One weekend last October, some of the nation’s top young pitmasters gathered on a pig farm just outside Durham, N.C., to participate in an event called the N.C. Barbecue Revival.
On undulating farmland, the cooks, veiled in wood smoke, tended their creations while Duroc and Berkshire pigs trundled freely in the surrounding woods. Without setting out to, these pitmasters — they’re all in their 30s and opened their places in just the past few years — were making a statement: that the next generation of barbecue has arrived.
Tyson Ho of Brooklyn’s Arrogant Swine slow-smoked a lamb, which he would season with fermented red chiles, fennel and Sichuan peppercorns. John Lewis of Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, S.C., prepared gargantuan beef short ribs. Bryan Furman of B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque in Atlanta and Savannah, Ga., kept a watchful eye on several glistening beef briskets. In the past, such contributions would be shunned as invasive species in pork country.
Meanwhile, Sam Jones, the scion of a prominent North Carolina barbecue family who opened his own barbecue restaurant near Greenville, and Wyatt Dickson, who helped organize the event, supervised the cooking of a trench-cooked whole hog.
The hog was a reminder of where barbecue had come from, while the other offerings showed where it was going.
“There are less and less rules,” said Elliott Moss, a co-owner and pitmaster at the retro-modern Buxton Hall BBQ in Asheville, N.C.
Moss was cooking Brussels sprouts seasoned with cider vinegar, onions and garlic in a wok over a wood fire in a burn barrel. The coals from the burned wood were shoveled beneath the hog in the trench. Drippings from the hog then flavored pots of vegetables, a technique Moss uses at his restaurant.
At his restaurant, the Smoked Pimento Cheese appetizer modernizes the traditional Southern dish by using smoked cheese and fermented red bell pepper, which replaces the pimento. “It adds an extra layer of umami,” he said.
It’s hard to imagine an older generation of pitmasters throwing around the word “umami.” But the Revival, so-named to reclaim a cuisine once seen as dying in the state, was intended to showcase the up-and-comers, new lingo and all. (Full disclosure: I moderated a panel at the event.)
“I feel like I’m a steward of North Carolina barbecue,” said Dickson. “It’s an extremely large part of our culture. So, I want to respect tradition but not let tradition blind you, which is something that can happen in the South.”
Dickson is the pitmaster at Picnic, a barbecue restaurant in Durham that opened in 2014. He co-owns the business with chef Ben Adams and financial adviser-turned-farmer Ryan Butler. Together, they epitomize some of the new approaches.
Butler owns the pig farm where the Revival took place. He pasture-raises the heritage hogs that Dickson smokes. Adams creates a mix of traditional and upscale side dishes — think Brunswick stew and marinated kale salad. Dickson smokes the whole hog in a heavy-gauged, double-walled steel pit completely unlike traditional brick pits.
“I knew I couldn’t stand there, chained to the pit, with a shovel in my hand 24 hours a day,” Dickson said. “That’s why North Carolina barbecue was dying out. Nobody wants to pick that shovel up. They’ve seen that lifestyle and they’ve said, ‘No, thank you.’ I wanted to find a way to make this more sustainable. Sometimes you have to change to stay around.”
As recently as 10 years ago, pitmasters used commodity pork and select (the lowest USDA) grade for beef. The next-gen pitmasters gravitate toward choice and even prime grades for beef and pasture-raised heritage hogs for pork. Their approach is marked by more creative side dishes, a return to all-wood smoking, ethnic influences, local sourcing, cheffy experimentation and pan-regionalism. Even smoked tofu is popping up on menus.
Their patron saint is Aaron Franklin in Austin, who opened his bricks-and-mortar operation six years ago. His use of Angus prime meat, detailed attention to air flow in his self-made offset smokers and strict adherence to all-wood cooking created a transcendent smoked beef brisket that helped him become the only pitmaster to win a James Beard Award for best chef (for the southwest region in 2015). Along the way, he ignited a revolution in the world of low-and-slow cooking.
Franklin smoked pork shoulder, a novelty in Texas as recently as five years ago, and, in a state notoriously averse to sauce, he offered an espresso barbecue sauce. Somehow, Franklin escaped the scorn of the region-first purists. Not long after, a long-advancing trend seen as homogenizing barbecue (the barbecue scholar John Shelton Reed mockingly called this trend the International House of Barbecue, or IHOB) became embraced as a way to reinterpret regionalism through experimentation with local traditions.
