Chris Hart: the Pigtrip Interview, Parts 1, 2 and 3
Chris Hart is best known for his success with the IQue competition team that's won countless grand championships throughout the Northeast, three New England Barbecue Society Team of the Year awards and a first place brisket trophy at last year's American Royal in Kansas City. But he's also a restaurateur, having opened Tremont 647 in Boston more than a decade ago with Andy Husbands, and currently contemplating a new barbecue restaurant in Boston's western suburbs. And he's serious about food, home cooking and restaurants in general, so there are plenty of nuggets from the conversation we had in March to interest backyard chefs, barbecue joint fans and foodies alike.
Part 1: Chris Hart's Restaurant Past and the Beginnings of IQue
Pigtrip: How did you first get into barbecue?
Chris Hart: Andy Husbands, who’s one of our team members and started up IQue with me, but it started a lot earlier. After college I started working at Whole Foods to pay the beer tab, and I got into food in general. I went to high school with Andy and when we both got through with school, he got a job at the East Coast Grill. So I was in there in the early 90s at East Coast Grill, a couple of times a week. I’d eat at the bar and I really got into spicy food; I’d go to their Hotter Than Hell nights a lot. One time Andy invited me to vend with them at the Pig and Pepper in Westford, probably 1996 or 1997, and I just got blown away by it. A whole weekend in the field, and the food, and the smoke, the whole thing just kind of turned me on. And just next door to East Coast Grill at the time was Jake and Earl’s, which was in my opinion one of the best barbecue joints in the area. A lot of the barbecue restaurants in this area are kind of modeled after that original model. The Blue Ribbon guys worked there for six months or something and some of their program came out of there. It was a cool restaurant. The thing that’s interesting is that Andy wanted nothing to do with the barbecue at all at that point. He was into being a high-end chef at that point, and barbecue was a pain in the ass. I was totally into it and interested in it. I went to a couple of Chris Schlesinger’s Fourth of July barbecues in Westport MA, that were really fun, cooking whole hogs and whole fish and the whole bit. So I was at Whole Foods, Andy was at East Coast Grill, Andy came to the end of his run at East Coast Grill and we decided to open a restaurant together. After a few years I left the restaurant, but Andy and I remained connected. This was around 1999 when I left the restaurant after running Tremont for two or three years.
Did you do contests back then?
There was just one or two a summer, and it was mostly just a bunch of guys getting together and drinking beer on a field trip for the weekend. And it just slowly developed from that. The first contest we did, not as vendors with ECG, but just showing up on our own solely as competitors, was the Pig and Pepper in 1998, and we showed up with a cheap, tin Brinkman offset cooker. No canopy, nothing. And we showed up and it rained all weekend; it absolutely poured. All of the cooks and competition teams kind of took us in; they took mercy on us. And one of them was Jed Labonte, who was a couple of doors down, from Uncle Jed’s Barbecue, who had a big canopy and a bonfire going, and we hung out there the whole weekend. Everything we cooked that weekend was absolutely horrible, except for chicken. Keeping that cheap off-set cooker warm at the Pig and Pepper in October in the rain overnight was an absolutely impossible task. So the pork sucked; the brisket sucked.
Because of the elements or because it was your first attempt?
We were hacks. In a restaurant setting with a big cooker we were okay on the barbecue front, but we knew nothing about competition barbecue. We had a lot to learn. The elements certainly didn’t help. We were unable to control our cooker. But the next morning rolled around and we were still alive, and we fired up the grill and I grilled some chicken, and we got a third place trophy in chicken. And that gave us the bug, and it just grew from there. That went on for a few years, and we didn’t do very well. Around 2001, I said I wanted to keep doing this but I want to do better. So what I did, I think in the winter of 2001, was buy a WSM, the Weber Bullet, and I cooked barbecue every weekend that entire winter of 2001. I’m lucky, my wife Jenny has been very supportive over the years putting up with my being gone on weekends and eating a lot of barbecue experiments.
In the winter?
All winter. In the off season, I just practiced and practiced and practiced. I cooked a lot. And in 2002 we finally won our first KCBS contest; I think it was Peter’s Pond. And we went to the Jack in 2002. We also won the event in Vermont; that was the first year we went to the Jack. I already had the bug, but that experience of going to the Jack was what pushed it to the next level.
We struggled in the beginning a little bit. We had some guys on our team who are professional chefs. I would say that the whole professional chef thing in competition barbecue isn’t necessarily an advantage. For some of the grilling events it’s an advantage, but in barbecue it’s not necessarily an advantage. It really just took practice, taking it seriously. We didn’t take it seriously; we were just out for a good time. We started to get into it, and I’ve been pretty focused on it since then, doing probably 8 to 10 contests a year since 2002.
