Chefs take up smoking as barbecue's trendy next step.
This article first appeared in the 15 October 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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By William Rice, Special to R&I
In tiny, rustic West Ossipee, N.H., Chef-owner Joe Ferreira marvels at how sales continue to climb at The Yankee Smokehouse, a shrine to classic barbecue that he has operated for the past 25 years. In the heart of Chicago, meanwhile, rookie owner Barry Sorkin says he and his four partners in year-old Smoque BBQ are fortunate. "We have had really good crowds from day one," he says.
Ferreira speaks of Americans becoming more familiar with real barbecue over the past decade as they traveled in the South and West. Sorkin posits that "smoke and meat have finally found each other in Chicago" and credits television's Food Network as well as travel for having inspired in urban areas a curiosity about barbecue as a culinary method, "not just a condiment."
With barbecue becoming firmly and nationally established, chefs looking to take the category to the next level are experimenting with slow-smoked meats prepared using indirect heat. Full-tilt pit barbecues are the traditional equipment of choice, but small smokers and even range-top models allow chefs to add smoky flavors to consumer-favorite dishes.
Chefs such as Ferreira describe themselves as traditionalists, but in an era in which change itself often seems to inspire impatience, they do not stand still for long. Smoque BBQ introduced a brisket of beef smoked for 15 hours.
The restaurant's brisket benefits from a spice rub composed of salt, sugar, paprika and as many as 14 other seasonings. The woods of preference here are apple and oak, and one sauce is dedicated to ribs and chicken, while another is reserved for brisket and pulled pork.
In deepest New Hampshire, where The Yankee Smokehouse's smoker is lighted at 5:30 a.m., Joe Ferreira makes a pair of spice rubs, and he, too, has had an "excellent response" to brisket. An even bigger hit is Ferreira's version of smoked prime rib.
Claiming to have "the biggest open-pit barbecue this side of the Mason-Dixon Line," The Yankee Smokehouse's small dinner platters (most are $10.99) include Smokehouse Fries, coleslaw, garlic and barbecue sauce on the side. Larger portions, for $14.99 to $17.99, have barbecued beans on the side as well.
Ferreira works into the midafternoon and then goes home for a brief rest. He returns in the evening to greet diners who come from near and surprisingly far-Pennsylvania, for example. Comments gleaned from these conversations and the guest comment cards he distributes assiduously provide valuable feedback.
"My recipes don't change," he says, "but I'm on the lookout for new ideas." Past suggestions led to the creation of a weekly dinner featuring smoked turkey and smoked, not boiled, scallops wrapped in bacon. For more than a quarter-century, he has learned to use freshly cut "green" wood (apple, oak and some maple) because it provides more smoke.
At Equus in Louisville, Ky., Executive Chef Kevin Rice (no relation to the author) can be excused for claiming a hometown advantage when it comes to fueling his backyard-size, oval-shaped smoker. "Since we're in Kentucky, we have access to used Bourbon barrels," he explains. "They provide a lot of sweet-smelling smoke. Also, we were the first restaurant here to use little smokers to cook limited quantities at a time."
His oval smoker holds a large pork butt, a dozen pork chops or a 4-pound slab of bacon. Other foods exposed to smoke here have been fingerling potatoes ("I smoke them for 20 minutes, then roast them," Rice says), salmon, elk chops and venison. Applewood-smoked bacon was combined with sweetbreads, mushrooms, Madeira and veal reduction.
Bone-in steaks have proven more satisfactory than filets. Rice thinks of experimenting with smoking root vegetables such as carrots and parsnips but frowns at the suggestion of smoking traditional Asian ingredients.
"They are more acceptable as an element in a dish," he says.
Unlike many of his peers, Executive Chef Rodney Freidank, who oversees the kitchens of Greenville, S.C.-based Soby's five locations, is not obsessed with keeping secrets. "One of the reasons I'm here," says the 39-year-old chef, "is because others have been so willing to share their knowledge with me over the years."
He successfully combined smoked chicken and collard greens in a spring-roll appetizer and has "mirrored" Chinese flavors by making a coulis of mustard greens and pepper jelly. The New South bows to Italy in Freidank's hickory-smoked pulled-pork bruschetta.
In a gas-fired smoker, Freidank slow-cooks heirloom tomatoes that are later transformed into the broth for a seafood soup. Smoking experiments that also have prompted a positive response include barbecued duck leg, a soup made with puréed smoked butternut squash and a hash made using smoked sweet potatoes.
