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Local Pitmasters: ‘New York Has Put Its Own Stamp on Barbecue'

Here's what the city's local barbecue experts think of the scene in 2016

New York City has never been considered a quintessential barbecue town. As Robert Sietsema wrote earlier this week, the scene is relatively new — lacking the storied history and tradition that colors Southern barbecue. But in the last few years, several formidable barbecue restaurants have opened, some even to national acclaim. Some people, including Eater resident carnivore Nick Solares, think Brooklyn in particular has developed its own take on the craft. So does New York have its own brand of barbecue now? And how do local barbecue people see the city’s growing barbecue scene? Eater asked some of the biggest local smokers for their thoughts on the subject.

Hugh Mangum Nick Solares

  1. Hugh Mangum, Mighty Quinn’s: At the end of the day, no one can deny that New York has put its own stamp on barbecue. I’m fortunate to be one of the guys who has been involved in that. There's a few of us now.

New York has always been known as a food town. For some reason, barbecue was never taken seriously here. Part of it is location and tradition. Most people equate barbecue to places in the South, or places that are remote or more hard to get to, or shacks on the side of the road, in the same way New Yorkers have their favorite pizza place.

But I think what’s happened is that barbecue pitmasters and/or chefs are really open-minded. We all — whether its an Aaron Franklin, or a guy from New York or North Carolina — are interested in what each other does. We’re all open-minded and think as long as the person is using real techniques, it’s all real.

I think where the polarity comes in is more the people that let their childhood experience dictate their feelings. Someone from Kansas will walk into the restaurant, and say, "I know real barbecue." The truth is, at this point in time, barbecue has become more universal. Location is important, as far as memories go. But if you blindfolded 100 people and had them taste brisket from places in New York, Texas, and Kansas City, they’d have a hard time telling you which came form New York and which came from Texas. Bias sometimes affects the taste more than the actual product itself.

People that cook it professionally tend to be really open minded. We all kind of have fun talking about it together. It’s more about people who love to eat, as opposed to doing it for living, who get embattled in where it’s from and the regionality. At the end of the day, there are places in New York that are growing to other locations. Someone does Texas brisket, someone does North Carolina pulled pork. What we have always tried to do is stay true to what we do. We’re in New York. Even though my dad is from Texas, the interpretation is "whatever tastes good to us." Let the chips fall where they may. Hopefully people dig it.

Elizabeth Karmel

Elizabeth Karmel, founding chef at Hill Country; current chef/pitmaster at Three years ago, I would've said no, [there’s no New York barbecue]. Today, I would say absolutely yes. I am so infatuated with Billy Durney and what he’s doing at Hometown. What he’s done is taken barbecue technique, but he’s proved himself. And the fact is, he’s a New Yorker. It’s not like he’s trying to recreate Southern barbecue. He’s just using Southern barbecue techniques and making the food that he fell in love with growing up in New York, which includes jerk ribs, and Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches. He’s doing pork belly pastrami. None of those things are traditional in the barbecue world. But then he also does a Texas-style beef rib that he fell in love with in Texas with Louie Mueller. He’s made that his own. I think Billy Durney is the definition of New York barbecue.

I do not think there is a New York barbecue scene, any more than there is a New York Italian scene. There are amazing Italian restaurants in New York, and you could eat that same food in Italy. Billy’s not trying to replicate Southern barbecue. He’s using those techniques and making food with his favorite New York flavors.

The biggest thing about barbecue in New York is now it has become a driving force. There’s more than just Blue Smoke and Hill Country. It’s a real legitimate, culinary category. I’m so happy about that. I think it’s the best food, and everybody should have a taste of barbecue whether they can get to the South or not. New York should have a big barbecue community.

