Whether it’s the urge to control fire or the camaraderie of roasting an entire pig with friends, variations of barbecue have been a fixture in America for centuries. Few cuisines inspire passionate debate like a Texas brisket versus Carolina pork showdown, yet the barbecue community is one of the most approachable groups you’ll find in the restaurant world.
Some days it’s brisket over seasoned oak and some days we’re smoking beaver, watermelon, eel and squirrel over dried kelp and raspberry bushes.
One establishment that’s managed to present barbecue in an innovative way is Holy Ground, a New York City based barbecue steakhouse that looks like an old Frank Sinatra haunt. Here, the handsome pitmaster Franco V presides alongside Chef Tadd Johnson over a menu of Wagyu brisket, dry-aged bone-in ribeye, and pork shoulder among other fare. Along with bottled cocktails and full table service, the restaurant is elevating barbecue to a world beyond the humble paper plate and picnic table. “Being from New York and not really having anything tying us down to being 'traditional' gave us the freedom to play with the idea of how we could do it differently,” explains V, on his New York-style barbecue. Randall’s Barbecue is also using the city of New York as its inspiration. “Jared and I both draw a lot from our childhood and the city itself. You’ll find five-spiced smoked duck with ginger and scallions, inspired by Chinatown,” describes Randall’s Barbecue pitmaster Jake Klein, who also smokes up chopped chicken liver and lobster rolls at his establishment.
And the development of styles to complement the four traditional genres of barbecue—Texas, Carolina, Memphis, and Kansas City—helps support the idea that times have changed. Now, pitmasters are willing to cross regional lines in an effort to get their brand of ‘cue out to the masses. Rodney Scott brought traditional Carolina whole hog cooking across state lines to Alabama. Celebrity chef Michael Symon is putting his name behind the newly coined Cleveland-style barbecue, while Top Chef’s Tiffani Faison is giving Boston a legitimate barbecue outpost.
With emphasis on televised competitions, barbecue festivals, and dishes made to dominate your Instagram feed, the allure of ditching your day job to play with fire has never been more popular thanks to charming barbecue industry personalities. Jess Pryles, a cook, author and host known as the Hardcore Carnivore, sees a balance between the way barbecue is portrayed to audiences versus its reality. “Ultimately, I think it’s fine that the scene is glamorized. It’s an addictive passion, but it’s dirty, heavy, hard work. You’ll find that out very quickly,” Pryles explains. A native of Australia who fell in love with Texas ‘cue, Pryles represents many of the individuals who didn’t experience traditional American barbecue growing up, but have found success regardless in cities across the country.
While grilling and smoking are two entirely different concepts, Americans are ready and willing to burn a few pounds of meat when it comes to trying their hand at creating ‘cue. According to the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association (HBPA) 2018 State of the Barbecue Industry Consumer Survey, 7 out of 10 adults in America own a grill or smoker. “Primarily what attracted me to barbecue was cooking on a backyard grill with my dad,” recalls Phil Moseley, Blue Oak BBQ’s co-owner. “I realized there was so much more to barbecue than steaks and burgers, once I got out and really started trying barbecue and different methods as I got older."
No matter the experience be it a backyard or professional competition, barbecue is a national treasure that invites everyone to secure a spot around the pit and watch the magic happen. For those worried that pitmasters breaking with tradition are ruining what made barbecue great, Stover Harger III offers some friendly advice. “Tradition does not breed quality. There’s got to be a talent on top of tradition to make it work.” Harger emphasizes. With the amount of talent located throughout the United States, the essential guide to barbecue is becoming an even better read.