PARIS — The first thing that hits you upon entering the Beast is the unmistakable sweet and musky aroma of wood-smoked meats that for me instantly calls up memories of a typical Texas barbecue joint. I break into a gleeful smile. “Smells right,” I utter to no one in particular.
Looks right, too, with the weathered barnlike walls, unpainted concrete floors and communal wooden tables. Granted, the black metal trim is a bit stylish for a barbecue joint. But, hey, it’s Paris. A mash-up of Texas simplicity and French style? Call it downhome-modern.
The owner, Thomas Abramowicz, is sitting at one of those tables with his left leg propped on a chair, his knee in a brace from a recent motorcycle accident. He’s finishing some paperwork while overseeing employees putting together boxes of beef brisket and mashed potatoes for delivery. “We deliver about 150 lunches per day,” he says.
Wearing a long-sleeved, black turtleneck with epaulets, the slender, neatly bearded 33-year-old looks nothing like a pitmaster and every bit as dapper as you would expect from a native Parisian. But this Frenchman takes his barbecue very seriously. In 2013, Abramowicz quit his highflying job as a marketer of luxury goods (think cognac and champagne) to apprentice at the 65-year-old Louie Mueller Barbecue, a famous standard-bearer in Taylor, Tex.
“All wood,” Abramowicz says, referring to the lack of assistance from gas or electricity in the J&R cooker, shipped from Mesquite, Tex. The Beast gets its name from the giant, two-ton smoker. “I had to keep it real.”
Real barbecue, in Paris? Mais oui! It’s the latest trend in the city that defines haute cuisine, not primal low-and-slow smoked meats.
In addition to the Beast, there’s Flesh, a cheeky name for a restaurant that is situated among the sex shops of the Pigalle neighborhood; Floyd’s Bar & Grill, where the meats are cooked on an Engelbrecht smoker shipped from Illinois; Blues Bar-B-Q, which started the trend when a Dallas woman opened it in 2010; and a chain called Frog Pubs, which serves pulled pork sandwiches and brisket tacos.
But it’s not just Paris. Barbecue, that onetime fiercely regional American food, has gone global. American-style barbecue restaurants have opened in Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, London, Vienna, Mexico City, even Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Last year, Wayne Mueller, the third-generation owner of Louie Mueller Barbecue, went on a State Department-sponsored world tour, during which he cooked barbecue and discussed its culture and history at the Milan Expo in Italy.
The competition circuit, too, has gone international. The prestigious Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue contest draws teams from all 50 states and around the world. Last year, a record 27 international teams competed. Meanwhile, contests on foreign soil, from the Netherlands to Prague to Australia, have grown so numerous that the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the sanctioning organization, created an international division.
“It’s like us 25 years ago,” says KCBS executive director Carolyn Wells, referring to the torrid growth of the organization after it was founded in 1985.
The grilling manufacturer Weber-Stephens sponsors “Grill Academies” in Copenhagen, Berlin, Paris and London, among other cities, to grow the market for its products in Europe. In October, the company promoted Danish barbecue competitor Stig Pedersen from marketing director of a region that included Europe, Africa and the Middle East to a newly created position of “vice president global creative” to oversee the company’s international sales and initiatives.
Like jazz before it, barbecue is viewed as an authentic expression of American life. Assaying the egalitarian ideal at the heart of the American experiment, barbecue’s recent journey out of its Southern home amounts to more than a culinary phenomenon. Its spread constitutes the internationalization of an American idea.
Craig White, a San Antonio native and another Mueller alum, opened White Smoke in Tokyo in 2011. He told CNN: “We aren’t just selling food, we’re selling American culture. Eating at our restaurant is an American experience. To date, our American food ambassadors in Japan have been McDonald’s, Subway and Kentucky Fried Chicken — all of which I love, but we can do better than Ronald McDonald.”
White Smoke was a hit, but a fire put it out of business. The hunger for smoked meat remained, though, and White now operates a factory that churns out hundreds of pounds of smoked beef ribs, brisket, sausage and chicken daily to supply restaurants, hotels and grocery stores. White plans to get his restaurant back up and running by the fall.
Abramowicz sees barbecue as White does.
“This whole part of American culinary culture,” he says, “this is something that has a story, a tradition. That’s why we embrace it. That, and the meat. The French don’t have smoked meats like this.”
Accustomed to waiters and table service, the French aren’t used to ordering at a counter. But Abramowicz wanted as authentic a Texas barbecue experience as possible. So patrons line up and order their brisket, pork or beef ribs, sausage and chicken at the counter, just like at the barbecue joints in central Texas. And like at them, the food is placed on trays covered with butcher paper. Customers carry their food to one of the 42 seats at communal wooden tables.
Counter service is just one of several culture clashes that barbecue proprietors encounter. Nomenclature is another. In 2010, Dallasite Diana Darrah and her French husband, Moe Darrah, opened Blues Bar-B-Q, the first barbecue restaurant in Paris. Platters of beef brisket, pork ribs, chicken and sausage sold well, but the sandwiches didn’t. The problem? “The French think of sandwiches as coming on a baguette,” says Darrah, 65. At the time, Paris was experiencing a hamburger craze. Barbecue sandwiches are served on buns, like hamburgers. So, Diana decided to name them on the menu like so: Pulled Pork Burger (porc émincé sur pain hamburger).