What was the name of your team back then?
We were on our trend of changing our name every year. We were the Backyard Burners one year, we were the PBR Social Cub one year. Then we got involved with Harpoon and they sponsored us, so we changed our name to the UFO Social Club, one of their beers, and then we just changed it over to IQue. I don’t know exactly why we chose IQue. We were at a Patriots game and we said we need to change our team name again, and we were just hashing around ideas. IQue came up and we said, “That’s good, let’s go with it.” There’s no special meaning behind the name; it just seemed to fit us.
Why change every year?
Just to keep it fun. I think everyone likes our team name now, so we have no plan to change it; we’ll stick with IQue a while.
Tell me about your team members and team leadership.
In 1999 to 2001 we were just having fun with it and it was a group effort. It was myself, Andy, Kenny Goodman from New York, Sal Fritensky (he’s now on the Vinegar Hill team, and he’s an awesome barbecue cook), and at that time there were too many opinions, too many cooks in the kitchen. After that winter of 2001 when I was experimenting with the WSM, Andy said, “I’ll do the grilling, you take over the barbecue, take full control.” So I’m the pitmaster, taking the lead on barbecue, Andy’s taking the lead on the grilling, and that’s how it’s been working the last few years.
Dave Frary, who’s on our team now, used to be on a team called the Night Train Smokers.
Kenny Goodman, he used to work at the East Coast Grill. I met him at the East Coast Grill days, the original ECG days when it was about a 40 or 50 seat restaurant, and he also used to work at the Linwood when their barbecue program first opened up. He now lives in New York City and is a culinary educator at the Art Institute of NYC.
There’s my brother Jaime—he’s kind of the late night guy, the team administrator, who takes care of the logistics and travel arrangements. But he’s also the guy who stays up late and watches the pits.
There’s Ed Doyle, whose major focus lately is consulting for other restaurants to help them get their act together and helping restaurants open. Ed did a lot of work with SoulFire, helping it open in Allston. He also is the corporate chef for Dale and Thomas Popcorn. Ed comes out maybe two contests a year; he’s not able to get out every weekend as often as some of us do.
And there’s also John Delpha, who just recently jumped aboard the team. Right now he’s chefing at La Campagna in Waltham and he’s helped with La Taqueria on Landsdowne Street, right behind Fenway Park. He’s good friends with Andy and for years he’s been telling John you gotta come out and check out this barbecue thing. John came to the Royal for his first contest and really got bit with the bug, was really impressed. John joined us in 2006, we went to the Royal and in the Invitational we came in 4th place overall. So it was a big party and he was really excited. And a few weeks later we went to the Jack and I said, “Do the chef’s choice.” And he won the chef’s choice category cooking beef short ribs served with potato gratin, pot-roasted carrots and popovers.. So the second contest he ever was at he won a trophy, and he’s got this big Jack Daniel’s barrel on his mantel. And he’s been cooking a few events with us here and there.
Beyond the barbecue and the grilling leads, who does what?
At Harpoon all of us will be there, but usually there’ll be three or four of us. At most barbecue contests it will be Kenny, Jaime and I forming the core. If it’s a grilling contest it will usually be Andy, Ed and John, each taking ownership of a category. Dave is a great barbecue cook in his own right. He’s had his own team; he’s cooked solo as IQue. The last time we won Team of the Year, Dave cooked solo at Peter’s Pond and got one of our highest scores of the year. He’s a great barbecue cook. Most recently he’s really helped us with out presentations. He’s renowned in the model train industry; if you go to a model train convention everyone knows Dave Frary. Everyone. He’s very good at being very detail oriented and that’s helped us with presentations lately.
How did Andy get over being sick of barbecue?
He was a young cook and wanted to be a high-end chef. At Tremont 647 and other restaurants, he got to do that and achieve that. And in some ways he went back to basics, shifted around a bit, getting back to roots, simple cooking and authentic cooking. He did that on a variety of trips recently, where he went to Mexico and learned about tacos; he’s gone to Thailand and learned about making curry. Barbecue’s just a part of that: staying in touch with basic styles of cooking. And winning some contests, playing on the national level has been fun and interesting.
Let’s talk about Tremont 647, in which you were a partner.
