Smoke and Mirrors
John Lewis, the pitmaster and owner of Charleston's Lewis Barbecue and Juan Luis, and founder of Austin’s La Barbecue, weighs in on the future of BBQ.
I've learned over the years that barbecue can be a controversial word. There are many definitions of the term, and depending on what part of the country you're in, it can be a noun or a verb. To me, barbecue is synonymous with one thing: smoke.
I've spent the majority of my life tending to an open flame. At age 18, I received my first smoker from my parents, and my obsession ignited quickly (see what I did there?). The first successful creation was a smoker made from two trash cans, and after a lot of trial and error, I found the perfect vessel for the type of smoke I was looking for: an old propane tank. My dad, John Lewis Sr., and I now weld tanks to smoke boxes to make custom pits, five of which can be found at my restaurant, Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, South Carolina.
John Lewis | Photo: Jody Horton
At the restaurant, I'm often asked what my barbecue "secret" is. People think it's a special rub recipe or the way we slice the meat, but what it really boils down to is the machine. I can attribute my barbecue's taste, texture and consistency to the pit. Since starting to cook barbecue some 20 years ago, I've been obsessed with the process and controlling the perfect temperature and smoke. That's what makes a dedicated "pitmaster."
There are a lot of us in the business now, and I've met dozens of talented folks who, like me, are obsessed with the flame. Whether they are innovators in their craft, building their own smokers and ovens like Zach Swemle and Lee Desrosiers; bringing a taste of their hometown to a different part of the country like Tyson Ho, Billy Durney and Richard Funk; or breaking down stereotypes like Laura Loomis, they are all contributing to our rich barbecue culture and are the future of barbecue.
La Morra Pizzeria, Los Angeles, CA
You might not think a pizza maker fits in the same category as barbecue pitmaster, but to me, it makes sense. I first met Zach Swemle when he moved to Charleston from New York two years ago. He and his partner, Marlee, were starting a mobile pizza oven called La Morra. Zach and I immediately connected over our shared passion for building a wood-burning oven. Zach was so obsessed with creating the perfect oven for his Neapolitan pizzas that he spent months watching YouTube videos and reading online forums, ultimately building an impressive machine with more than 1,800 ceramic tiles that gets up to 950 degrees. His wood-fired pies have as much technique and love baked into them as many briskets I've come across.
Achilles Heel, Brooklyn, NY
Lee Desrosiers of Brooklyn's Achilles Heel is another barbecue innovator. He, too, took his obsession with the flame to a whole new level, building a custom wood-burning grill in the parking space behind his restaurant. It's an impressive piece of equipment, with a ton of moving parts, different levels and cooking services that help him control different heat zones, which allows him to turn out what he calls "hell chicken," a smoky, delicious whole bird that's quickly developed a cult following.
"Hell Chicken" | Photo: Marcus Nilsson
Arrogant Swine, Brooklyn, NYC
While we're in Brooklyn, I'd like to also call out Tyson Ho, who I met cooking at the NC Barbecue Revival last year. The event brought together pitmasters from all over the country and really opened my eyes to the great work guys like Tyson are doing to bring their communities' barbecue to a different area. In Brooklyn, Tyson cooks whole-hog barbecue, North Carolina-style, at Arrogant Swine. He studied under one of the greats, Ed Mitchell, and smokes his 'cue with local wood. He's extremely dedicated to offering a traditional taste of the Carolinas to New York, and I have a lot of respect for that. It's guys like him who are raising awareness about the art of barbecue and keeping the traditions alive.
Hometown Bar-B-Que, Brooklyn, NY
Like Tyson, my good friend Billy Durney is offering a truly traditional barbecue experience at his spot, Hometown Bar-B-Que. I've visited Billy several times at his restaurant in Brooklyn and can attest to his commitment to the 'cue. In real Texas style, he smokes his brisket with indirect heat, using a wood-fired pit smoker and oak and cherry wood. Even if it's a blizzard outside, you still feel like you're in Texas the minute you walk in the door. From the music to the snaking line through the restaurant, Billy nails it. I'm sure he's made a ton of New York-based Texans feel a little less homesick.
Meat trio | Photo: Leslie Ryann McKellar
Desert Oak Barbecue, El Paso, TX
Across the country, my buddy Richard Funk is bringing Central Texas 'cue to my hometown, El Paso, Texas. Now, you may think it's not very innovative to open a barbecue joint in Texas, but in El Paso, Austin-style meat is hard to come by, especially in the land of no trees! At Desert Oak Barbecue, Richard uses the techniques he learned in Austin and even hauls all his oak from Central Texas just north of the border.
Two Bros. BBQ Market, San Antonio, TX
I recently read about Laura Loomis at Two Bros. in San Antonio and was really impressed with how far she's come in such a short amount of time. At just 29, she's worked her way up from server to head pitmaster, and is mostly self-taught. We all know that the restaurant world is male-dominated, and barbecue is no different. I am inspired by her perseverance and know that she's paving the way for more female pitmasters. There are a lot of talented ladies out there, and I hope to see more on the barbecue circuit.
All six chefs I listed are working to promote and cultivate the barbecue culture, and there are countless others who are dedicated to doing the same thing. I've been lucky to meet and work with a lot of talented "wood whisperers" and can't wait to see what's in store for the future of barbecue. I can tell you one thing: It's bright.
This month, we’re taking you Beyond BBQ into the deep, dark, drool-worthy corners of the 'cue world, from Seoul to South Carolina. Smoke will get in your eyes (and your cocktail) as we explore the best pits, tips, roasts and rigs—you might even see a vegetable or two along the way.
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