Barons of BBQ

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These competitive pros are turning up the heat when it comes to wood, rubs and meat cuts.

You can talk to chefs and pit masters all over the country and, still, all trails lead back to Texas.

I wanted to see what five of the country’s busiest BBQ-ers have on their minds these days. Turns out, a lot. Back to Texas in a minute. First, let’s stop off in…Milwaukee?

Chef Aaron Patin, of Iron Grate BBQ in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, set out to reconnect the historic city to its original barbecue culture. He kicked off that effort with the very cut of his signature dish, the Milwaukee Rib. “It’s a specific cut of baby back rib with the pork belly still connected. We gave it to the city of Milwaukee,” says Patin. Now—back to Texas. “I was born in Texas and most of my family is still there.”

Iron Grate keeps it local with Wisconsin-grown Berkshire pork. “Our menu is built so that we’re able to utilize the whole animal,” says Patin. “I wanted to open a barbecue restaurant but also wanted to source meat as ethically as possible. I designed the menu this way so we could fulfill those standards.”

To keep things interesting, they also rotate sides on and off the menu, from a traditional warm potato salad with bacon to stewed pears and cranberries served for the holidays. “Not everything we do is meant to be Southern in tradition,” says Patin. “We’re utilizing techniques recognized in cooking and barbecue, but also using Midwest-inspired recipes.”

Tools of the trade. Patin designed and built his own offset-style cooker. He’s always cooked with fire, whether at outdoor dinners on the farm or during his time at the Cajun-Creole spot, Maple Tree Inn in Blue Island, Ill.

Sauces and rubs. “We make one sauce that’s universal and very balanced. Most are sweet, salty, vinegary, or peppery, so we tried to pull all those flavor profiles into one,” says Patin. “It’s the perfect accouterment to the smoked meats we provide.” Iron Grate’s meats also gain flavor from two rubs— one for the brisket (brown sugar, black pepper, and gold in color due to the mustard and turmeric); and the other is called Grandpa Spice, more chile-heavy, well-spiced, and definitely less sweet. It’s used on the pulled pork, pork hot link and the Milwaukee rib.

The wood. Patin and his team only use Wisconsin-grown oak and hickory wood for their barbecue.

True to Texas
Like Patin, Wesley Shaw, of the Presidio Social Club in San Francisco, hails from Texas. Thus, he stays true to the style of his heritage (very little sauce, mostly dry rubs and long periods of smoke).

Shaw grew up in a town called Clear Lake, south of Houston. Central Texas is about beef, brisket and beef ribs, and that’s what Shaw serves at his restaurant—especially in the summer, when he opens the beer garden and barbecue takes center stage.

“Nobody does beef ribs in [San Francisco], so people go crazy over it. A beef rib is like a short rib with a bone running through it lengthwise, and it’s smoked for 12 hours,” says Shaw. “It’s incredibly rich and weighs a pound and a half to 2 pounds for each rib. It’s like something out of ‘The Flintstones.’ It’s huge, it’s fun, it’s a show stopper.”

Tools of the trade. Shaw keeps his barbecue simple, and his end result is derived simply from salt, pepper, fire control, and using certain types of wood. He also uses an offset smoker. “It’s indirect heat; hot smoke for 10-12 hours,” says Shaw. “You keep your chamber anywhere from 220 to 300 degrees, and that hot smoke slowly cooks a really tough piece of meat like a brisket into fork-tender product.”

Sauces and rubs. “We make a classic barbecue sauce, nothing out of the ordinary, and we serve it on the side,” says Shaw. “I might mop or dredge if something is right near the end because the smoke will dry it out more and most (diners) like a bit of wetness to their chicken and ribs.

“The pulled pork, I smoke the whole thing, pour in the sauce, pull it apart and mix it in. I think it’s fun for people to get messy with barbecue.”

The wood. “I cook with nothing but wood—no chips or liquid smoke,” says Shaw. “And I blend my wood, depending on what I’m doing.” Shaw uses oak, hickory or mesquite, and he always tries to use a fruit wood.

“Personally, I like pecan,” he says. Fruit trees like apple pecan, and cherry will yield more sweetness and natural sugar. “When you use these types of woods and alternate burning them, they give different flavors,” he says. Oak will burn hotter while mesquite and hickory impart more flavor. While all those grow in Texas, some chefs will only use mesquite and hickory. However, Shaw finds the duo to be too astringent on the palate, and he thinks oak is a more neutral flavor that’s important to add to the mix.

The Southern Yankee
Rory Schepisi’s barbecue story is different. A New Jersey native, she got serious about smoked meats in the early 2000s, when she moved to Amarillo, Texas. Known as the “Southern Yankee” and working on a cookbook of the same name, Schepisi is a chef and restaurateur who has made numerous TV appearances on everything from “The Today Show” to “The Next Food Network Star.” She also has a new restaurant opening in Amarillo this year.

Her first competitive event was Homer’s Backyard Ball, which was dedicated to—wait for it—calf fries. “It was my first time experiencing this, seeing the passion of all the other pit guys,” says Schepisi. “I loved it, and it was something I wanted to learn. This is coming from a girl who never had brisket until she moved to Texas.”

She started competing, learning from other pit masters, and making some waves of her own.

“Here in Texas, everybody loves to use mesquite. To me, especially if you leave the bark on, it takes away the natural flavors of the meat and gives you almost a tartness with a burnt flavor. If it’s not black and smells like mesquite, it ain’t barbecue here.”