Matt Fisher Nick Solares

Matt Fisher, Fletcher’s I think I would describe [the New York barbecue scene] as transitional. We have done a very professional job of developing unique re-creations of regional styles, meaning we have fantastic Texas-style; we have fantastic North Carolina-style barbecue; there’s great Kansas City-style barbecue. And then there are people like Will Horowitz from Ducks Eatery and Harry & Ida’s. I would say, while they’re definitely barbecue-inspired, they’ve created a unique language. That’s what makes New York pitmasters great. They can respect tradition and craft and still carry some kind of new vision with it. Whether you want to call it smoke cuisine or modern barbecue, it’s still barbecue at its core.

There’s something about what we’re doing, and a handful of other places are maybe doing, like Hometown. They’re taking our craft and incorporating international, multicultural influence on cuisine, and doing something that’s in the conversation of traditional barbecue but hasn’t necessarily been done anywhere else — and wouldn’t have been done because of the nature of New York, and the chaotic collision of food and limitations and access to the ingredients. All of it makes you do stuff that you don’t see put together that way in other cities.

We have a unique sound that’s all our own.

Not to say there aren’t progressive barbecue restaurants in other cities. There certainly are. We have a unique sound that’s all our own. To be a great chef or pitmaster — not to sound pretentious — but you have to be a curious eater, an active eater. It’s almost impossible to eat in New York City without encountering flavors that make you wake up and say, "What is in that?" Once you ask that question, and you say, "Where did you buy that? How do you prep it?" If you’re curious and playful, it’s probably inevitable that it will come out in your final product.

To me, it’s incredibly exciting, to go to Hong Kong Supermarket or a Mexican or Dominican deli and find a little packet of chiles, and say, "How do you cook with this?" Start playing with the dish for a couple months. Suddenly it’s a new thing on something I’ve been cooking for year. There’s only so many ways to cook brisket and pork butt before you’re on autopilot. To me, that’s New York.

Billy Durney, Hometown Bar-B-Que Certainly, I think there is a New York barbecue as far as I’m concerned. People consider me Texas. We’re the furthest thing in the world. Other than our building looking like a honky tonk — and we certainly do brisket that is an homage to Texas — every other item on our menu is me paying tribute to some amazing multiethnic dining experience that I’ve had, being a street kid born and raised in Brooklyn. If anyone is doing anything called New York barbecue, it’s me.

We make Vietnamese lamb, Chinese ribs, handmade tortillas from scratch for Oaxacan-style tacos. That’s just a sampling of multicultural. If that’s not New York barbecue, then I don’t know what the heck you would call New York barbecue.

Tyson Ho

Tyson Ho, Arrogant Swine I think New York has a better barbecue scene than most cities. This is from a guy who just came back from a trip and hit up nine barbecue joints in 36 hours. You have to drive miles and miles and miles just to hit up those nine barbecue joints. In New York, you can hit nine really good barbecue joints in under three hours, if you wanted to.

I disagree with most people, that there is a "New York" barbecue style. I don’t think that’s true at all. I think there’s variants of the barbecue that most of us derived from. Adding Sriracha to pork ribs, it’s not going to be New York. That’s like, if you’re Hometown, you can do whatever you want, but at the end of the day, it’s in technique and spirit, a Texas-based barbecue joint. People like John Brown’s, they put foie gras and kimchee on the menu. They’re still solidly a Kansas City style barbecue joint, and they advertise that as such.

The only way a barbecue style rises is more or less if everyone does the same thing. There was no creative consensus that made Kansas City style barbecue. One dude made a shit ton of money. Other people were like, "I like making shit tons of money, so I’ll copy." They all did this thing, because it’s a proven market concept. It’s something that worked. What we’re doing in New York, it’s not organic at all. It’s "I’m going to walk into an Asian food market. Tamarind paste and fermented crabs will go into my rub." That is a great creator process, but that is not how a barbecue style emerges. It emerges for no other reason than pure economics.

But I would say pound for pound, New York has the best offerings of barbecue, just in this small area. It’s the difference between saying New York and,I don’t know, North Carolina has the best offerings. You have to traverse the entire side of the state in order to get the same amount of barbecue that we’re getting.

The only place you might find this concentration of wood-only barbecue is Austin.

