If one piece hadn't been there, the chain of events wouldn't have happened. I went to a fine arts college in Philadelphia. I did a degree where you had to create your own course of study and come up with a thesis to graduate. I had always been interested in restaurants, even though I was warned about how tough the life is, but I wrote about how design affects mobile vendors and their businesses.

Through that experience, I started getting interested in street food. There was the waffle truck in New York at that time and Kogi in Los Angeles, so it seemed like there was something brewing. So when I didn't really know what I was going to do after college, I realized I had all of these friends with different talents, and that we should maybe pitch a show about street food. For two or three years, we highlighted some of the best street food in the country, while also being able to try the best indigenous cuisine when we traveled, whether that was lobster shacks or barbecue.

One July 4, I went to Home Depot while I was living in Williamsburg, I decided to get a shitty smoker as opposed to a grill. It was super shitty, but I was interested in it. The real thing happened when I was down in New Orleans and was introduced to Wayne from Louie Mueller barbecue. I tried his brisket and it wowed me. I never knew meat could taste like that — that brisket could have that power.

When was this?
Around 2009. I extended the trip and started visiting more places in Texas, and that was when I met Aaron Franklin, right after he had started up Franklin Barbecue. I found it really relatable, because he was new and not one of these pillars of barbecue.

When I came back to New York, I convinced my girlfriend to let me commandeer the balcony and build a smoker out there. I ended up being really nerdy with it, drilling holes, installing fans, etc.

So you've figured this out on your own, basically?
Yeah, it was all trial and error. I had that for like three years. And it was really challenging, since it's harder to do this on a small smoker. Eventually I realized I didn't want to do video or consulting anymore, and while I was down in Austin for an event I helped put together, I bought a smoker and drove it up to New York. I didn't really know what to do and was quite intimidated. My parents let me park it in their backyard, and that's when we figured out Brisketlab.

For those who might be unfamiliar, what was the idea behind that?

It was a recipe development event series. It was quite functional, since it let me figure out the problems I was having.

With the idea in mind that you'd eventually open a restaurant?
No, to get better at making barbecue and to see how I liked that. I wanted to write beta on food, to profess my naivety, which doesn't really happen much in this scene. I wanted to be able to use a full smoker without going broke, so we had people pre-purchase the brisket to avoid flakes. We sold 3,200 pounds in about fifty hours and raised around $80,000.

We ended up putting on 31 of these events over 60 days. It was harrowing, since I'd be up all night smoking the meat and preparing everything in New Jersey and then traveling to wherever we'd put on the event. But we learned how to make adjustments and got to the point where it was a pleasurable system.

Who was coming to these things?
They're all people in New York, and it skews male. It was people interested in food that wanted to get in on something that was somewhat sinful and also somewhat exclusive. We got some good traction, since the Village Voice and the Times wrote about it. But I don't think it was a pretentious scene. It was more adventurous.

So then I announced BrisketTown, which was going to be a pop-up in an airstream. But the red tape was prohibitively difficult, and one day I passed by the space that we now have, saw a for rent sign, and checked it out. It's one block from my house. The landlord decided to give me the keys without a contract, and we got it on October 1 and opened on November 15.

I wanted to ask you about pricing. You actually went into the comments section of an Eater post and responded to criticisms about how much you charge. Why?
Most people, especially in an anonymous commenting environment, don't consider the ramifications of their comments. I think people should be accountable for what they say, and it doesn't bother me to proactively respond to things. The worst consumer is an uneducated consumer, and if people want to hate on what we're doing after they understand our choices, that's fine. But I don't feel that anyone is helped when people sound off anonymously about things they aren't necessarily dialed in on.

Well, if I were to tell you your brisket was too expensive, what would you tell me?
There are a few ways to look at it. First off, all pricing is arbitrary. The fact that you will go to Peter Luger and pay $70 for a steak and then expect to pay $5 somewhere else for a burger is completely arbitrary. It's the market that determines what is the most valuable. When you buy that Peter Luger steak, the amount of time, after aging, that is dedicated to preparing it is 30 minutes. It's delicious, of course. The product we're making starts off with a lower-priced cut of meat as determined by the market, but one brisket that we handle goes through about 36 hours of prep work before someone eats it. When the briskets come in, we sort them, we trim them, we season them, and then we let them rest for a certain amount of time, depending on the size of the brisket.

Then, and only then, does it make it onto the smoker. We have chosen to use a very primitive style of smoker, one that was built by hand and requires lots of TLC. It's not an indoor pit that is well insulated or automated.