When she’s not smoking meats, Schepisi is working on her new cookbook, which melds the Italian cuisine she grew up with just outside New York City with Texasstyle cooking. She bills it as “Southern class with Jersey sass.”

Tools of the trade. Schepisi emphasizes the importance of cooking meat in a semi-moist environment, which is why her prototype cooker design has an integrated misting system that can control humidity and also be used to coat the meat in a brine.

“We’re getting ready to start building it,” Schepisi says. “It’s going to be great for catering events. When serving a couple hundred people in an hour, you need a reliable cooker with equal heat.

“Keeping your temperature (stable) is crucial. If you’re going between temps, that meat is tightening and relaxing constantly, so you have to tend to your firebox at all times.”

Favorite dish. “Certified Angus Beef is something I use all the time, and they’re pushing new cuts like spinalis on the cooker,” she says. The spinalis are the outer part of the ribeye; and it’s one of the most tender cuts, comparable to filet mignon. “Especially for some people who do cook off full ribeyes, for them to cut the spinalis off prior is to the benefit of the bottom line. If you’re smoking a ribeye, taking the spinalis off can make you money off both pieces.”

Not a chef but a pit master
Hardworking, quick-speaking restaurateur Jason Dady has two barbecue restaurants in San Antonio, Texas: Two Bros. BBQ Market and B&D Ice House, an old-style saloon that serves barbecue and classic Southern sides.

Dady has 14 years in the San Antonio dining scene under his belt, having worked with seven different restaurants. Two Bros. first opened in 2010 and had to walk a line. “I didn’t want to ‘chef it up,'” says Dady. “When it comes to Texas barbecue, they don’t want a classically trained chef.” His background comes through in his culinary choices, including making most everything from scratch. “We buy and process 200 pounds of potatoes a day instead of buying potato salad. We have to keep our standards high, and we do.”

Dady says barbecue is more than a trend; it’s a way of life, and he’s living it. “I don’t think it’s anywhere close to slowing down,” he says. “Rather, Texas barbecue is making its way across the country, and people love it.”

Tools of the trade. In a unique turn, an important aspect of Dady’s barbecue process includes YETI insulated coolers. First, his team smokes the briskets for 12 hours on the pits while constantly rotating them. “At the end of night, we wrap them in heavy butcher paper, put them in the YETI and close it, and then we leave them there overnight,” he says. “It keeps the temperature around 160 to 180 degrees for eight hours. In the morning, we unwrap them, put them back on the pit, and re-apply the bark so it gets that burnt texture again.”

Favorite dish. Every barbecue spot eschew offering chicken, mostly because it’s so easy for the fickle meat to dry out. Dady and his team circumvent that by serving chicken thighs, “probably the most underrated protein out there, and almost impossible to overcook, especially with the skin on,” he says. They’re also cost effective, both in price and they’re naturally manageable portions. “That allows someone to really have a light barbecue lunch.”

Word to the wise. Dady has also had success with swine-andwine events, such as a blind tasting of eight Chardonnays paired with barbecue. “The public doesn’t usually have the opportunity to do a blind wine tasting. We’ll bring out a different bottle every course or two and focus on how it pairs up with the rib,” says Dady. “It’s a lot of fun when we unveil and everyone compares notes and scores. It gets people talking, let’s them kick back and have fun.”

A new kind of BBQ
Texas barbecue is being popularized around the country, but is the country making its way into Texas at all?

“You see folks try and bring that Carolina-style down here, but the ego of Texas barbecue is so big that it’s never going to have a true place in the market here,” says Dady.

But don’t tell competitive pit master Staci Jett that. A native of Kentucky, Jett learned to cook and barbecue with her grandmother. “She used to watch me and cook while Mom and Dad were at work, and I just started watching and helping her,” she says. “Then, I started entering things in the country fair and other competitions, getting blue ribbons, and the competition bug just kind of kicked in.”

Since that homespun beginning, she has appeared on Food Network’s “Chopped Grill Masters,” and she won “American Grilled: Louisville,” a Travel Channel program.

Jett’s current labor of love: “Secret Ingredient Smoking and Grilling,” her new cookbook to be released in May.

“There’s a lot of barbecue and grilling cookbooks out there and, if you look through most of them, their rub and sauce recipes are basically the same thing as the rest, almost the same ingredients,” says Jett. “The rubs in this cookbook, though, are very detailed. One of them is actually from my competition cookbook, but I won’t say which one.”

Like her barbecue, Jett’s manner in the competitive community has a little heat to it. “I stick to my guns. I’m hard-headed, and I do my own thing. I cook what I like,” she says. “But that made me question my way of doing things at one point because what I like is not what the judges like, so I had to decide whether to change who I am and how I do things to please more people and win more awards; or to stick to who I am, do things my way.”

It’s obvious Jett chose the latter, like most barbecue pros featured in this article. They’re taking an ageold craft rooted in tradition and upending that in all kinds of different ways—without overturning the entire smoker to do so.

Sauces and rubs. “I just started doing a lot of research and playing around, seeing what different rubs had in common and went from there to make my own rubs and my own sauce,” says Jett. “You have to love what you’re doing because that comes across big time in your food. I get a thrill out of watching people’s expressions, seeing their reactions to what I’ve cooked.”

Favorite dish. Jett counts her pork ribs as her most sought-after delicacy. First, she applies a dry rub and then lets them smoke for a couple hours before wrapping them with a few more ingredients. “Then, when I take them out of the wrap, they look like they already have barbecue sauce on them. They’re bright red and shiny as can be,” she says. “I like them to be sweet, savory, and have a little heat to them.”

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