There is a focus and attention on old-school barbecue in New York that’s not done in a lot of places. Most places are cooking barbecue using gas or electric cookers, which are glorified ovens. In New York, there’s almost a ridiculous amount of people cooking in a very old way. I cook with all wood. Hometown, Fletcher's, Delaney, Morgan’s all do, which is absurd. It’s so hard to find it. The only place you might find this concentration of wood-only barbecue is Austin. Most people are cooking with these machines, as opposed to old school techniques.

New York City is fairly demanding in terms of its search for the real deal. We have this almost fetish for, [for example], Asian-style sushi. We’re not happy with just sushi. We want very specific, very real authentic sushi. Authenticity is the cheesiest word ever. For lack of a better term, we do have a fetish for it. Because of this almost demand for the real deal, I think it’s more welcome and accepted in New York to cook barbecue with all wood.

Josh Bowen Michael Rudin

Josh BowenJohn Brown Smokehouse I think the New York barbecue scene is full-fledged. It’s good. I saw the debate Robert Sietsema had with the Texas barbecue guy about New York being the barbecue capital, [back in 2013]. Tradition wise, New York doesn’t have that, but this is the culinary capital of the world. Some of these guys know what they’re doing and then some.

Kansas City and Texas, they’ve been doing what they're doing for 100 years, and they're awesome. In New York, why not throw foie gras on it or whatever? There are no rules here, so it makes it more awesome.

It’s fun to go to the country and drink a cooler full of beer and all. The traditions of that will never carry over to New York. The tradition of awesome food — that can be done up here. We do that with everything in New York. We can be a capital if we want to. But we don’t want to because we’re New York. We’ll be the capital of everything else except for barbecue.

Daniel Delaney, BrisketTown I’ve had the same answer for a lot of the years on this question. Which is just, no. I don’t get caught up in that. I think the thing that connects barbecue is greater than zip codes. I think that the people that make barbecue, whether you’re in Kansas City or Texas or in Brooklyn, there’s sort of a shared romance. It transcends locations.

I don’t think new York has a barbecue culture that’s old enough to be defined. You’re comparing it to the barbecue culture in Texas, which is probably more than 100 years old. The fact that a few young people like myself decided to cook it and experimented more, and some didn’t experiment more…the jury is out. It’s too soon to know.

At this point, I don’t see anything that’s unique about the New York scene with barbecue. The internet in general is making things more homogenous, or less derivative of the providence that things are originally from. Aaron Franklin smokes pork shoulder. It’s not part of the palate of Texas barbecue. But he does that. Other people are smoking prime rib, but that has never been a part of Texas.

Then in New York, you have some people who are very hard set in cooking things traditionally, like us. You have people like Billy at Hometown, and he’s putting hoisin sauce and Sriracha [on the meat], and that’s totally not a providence of one region.

I think that the real answer to the question is not defined by New York or Texas or this or that. It’s realistically defined by the age of the person cooking. If you look at any of the younger people, whether it’s somebody like Aaron in Texas, who’s in his 30s, or John Lewis, in Charleston, who’s also in his 30s. They’re all exciting. They’re all doing things that are different from what their grandparents did. It’s not just the nature of barbecue, it’s the nature of growth and innovation.

What’s interesting about this newer wave is, for the first time, they’re informed by people like Noma and Bouley to really understand technique and science. They’re approaching barbecue with that understanding. It allows them to unlock the physics of how it happens. They’re smart. Perhaps, they have that foundation. Then they sort of improvise on that scene.

I understand also that there’s another thing to it, which is a marketing play. It’s cool to say we have our own style in New York. If anybody says that and does a little soul searching, it’s much more complex. I'm sure that [Hometown] would not exist if it were not for places like [Franklin Barbecue], and that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for places like Louie Mueller barbecue. It’s all very interrelated. I can say without any doubt, that we would not be around if it wasn’t for what the ancestral barbecue godfathers laid as a foundation.

These interviews have been condensed and edited.

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