A Fully Smoked Menu
Austin, Texas, is home to its share of stand-up barbecue, so it only makes sense that customers often have to stand in line for a table at Salt Lick Three Sixty. One menu hit is the Smoky Burger, made with fresh ground beef and hickory-smoked brisket. The $8.50 burger is topped with lettuce, tomato, onion and garlic aÁ¯oli.
Also popular is the novel chicken-fried smoked-turkey steak with roasted-garlic mashed potatoes and jalapeÁ±o-bacon gravy. For $12, guests can customize a combination platter of smoked brisket, sausage, pork ribs or turkey (which brings a $1 upcharge). Coleslaw, beans and potato salad accompany all smoked-meat dishes.
The restaurant closes at 10 p.m., but Assistant Manager Brian Berger explains that cooks stay on through the night to give brisket and ribs (anointed with a "traditional" dry rub) the lengthy cooking they require. In addition, as part of an informal "full-service" smoking policy, Salt Lick Three Sixty offers turkey and chicken (with light-pink flesh that indicates proper smoke absorption, not rareness, Berger says).
Traveling to Hocking Hills, Ohio, south of Columbus, leads the barbecue addict to the high-energy Millstone BBQ, a year-old store with a quintet of investors new to the restaurant business. General Manager Adam Wetzel says the restaurant's three 500-pound-capacity smokers are tested when as many as 600 diners appear on weekend nights.
Playing around with ingredients and techniques led to revelations for Millstone. Cherry and applewood seemed to darken chicken too much, so hickory-already considered the most-agreeable flavor-was given the assignment. Wetzel says the Millstone staff sampled and tweaked rubs and sauces until everyone was happy.
Equus' Rice reflects, "One thing we have learned is there are a lot of people out there who will accept smoked foods in a fine-dining restaurant." Barry Sorkin adds: "Our customers really want to talk barbecue. It's amazing how much knowledge they have."
William Rice covered food and wine for the Chicago Tribune for nearly 20 years.
A Campus Barbecue Powerhouse
Built in 1934 to house gas-fired boilers that heated the classrooms and dormitories of the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) in Hattiesburg, Miss., the structure that is now home to Power House Restaurant had long since been decommissioned when Aramark assumed management of the university's foodservice in 2004.
"It was storage space, just rusting," says Pat Foley, USM resident district manager for Philadelphia-based Aramark. "We knew it was a great place [for a restaurant] and wanted to do something with it, but the concept evolved over a year of interviewing students and focus groups from the whole campus."
What students, faculty and staff said they wanted was a barbecue restaurant, so last year, after a $2.3 million investment by Aramark, the old boiler building opened as Power House Restaurant, complete with a slow-smoke barbecue pit and a stone pizza oven.
Inside round of beef, St. Louis-style pork ribs and 10-ounce chicken breasts go into the smoker, which can hold up to 120 pounds of meat and which maintains a 180F temperature. The beef gets an overnight stay, while the ribs smoke for six hours and chicken breasts smoke for three. Power House chefs created a dry rub for the ribs as well as a barbecue sauce that is used for all three proteins.
"We wanted something that would go well with all the meats to give us a distinctive flavor, our little niche," Foley says of the sauce. "There's a good number of barbecue and rib places nearby, and we wanted to have something a little different but that still fit within the range of flavors people expect. We tried several different recipes, put them in front of students, faculty and staff, and asked what they liked the best. We went with the favorite, and it's been popular ever since we opened."
Foley concedes that he didn't know much about smoking-other than how he likes his ribs-when they created the restaurant. But he says he learned quickly. "Just as important as the seasoning is the length of time you cook the meat and when you take it out," he says. "It has to be tender but firm so it's not falling apart on you. The texture is as important as the seasoning. It took some time to adjust to the smoker, to find the right times for the meat. It took some adjusting to get it perfect. If you smoke it too long, especially the chicken, it will dry out very quickly."
"You just can't throw meat in there and take it out," he says. "It takes some practice. You have to do it and experiment with it."
A half-rack of ribs with macaroni and cheese plus a choice of coleslaw or potato salad ($9.99) is the top-selling dinner choice. At lunch, the $6.99 smoked-chicken po' boy (with provolone cheese and Cajun mayonnaise) and $6.99 smoked-chicken salad are favorites. Sliced smoked chicken breast also appears on the $6.99 Nasty Bunch Smoked BBQ Chicken Pizza baked in the pizza oven at the center of the Power House dining room.