Posted 14 January 2003 - 03:34 PM
Posted 15 January 2003 - 08:31 PM
It has certainly become all that, but I fooled myself a bit thinking the effort would be anything less than opening a 3-star restaurant. in many respects, it's been even harder.
There's no free pass for "creativity" when you do barbecue and all of the straightforward American stuff on our menu. For example, when we opened Tabla, you may or may not have loved Chef Floyd's Rice-Flaked Crusted Sea Bass in Watermelon Curry. (I do love it.) But since you probably had never eaten anything like it in your life, you had no basis to compare it to anything else, and so took it on its own creative and culinary merits.
Now in the case of Blue Smoke, you have experienced practically everything on our menu, and probably have deeply held emotional feelings as to how it should taste. In fact, I'd wager that your mother's or grandmother's version of just about everything on our menu is the one you hold up as the best: macaroni & cheese, ribs, barbecue sauce, devilled eggs, cole slaw, potato salad, brisket (you wouldn't believe how many New Yorkers never knew that there was anything beyond braised brisket), barbecued chicken, banana cream pie, sweet potato pie, etc., etc.
We also underestimated what I call the culture factor. If I open a barbecue restaurant in Memphis, it's going to be Memphis-style barbecue. Period. Same thing for Kansas City, or Taylor Texas, or Smithfield, North Carolina. But it's not clear what should be on your menu in New York -- a city that lacks its own barbecue traditions. And since the first folks to try the restaurant were barbecue lovers (ex-pats from barbecue destinations) with orthodox points of view as to what barbecue should be, it became very challenging in those early days to please many people. Everyone wanted Blue Smoke to be THEIR kind of barbecue joint. Many wrote it off just because it wasn't in some rural outpost. Some didn't believe we were using wood to smoke.
As for the food, sometimes we were right on -- bringing people to tears (I haven't had collard greens like that since my grandmother made them!), sometimes we provoked vitriol (How dare you open this restaurant. You know nothing about barbecue!).
I should also point out that the inconsistency of our product in those early days didn't help either. One day we'd nail the pulled pork, and the next day it could be embarrasingly bad. And it was frustrating, because we had learned how to smoke. But not in the city. The biggest hurdle we had to overcome was our own inexperience with smoking in a pit with a 15-story smokestack. We had no idea how powerful the updraft would be, and it was 5 months(!) before Michael Romano figured out that the reason our ribs were often coming out without much smokey flavor and rather dry, was that rather than slowly bathing and basting in smoke for 6-7 hours, the ribs were being violently blow-dried by smoke. After lots of work, we did "surgery" on our smokestack, inserting three dampers that have tricked it into thinking its a normal pit out in barbecue country. The benefits were realized overnight.
Each day brings new challenges, and new victories. And thankfully, lots of new guests!