Pitmaster: Daniel Delaney, BrisketTown
Inspiration: Louie Mueller Barbecue, Taylor, TX
Story: It was before I spent any time visiting Texas. Louie Mueller Barbecue [and proprieter Wayne Mueller] was over at the Road Food Festival that Jane and Michael Stern put on. He was one of the vendors, and Michael Stern brought me over and introduced me. He had brisket, he cut me a piece of it, and it was just like…really transformative. I truly had never had that kind of flavor in my mouth. At all. Really. It was like, "Once I was blind..."
It must be like someone tasting a curry for the first time. Clearly, I’d had beef. I had never something so sumptuous and silky and sort of pleasing. It’s very satisfying. That was the moment where I was like, "That’s what barbecue is? Wow." When I got back from that, I went to Home Depot and bought my first smoker. My first shitty smoker. I tried to cook a pork shoulder, and it was really gross.
One of the things I remember that's less about the food was just watching Wayne. Now I understand everything he was doing, but at the time it was like watching this very pleasing dance. He was moving briskets from location to location and poking and pivoting and moving. It seemed as if it was totally haphazard, as if he was ripping pieces of cardboard and putting them under brisket. Obviously, he was in this outdoor setting with this new portable smoker that he had. It was like he was trying to plate a dish at Noma with two hammers. There was this grace, which was kind of interesting.
The whole thing is underscored by the fact that he looked like a chimney sweep. He was covered in grime and soot and peppercorns. He looked like he came out of the desert during a sandstorm. He was totally covered.
It made it feel all the more special, that here is this sort of finesse that this person has, and seemingly, an un-instructable understanding of how to move. And from inside what appears to be chaos, he cuts off a small piece and hands it to me. And I put it in my mouth. Perhaps it’s analogous to being on a fishing boat with Morimoto or chef Jiro, and they pull up the tuna, and he just carves it out and hands it to you. There’s something magical about how it was presented.
Pitmaster: Tyson Ho, Arrogant Swine
Inspiration: The Skylight Inn, Ayden, NC
Story: The goal was for me to try a bunch of barbecue joints and pick a style. North Carolina was first. I made a list of all these places in North Carolina, and Skylight Inn is the closest off I-95, so thought I’d go there first and go on from there.
I basically stopped my journey right there. "I'm going to do North Carolina. That’s it." I never bothered hitting up Kentucky or Memphis or any of these other places. I will eventually. I decided this is the winner.
What stuck out the most was that I expected to not like it. No one in New York had it for me to try. The description of it was basically: "This is pork, and they're going to drench it with vinegar." That's not the most exciting sounding dish in the world. But at first bite — and my prejudgment was that this is not going to be very good — it kind of works together.
I like that it basically tasted like pork. Every other barbecue style was so focused on just making secret sauces and secret rubs and things like that. But here was a style that was like: "Here’s a pig. We put some vinegar and hot sauce on it." And that’s it. It was a very defining style.
It also just had that picture perfect background for what I was looking for in barbecue. It was this really romantic, old school way of cooking barbecue. There are plenty of joints that don’t cook in any old fashioned way. They use machines. There’s no romance in that.
Instead I’m on this fucking country road, where we couldn’t get the GPS signal —we’re driving around for a good hour because we couldn’t figure out where the hell we were. You get there, and there’s a you see good New York City block full of wood. That’s how much wood these guys are burning. It’s insane. They were burning this wood and cooking the entire pig.
If I had stopped in my first spot, and it was a really good tasting barbecue joint, but then I walked back there and it was just some machine, it’s a little harder to follow up with that. It becomes more of a food process. When your counter is in the countryside, with the wood burning environment, you’re tied with history. It’s that much cooler of an experience."
Pitmaster: Matt Fisher, Fletcher's Barbecue
Inspiration: Ferry Bank, Brooklyn, NY
Story: There was a grand old restaurant in Downtown Brooklyn called the Ferry Bank. It was a big old bank building — it was right by where Grimaldi’s is, near the waterfront there. It wasn’t anything special. My favorite meal was barbecue ribs. They were just baked with barbecue sauce, falling off the bone — not authentic barbecue in any real way. I just loved it. I loved the texture, the flavor, the sauce, the meat. I was the only one in my family who liked it. It was my private little thing.
My dad had an office in Brooklyn Heights. It was five, ten minutes away from there. I don’t know how it became a mini tradition. We’d go a couple times a year. That would be the dish that did it for me every time.
I had family in North Carolina and Florida and Virginia, and we would road trip down. I started to explore more authentic barbecue and learned more and became more discerning, and later on started cooking my own barbecue up north. But no one I knew did authentic barbecue. It was all grilled and then put in sauce, or baked and then put in sauce.
I got my own wood and tried to recreate what I couldn’t find in a restaurant up here. That was my beginning of barbecue. I would say that flame was lit early on. I didn’t have a clue what course it would take. It was my love from a young age, but I didn’t realize until later on in life that it’s what I wanted to do.