“They’ve been selling great ever since,” she says.
Darrah comes by her love of barbecue naturally, having begun smoking meats at family gatherings in Texas as a teenager. A former wine buyer in Dallas, she moved to Paris in 2001 after her first marriage ended. She intended to retire but instead sensed a business opportunity in barbecue. “It’s called a midlife crisis,” she quips.
She and Moe, 35, were married in 2005. Shortly thereafter, she began researching smokers. She settled on a Cookshack electric smoker, shipped from Oklahoma. The French government almost didn’t let it into the country.
“The shippers needed a customs number,” she recalls. “ ‘We don’t have a number for fumeur [smoker],’ they said. We went back and forth. I finally gave up and just called it an oven, an oven with wood.”
At Blues, the brisket and sausage are smoked with mesquite chips, the chicken and pork with hickory. All meats are rubbed with a spice blend that includes cumin, paprika, chili powder, oregano, brown sugar, salt and pepper. None of the meats are sauced while cooking. Unless otherwise requested, the brisket and ribs come drizzled in Blues’s own zippy, ketchup-based sauce.
With comfy, red naugahyde booths, a photo of the Big Tex statue from the State Fair of Texas adorning one wall and a large Texas flag draped on another, the homey 24-seat Blues Bar-B-Q feels as though it was airlifted from the Lone Star State. The menu delivers, as well, with Dr Pepper, pitchers of beer, chili, peach cobbler, pecan pie and Darrah’s Aunt Cloda Mae’s coleslaw, Ranch beans and cornbread recipes.
“I think the French are fascinated with anything American,” Darrah says. “I really think they’re drawn in by the curiosity, but after they try [the barbecue], it’s a whole different taste, and a lot of them come back.”
Eating a smoked chicken sandwich at Blues, Sindanu Kosango, a 39-year-old French culture writer, said Blues helped change his view of Texas.
“In France, we see Texas as racist,” he says. “But here we have a different side of Texas. Cool people. Good food.”
One challenge faced by Paris barbecue entrepreneurs is the procurement of the right cuts of beef. Grass-fed French beef is not as marbled as grain-fed American beef, so it is less tender and juicy. And because the French don’t sell the cut known as brisket, for the first couple of years, the Darrahs procured the front half of cows and butchered them themselves to get brisket. Now, they import brisket from the States.
So does Abramowicz at the Beast and a Californian named Simon Lewis, chef at the 50-seat Flesh BBQ. The 26-year-old has worked at the Michelin two-star restaurant the Hand and Flowers in London and at hot Paris restaurants Spring and Frenchie. Aside from doing some barbecuing while attending college in Colorado, though, Lewis has no smoked-meat background.
“I’m not trying to replicate what they do in Texas or North Carolina,” he says, checking on a brisket. “I just want to make food that tastes good.”
He cooks on three Big Green Egg smokers. His decidedly nontraditional sides include such creations as grilled mushrooms in bacon cream and smoked cauliflower with chorizo vinaigrette. “We didn’t want mac ’n’ cheese or baked beans,” says co-owner Arnaud Champetier.
Champetier and longtime friend David Vidal, both French, and Lewis co-own Flesh, which opened in October 2014, and share a vision of mixing traditional American-style smoked meats with unconventional dishes and presentations for a barbecue restaurant. For example, the pulled pork is not served on a bun with tomato-based sauce and topped with coleslaw, but as carnitas in a flour tortilla with a pineapple salsa.
“We’re not following any rules,” says Lewis.
The approach is working. On a Monday at lunchtime shortly before Christmas, the place was packed. And the owners are working on opening a second location, which they hope to have operating by June. They are talking about installing the type of wood-enhanced oven common in American barbecue restaurants.
At the Beast, the lunchtime line extends from the counter nearly to the door. I dig into a huge platter of smoked meats. The chicken, cooked whole, its cavity filled with hot peppers, lemon and orange, is a marvel of tenderness and subtle flavors. Delicious, but more French than Texan. No matter. It is the Texas calling cards, the brisket and beef rib, I’m anxious to try. Although there is no smoke ring and it falls apart too easily, the properly hand-sliced brisket is moist and flavorful, accented beautifully with a classic central Texas salt-and-pepper rub. The gigantic beef rib is state-of-the-art: meaty, juicy, encased in a magnificently crunchy bark. For a nanosecond, I swear I hallucinate Central Texas bluebonnets. In other words, the food tastes right.
When I finish, Abramowicz wants to show me something. It’s a huge American flag, on the wall in the open kitchen for everyone to see. Its color has faded from absorbing years of wood smoke.
“Wayne gave me this,” Abramowicz says. “It hung at Louie Mueller. It’s such an honor, I can’t tell you.”
Abramowicz doesn’t have to tell me. The flag, and Abramowicz’s pride at owning it, says it for him. That, and the scent of smoke in the air.