Talk a bit about that.
Different smokers work better for different styles of barbecue. If you're down in Texas, the physical design of the smoker basically has a heat source and a long chamber. In Memphis, for instance, it's a much more direct source. The point is that there are different designs to smokers that work for different products. Brisket is tapered, so the long chamber works the best. There's one section that needs more heat, and one that doesn't. So, you see how different smokers fit different styles.

In New York, most places have taken a different approach. Things are a bit more generalized, where people do Memphis ribs but also Texas brisket. In my eyes, that's not fair. Provenance is important. In my eyes, if you're making Memphis ribs over something that isn't charcoal and it's next to the brisket and this and that, I don't think that's very accurate. It's a sensitive thing to talk about, because I come off like an asshole. But I look at it like this: when I started, I realized that Texas barbecue wasn't native to me or this area. I am borrowing a craft that has been around for decades and transposing it to New York. I decided I was going to do my best to not deviate from the way the masters have done it in that region. I'm not going to call it fusion barbecue or anything else. I just want to try to do what they do as best I can. I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel. I'm not that smart.

The reason that barbecue in particular gets more attention right now — and that'll fade soon and we'll be obsessing about focaccia or something — is that it's so not part of our food culture. The people in the native areas — they want to preserve their food form and the idea that this is where it's from and that no one can ever top that. On a gut emotional level, I understand that thinking, but I actually think that if you measured the pros and cons, there's actually a tremendous amount of opportunity for somebody in New York to do a better job than someone in a native reason.

Why?
Economics. Most barbecue places in Texas are very much the byproduct of economy. Their ability to use higher grades of meat are limited by the market. I have friends down their that would like to use the quality of meat we use here, but there it has always been indigenous, cheap, working man food. There's a lot of sensitivity about price. Beef prices are going to go up, and the consumer doesn't necessarily care to really understand those things. So, I actually think there's an opportunity in regions that aren't bound to that legacy and heritage. You can do something great with it. It's like what you see with people toying with Neapolitan pizza here, for instance.

How is your work viewed down in Texas?
Really, really positively. I am actually going to speak at Foodways Texas soon. On the whole, the response that we've gotten from Texas specifically has been wildly supportive. We're not mixing cards. We're just sticking to one thing, and I am clear about the fact that I am not a master and I probably never will be. I don't want to call myself a pitmaster. These people that are pitmasters have been doing this their whole lives, because generations before them have. It's like what I saw in art school, where eighteen-year-olds would call themselves artists because they liked to take photographs. You have to put in your time. It's something to be earned.

Just because you have a brick-and-mortar doesn't mean that this still isn't a work in progress?
Absolutely. We cook outdoors, and we might be the only people that do that, and we are very affected by temperature. I had never cooked in the winter, and that really affected our product. I would have loved to have a year to get used to that, but that's not how the world works. I would say that every single week that we've been open, we made changes to our product. I wouldn't say it's great yet — it's OK, it's good.

You don't think it's excellent.
Not at all. I think it's better than most things in New York. Look, I think you can count the number of places making excellent brisket in Texas on one hand. The zip code and accent don't help the product. I think we're heading in the right direction. Every day presents a brand new challenge, and that's the interesting thing. If we decide on a Thursday to adjust the salinity or the amount of pepper, we won't be able to see the difference until Tuesday. It takes a lot of time. It's always evolving, and we also have to deal with fluctuations in the size of brisket that we get, which affects our labor and process.

You've only been involved in this since 2009. Do you think you're going to be in it for the long haul?
The commitment is there between me and the team to follow this through. That's the goal. We want to create something truly impressive.

What did you think of the Pete Wells review?
I thought it was wonderful. What Mighty Quinn's is doing is great. I think we have very similar values, so I kind of look at it like this: it would have been great to be the feature of the review, of course, but if it wasn't us, there's no one I'd rather have than them. I think people want us to be competitive — and in the broad, economic sense are — but I think there's finally an interest in producing a high quality product in the world of New York barbecue. A rising tide raises all ships. It increases the palate and perception of the customer. It takes a Roberta's, a Van Leeuwen,, or whoever to step it up in their markets.

There is always somebody that comes in and wants to do a better job. And I hope that somebody comes in and decides they want to do a better job than me and Mighty Quinn's, because I want to work harder. I want the challenge. I love the fact that Mighty Quinn's is open, because it makes me want to work harder.

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