Pitmaster: Billy Durney, Hometown Bar-B-Que
Inspiration: Louie Mueller Barbecue, Taylor, TX
Story: There are two things I think about the most, as far as inspirations to do what I do now. The first thing is seeing the guys in South America, like on the beaches, cooking with oak. I never knew that world existed. When you're born and raised in Brooklyn, a barbecue is something you went to, not an act, not a style of cooking. The word "barbecue" and what it means now is so much more important, partly from watching those guys cooking on open fires in South America.
The biggest thing for me is definitely the first time I went to central Texas and ate central Texas barbecue, specifically Louie Mueller. That was the first time I ever stepped into a restaurant, and one foot in, I knew right there — that was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.
People who love barbecue call the spot the Cathedral of Barbecue. The third generation of it, Wayne Mueller, is now one of my closest friends in barbecue and in life in general. The last four, five years of my life have come full circle to seven years ago, and saying, "Wow, that's such a special place. I want to be doing that." To be in the same breadth as him and other great barbecue guys in the world in the media, it's very humbling to me.
It was not only the food, but just the room. It's covered in 70-something years of barbecue soot from brick pits that are indoors. High ceilings. Everything in there smells like wood. It's a very charming, romantic place. I'm not sure the locals in Taylor, Texas, consider it charming. If you were to go to it, you would concur that it was charming.
Pitmaster: Hugh Mangum, Mighty Quinn's
Inspiration: Doctor Hogly Wogly's Tyler Texas BBQ, Van Nuys, CA; Dozier's Grocery & Market, Fulshear, TX; Hinze's BBQ, Sealy, TX
Story: My father was in Texas. That was basically it. The fact that whenever I was with him, we would road trip and try barbecue — my lineage is directly related to that.
There were actually three places in the country that were my favorite places. One was in Los Angeles: Doctor Hogly Wogly's Tyler Texas BBQ. It's still there to this today, and when I was a kid, we would go there. It was some food writer who wrote about it. So my father said, "We gotta go check it out." It was awesome. They baked fresh bread on site. My memory of it is amazing. I don't know that it still is — we all have these memories as kids. Dozier's was more of a market that had barbecue in the back.
Hinze's is what I recollect most about. When I was on tour as a musician, whenever we stopped in Texas, I would meet up with my dad. We would drive out, and I'd bring back racks of ribs for all the guys in the band. It was a really cool experience. What I also recollect was driving up, you'd be within a mile and a half of the place, and you could smell the wood. You could smell the smoke. It was this sweet smell of pecan, which is my favorite wood to smoke with. The only reason I don't use it here is it doesn't grow indigenous. I'm not into bringing wood across the country. But pecan was my wood of choice. It's the greatest, sweetest, nuttiest wood. Even mentioning it now, my salivary glands pop. It brings back memories.
Pitmaster: Josh Bowen, John Brown Smokehouse
Inspiration: Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que, Kansas City, MO; Smitty's Bar-B-Que, Lockhart, TX
Story: Well you know, I grew up in Kansas City. Nothing was really much of an epiphany until I thought of going into business and cooking my own barbecue. I probably judged things a lot more. Growing up in Kansas City, I went to world class barbecue restaurants all the time. It wasn’t, "This is number one, and this is number two."
If I had to pick one, it would be ribs at Oklahoma Joe’s. It's called Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que now. It’s considered one of the better ones in Kansas City. Also, the brisket at Smitty’s in Texas. If you eat good meat, you're like, "Mmm, maybe I should try to do that."
Everybody in Kansas City probably ate barbecue at least weekly. Sunday family dinner is kind of a barbecue thing. It's so prevalent there that we don't even think of it as a proud tradition. It's just food. Until five, six, seven years ago, there wasn't even a culinary scene in Kansas City. Now there's a foodie scene. There's probably a peanut butter and jelly sandwich restaurant there by now.
In New York, there's millions of places that inspired my culinary tongue. I could talk for an hour about those. I can eat the world, which is what I do. Most of my diet is probably Thai food at this point. Thai food and arepas. Why eat just the thing you grew up with if you can eat so much?
Chef: Elizabeth Karmel, founding chef at Hill Country BBQ and current chef/pitmaster at CarolinaCueToGo.com
Inspiration: A cafe on Rue de Rivoli, across from Hotel Regina in Paris
Story: I remember the first time when I was in high school that I went to Paris. I just could not believe it. Every single bite was pristine. Super well balanced and delicious. And I have never tasted food quite like that. That influenced me in a way, as I became an adult, to use a lot of French techniques with my Southern flavor.
I remember I had the most perfect strawberry tart, with a very cookie-like but not too sweet crust that was painted with dark chocolate, and the most perfect silky custard cream filling, and fresh strawberries that were sliced and just put on the top. They took something that was made a lot of different ways, and they made every single part of that tart as perfect as it could be. Painting the crust with chocolate was intentional so the tart was not soggy from the custard.
That attention to detail made a big impact on me. I try to look at everything I’m doing, especially barbecue, and sides and desserts, and make sure that every layer is the best that it possibly can be. That is a weird answer. But it’s definitely true.
These interviews have been condensed and edited.