The Barbecue Secrets of Ad Hoc

We mop 'n' roll with Thomas Keller's Yountville restaurant

Last year, as the weather got bleak in in northern California, Katie Hagan-Whelchel, the chef de cuisine at Thomas Keller's casual Yountville outpost, Ad Hoc, noticed something odd.

"Our buttermilk fried chicken sales had been four times higher than our barbecue sales," she says (referring to the 11,351 fried chicken lunches and 3,706 barbecue lunches the restaurant sold for the year).

The chef, who is originally from Louisville, KY–"the ham belt, if you will"–decided to spend the winter working on some improvements.

"My mom's from Bardstown and my dad's from Charlotte, so I wanted to do something really authentic."

Hagan-Whelchel brushed up on her barbecue knowledge in a serious way, talking with mentors on the barbecue circuit–Pat Martin from Tennessee, Jimmy Hagood from South Carolina–researching smoking equipment and generally eating a hell of a lot of meat.

"I knew we needed what the good ol' boys use, a real smoker," she says, "but there were many possible scenarios."

In the end, the Ad Hoc crew went with a mobile one: the Rolltisserie, a steel beast that looks like a friendly Transformer, made by Southern Pride and shipped out of Tennessee.

It sits amid the raised vegetable beds outside Ad Hoc, in the picnic-friendly garden known as Addendum, where it burns three kinds of wood: oak to maintain temperature, hickory for its lovely smoke and dried wine vines.

Dried wine vines? "In Georgia they use pecan shells," says Hagan-Whelchel, "and I thought heck, this is Napa! Let's use what's around us."

She says it burns a light, floral smoke, which gently infuses pork ribs and pork butts. "And on Mondays, we do brisket," she adds, sounding thrilled. With good reason: A four-top from Texas called her over the other day to say this was no ordinary brisket–it was the best they'd ever had.

"I was like, holy smokes!"