BBQ to Yanks
Posted 16 January 2003 - 11:31 AM
What have been your experiences explaining proper barbecue to a population that thinks barbecue is baked, gooey, sweet stuff and might perceive real barbecue as dry or harsh?
And, for that matter, have you run into visiting southerners who scoff at you serving anything but beer with your bbq?
Posted 16 January 2003 - 04:37 PM
The single biggest challenge with barbecue is that it is not a creative pursuit. We don't try to gussy it up with whimsical sauces, reductions, plate presentations or flourishes of any type. It is 100% about execution and consistency. It stands or falls on its own, naked merits. Every day we make a lot of mistakes and then strive to learn from them. I have the utmost respect for the great outposts of barbecue. Doing something well, day-in-and-day-out is really hard. Particularly when there's no place to hide your mistakes. That would be the case whether you were trying to do barbecue in New York or on the barbecue belt.
As for doing it New York, what's really challenging is that even when you DO execute at the highest level, it may taste awful to someone who grew up with a different style of barbecue. Having had the privilege of judging at Memphis in May and Jack Daniels in Lynchburg (for the education and fun of it, I took the all-day Kansas City Barbecue Society course and am a certified barbecue judge!), I know exactly what we're striving for in terms of flavor, texture and appearance. And the key word is striving. Yes, it can be frustrating when someone faults our ribs for "not falling off the bone" when we know that only happens when they're seriously over-cooked (or when they're actually braised -- ot smoked.) We would have failed if our ribs fell off the bone. And it can be tough when someone's only experience with barbecue is grilled ribs covered in barbecue sauce. We use sauce as an accent, but want the meat, smoke and dry rub to be the star of the show.
But ultimately, it's our responsibility to educate the guests who come to Blue Smoke. It's our job to express what we're trying to do, and then to execute on that promise. When we fail for either reason, it's our problem -- not our guests. I'm grateful that the restaurant is doing well and that so many folks are coming back frequently and becoming regulars.
I don't believe barbecue is a passing fad. It's too entrenched in this country, and I believe more and more people are looking for real American experiences. "Blackened this and that" was a fad of the 1980's, because it wasn't based in a longstanding tradition.
New Yorkers have always welcomed food (sometimes authentic, sometimes not) from all parts of the world. We love Italian food, and don't scoff at Italian restaurants just because this isn't really Italy. And I've seen plenty of New Yorkers drink cocktails or California merlot at Italian restaurants -- even though that would never happen in Italy.
We've been fortunate to welcome a lot of people from the south, many of whom have been incredibly generous in their reception of Blue Smoke. and in their willingness to help us improve further. None has scoffed at us for offering beverages other than beer. The true barbecue guys love sharing lore, and aren't protective of "Their way only". I love that about them. We've benefitted greatly from folks like Rick Schmidt from Kreuz Market (he told he'd be proud to serve our brisket), Steven Raichlin (the Florida barbecue book author), and John T. Edge (head of the Southern Foodways Alliance). And Frank Stewart (photographer and co-author of Smokestack Lightening.) has opened so many doors for us to meet the barbecue greats.
Finally, while barbecue has thrived in the "country", it also has a rich urban history -- primarily in Kansas City, but also in places like Chicago, St. Louis and Memphis. I just don't know who wrote the rule that we couldn't have it New York!