Since Franklin opened in 2011, a scad of other highly regarded newcomers followed in Austin alone: La Barbecue, Freedmen’s Bar, Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ, Kerlin BBQ, Micklethwait Craft Meats.
The upscaling of barbecue is an urban phenomenon. In an article last December for Texas Monthly, the magazine’s barbecue editor, Daniel Vaughn, called the trend “Big City Barbecue” and opined that “the new region is the Internet.”
The Revival was a natural extension of that region-less idea. I call the approach “citified.” Traditionally, the best barbecue in Texas and the Carolinas was found in the rural areas. Now, the cities are matching, sometimes besting, their country cousins.
Whether it’s experimental or high-end traditional, many observers have noted the emergence in recent years of pricey barbecue. The cost isn’t just in dollars.
Urban newcomers often talk about the importance of barbecue as community. But their higher prices have put the historically cheap fare out of the reach of the regular working stiff. That, in turn, has pretty much consigned the sense of a broader community to nostalgia. Years ago, it was hard to find a story about barbecue that didn’t include a paragraph about doctors and lawyers sitting next to plumbers and house painters, of beat-up Chevy pickups parked next to new Mercedes. Now? They’re partly about the hipster customer base, but mainly they’re just about the food.
As for the food, aficionados maintain that it is perhaps better than ever. “Welcome to the glory days of American barbecue,” John T. Edge, who directs the Southern Foodways Alliance, wrote in a 2014 story in Parade magazine.
This year, Houston Chronicle barbecue columnist J.C. Reid wrote, “In many ways, the millennial generation I’ve observed is good news for the future of barbecue.”
He cited several pitmasters, among them 29-year-old Laura Loomis at Two Bros. BBQ in San Antonio. “You picture a pitmaster with leather skin and all that,” she told me by phone. “Now, it’s just younger kids. It’s really cool. We talk about how we want to get together and maybe do a festival in a year or two. Because we’re new, it’s like, ‘Can they do it?’ ”
Two Bros. BBQ uses six wood-fueled offset pits. The menu skews traditional, but the cherry-glazed baby back pork ribs break with the Texas norm of no sauces or glazes. Cherry is very different from the usual tomato-based sauces. And spare ribs are far more common than baby backs.
“We try to offer something for everyone,” Loomis said.
Transformation is underway in the Kansas City area, as well. I asked barbecue columnist Ardie Davis for names of barbecue restaurants that have opened in the past five years. He emailed a list of 12, nearly all opened in just the past three years.
Mark Kelpe is co-owner of one of them, Char Bar Smoked Meats & Amusements in Kansas City, Mo. Although he is 48, the restaurant is aimed squarely at millennials. In addition to a bocce court, full-size croquet course, two outdoor ping-pong tables and a large firepit, the menu offers a variety of vegetarian options.
“When we set out to create a barbecue concept, we were very wary,” Kelpe said. “We were treading carefully because we are in Kansas City and it’s filled with world-class barbecue restaurants. We decided we were going to do a Southern-inspired smokehouse, with something different. I wanted to make sure the barbecue was relevant to 2014 and 2015, especially millennial diners.”
The star of Char Bar’s vegetarian offerings is a pulled jackfruit sandwich with melted provolone and fried jalapeños. Jackfruit is a large, sweet, nubby-shelled fruit that is native to South and Southeast Asia. The canned version of unripe jackfruit comes in chunks and, when cooked, replicates the mild flavor and texture of pulled pork.
“I set out to create a vegetarian sandwich that would please a meat eater,” Kelpe said.
There were no jackfruit sandwiches at the N.C. Barbecue Revival dinner. Patrons did, however, dine on appetizers of grilled oysters and smoked mullet before wandering from one station to the next to try sides that included an Asian take on collard greens, marinated shrimp with pickled vegetable salad and those wood-cooked cider vinegar Brussels sprouts. At the tables serving the luscious brisket, spicy lamb and juicy beef short ribs, the servers were the pitmasters themselves, who will help shape barbecue for years to come.
Shahin is an associate professor of journalism at Syracuse University. He will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jimshahin.