An Interview with Barbecue Chef Adam Perry Lang

By Melissa Bull

<p>The king of barbecue loves him some fire.</p>

Chef Adam Perry Lang went from cooking haute French cuisine at the famed Le Cirque restaurant to running Daisy May’s BBQ USA and Barbecoa, in New York City and London, respectively. caught up with Lang, the king of barbecue himself, in San Antonio, Texas, where he was presiding over hot coals, huge pork shoulders, and the beginnings of a teeming, carnivorous crowd at the very excellent Meatopia Festival.

Adam Perry Lang: Sit down, relax. Can I get you some whiskey? I’ll have a whiskey. Why not? I had breakfast. It’s a great day for a barbecue—it’s so warm out. Have you ever been to San Antonio before?

Lang: It’s my first time. It’s pretty incredible. Yeah, it is. How long have you been setting up shop here?

Lang: We got here about two days ago. You had to get here early so you could start making your own charcoal, right? How did you come up with this plan to travel around America and serve up barbecue on your own charcoal?

Lang: The first time I went on the road was when I was in Los Angeles. I was looking for a restaurant space in L.A., but I wanted to do something super authentic. And part of that [authenticity] is that I make my own charcoal. I wanted a slice of country in an urban center. But I couldn’t find a place where any landlord would allow me to put this thing up. [He gestures at the burning vats of charcoal that look like something you’d see at the bottom of the Titanic] There could be some fire code violations going on with the whole open pit thing, I guess.

Lang: Yeah, I customized and built this whole kit. So anyway, I just said, “You know what? I’m going to build this on a flatbed trailer.” I wasn’t even thinking about taking it on the road. I’m into knife-making, I’m really into craft and authenticity. [Dickel’s] whole tagline is “handmade the hard way” and that’s my whole philosophy and I really like Dickel, and I said, would you guys like to get on board? And they just ended up doing this thing with me in L.A. And they loved it. They were like, “We want to take this on the road!” And I was like, “I’m down with it!” So it’s great. Let’s talk authenticity. Do you think we’ve gotten away from simple, good food that’s cooked right?

Lang: I was just having this conversation with my cooks this morning. They’d gotten up at five A.M. with me and they were very anxious. Like, “Oh, we should get the beef ribs on now and then we’ll hold them for the event.” And I said, “Look at us here. We’re the biggest part of this event. We’ve got 30 other fantastic chefs. We’re not cutting any corners here. This pit’s being watched 24 hours. Forget about compartmentalizing things. Just cook and make great food. That’s what we’re here to do.” How have we gotten away from this kind of straightforward food?

Lang: I think we’ve gotten away from that in so many ways because we have all this automation and all these ways to make things quicker and easier. And we’ve actually fallen victim to forgetting about cooking and doing things just, I think, the right way. It takes more time and commitment to do things right. So you can’t do 50 things. So maybe you do three things really, really well. That gets me excited. Explain how you went from liking to cook to going to cooking school to being a French chef to making barbecue all over America!

Lang: I took one of these tests in college that said what you’d be really good at, and it said chef, landscape architect or advertising executive. I said, “Oh my god, chef, I’ve always wanted to do that!” I really dove into it. I went to the Culinary Institute of America like one would go to law school, and I just found home. I immediately really wanted to get into technique and high-end forms of cooking, as one typically wants to do, so I worked for some of the best chefs in the world. I started in New York in Le Cirque with Daniel Boulud, helped him open up his place and went to France. But then something changed with me. I was deciding what to do with my first business, and [I thought] no matter how French I cook—I even have a French wife!—I’ll never be a French chef. And that was around the time when people started getting into cooking in vacuum bags and things, and it was really interesting but I didn’t get into cooking for that. So as a reaction, I decided to explore fire, because I’d always gravitated towards it. Like in a creepy playing-with-lighters-a-lot-as-a-kid way? Or just normal staring-into-the-fireplace way?

Lang: No, pretty creepy. [laughs] I’ve always been attracted to fire. Although I’ve never hurt anybody and I’ve never really caused any damage. But from a very young age I would hang out by the fireplace so long I would strike a match or two….So I’ll leave creepy up to your discretion. Well I build a great campfire myself, if I do say so.

Lang: I’m not going to lie to you: I’ve always been fascinated by fire. If someone makes a fire in a fireplace, I’m always the one to add another log. So I wanted to know and involve myself in what happens before someone would turn on a stove. Like weather conditions, types of fire, types of wood… There’s just information out there that we don’t know anymore, right?

Lang: I was working on a ranch in New Mexico as a private chef, and there were all these displaced ranch hands from Texas. We built this pit out of an old propane tank, and in my downtime I was cooking barbecue. When I decided to go into business for myself I said, “This is what I want to do, and this makes me feel right.” I just followed my heart, and everything started to snowball. I opened up my restaurant, and I’ve been doing stuff with fire [ever since]. But I started seeing more and more ovens were automated. More and more barbecue chains are starting to do things where they have these ovens and you press a button and you say 250 and the fire will go on…and it started to bug me a bit, I started to fall victim to it. So I wanted to pull it back. It seems like this whole cooking with fire thing is almost a big dare to yourself, in a way.

Lang: Yeah, I think so. People are so into taking something that’s traditional and then trying to put a twist on it. There’s so much twisting going that there’s so few people doing the [original deal]. I don’t want to say I’m the only one carrying the torch. There’s some amazing stuff out there, but in urban centers, not really. No one else is really into making their own charcoal?

Lang: We’re making our own charcoal, we’re shoveling it into the pit. It requires 24-hour watching. My cooks and chefs are engaged and they’re passionate, and that makes it exciting. It sounds like something that’s really all-consuming for you. You have the restaurant, you travel all around with this barbecue rig. You, quite literally, eat and breathe barbecue.

Lang: It’s true, it’s absolutely true. And anything that keeps me doing it, and able to support my family. My god, it’s living a dream. Where do you get your meat from? Can any meat taste good if it’s well barbecue?

Lang: Great meat comes from great people. It’s as simple as that. People are stewards. I deal with a cooperative system. They must treat the animals humanely, no antibiotics for growth or for anything, no hormones. Again, it’s like the cooking; [this type of process] engages the farmer with the animal. I’m just trying to stay out of the way of screwing it up. Restraint is the most important ingredient in a recipe to me. It takes a lot of discipline do something really simple and honest as opposed to doing something extravagant and twisty.

Check out Adam Perry Lang’s website HERE.


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