I was at Whole Foods managing their Brookline store. When Andy left East Coast Grill he said, “Let’s open a restaurant." We were in our mid to late 20s at the time, no kids, we could take a risk, and we took a real big risk when we opened up the restaurant. We really went out and jumped in. He went to New Mexico and worked on a farm and I stayed back and looked at spaces. It was about 6 months looking for spaces and I found this place in the South End that was kind of on the border of the nice part and not so nice part of the South End. The gentrification of the South End had not yet reached the corner of Tremont and West Brookline Street. It was a sweetheart deal, and the best part of it was that we got 18 months no rent. In exchange for developing the space into a restaurant, the space was just an empty box. We raised money from investors, raised a couple of hundred thousand dollars, and built the restaurant. The guiding idea was that we’d have a wood fired grill in the center of the kitchen. That’s what we loved most about the East Coast Grill: the chef was in the kitchen, in the middle of the dining room. You could see if Chris was there that night, there was something cool about that.
Somehow we got an okay from the city of Boston to put a wood fired grill in the restaurant and we went with it. We kind of ran out of money. The whole project just came to a stop and all we had was a half built restaurant. What got us over the hump was an article in Boston magazine. Andy did an incredible job on PR, and he’s possibly better at public relations than he is a cook, and there was just a ton of hype around the opening of this restaurant. Boston magazine caught onto it and decided to do an exposé on the opening of a restaurant in Boston. At the same time we’re trying to get a bank loan for the rest of the money we needed. As soon as the banker found out that there was this article in Boston magazine, where all the different people’s roles would be explained, and that his picture was going to be in the magazine, the deal came through. So we got the rest of our money, we opened the restaurant in 1996, and it was really a wild, wild success. There were certainly ups and downs but it was a lot of fun and they’re still going strong.
What was your role in the restaurant?
The real goodness for me was just the opening of the restaurant: conceiving it, building it, raising the money. When we opened, I ran the front of the house and the wine program, and we received a Wine Spectator award while I was there. I just ran the front of the house: the service, the financials, the books and the bar program. Andy did the food.
Did you have any input into the food?
Sure, absolutely, though it was probably not until I left there that I got seriously into cooking. I was raised in the restaurant business. My mother has always been in the restaurant business. I grew up bussing tables and hanging out at the bar at night waiting for my mother to finish work. A couple of the restaurants she managed were Corey’s in Dedham and Beacons in Walpole, so I got a taste of the business there. One of the main reasons I left the restaurant in 1999 was that I had my son in 1997 and I wasn’t seeing him. I was heading into the restaurant at 10:00 in the morning and leaving at 2:00 in the morning, and I wasn’t seeing him at all. I just needed to take a break and regroup with the family. I got a job in the software business and I really missed the daily interaction with the food. As a result I got into becoming a home cook; I got really serious about that. And then barbecue became the addiction and the outlet for that.
Is there anything about managing a restaurant that most people are unaware of?
I think the key thing is that there are so many moving parts, so many things going on. It’s choreography. It’s making it all come together so that the guests have a great experience. The simple things like someone sits down and orders drinks and an appetizer, they don’t want the appetizer to show up before the drink. It’s simple things like that. But it’s two different systems—a drink system and the guys in the kitchen. There are two completely different systems and the key to a restaurant is the glue that pulls these systems together; it could easily go haywire. So whether it’s reservations, how people answer the phone, buying food, preparing food, there are all these elements, and putting them together in unison is hard. And those who do it well have great restaurants, period.
As a manager did you correct mistakes as they happened by barking Rick Pitino style, or speaking to them afterwards? Did you have a game plan for the night?
It’s mostly game plan for the night and being perceptive to what’s going on. It takes a certain person to realize that you got your appetizer before your drink. Some customers will speak up and say something about that but many don’t, and it really takes eagle eyes to realize it happens. But you really have to rely on your talent the way Terry Francona prepares everyone for the game and lets the talent take care of their thing. You have to trust people. It’s a balance.
I’ve gotten so frustrated at the obliviousness of restaurant managers.
It’s not a well-paid position. It’s lousy hours, it’s hard work. It’s gotta be in your blood: “There’s no option, this is what I do, I work in a restaurant.” You have to have that to be a good restaurant manager. Some people have it, some people don’t. Usually you open your own place and then there’s an element of this at Tremont. It’s hard to make money at a 60 or 70 seat restaurant. What do you want to make? You want to make $100,000 a year. It’s hard to make. With two owners, it’s really hard to make that at a restaurant that size. So you make more restaurants. And a lot of restaurant people are really good at being in the moment running their restaurant but not necessarily at training other people to do it. And if they’re not there the choreography crumbles. If you look at the Boston restaurant scene, lots of chefs have done it. Jody Adams expanded and contracted. Chris Schlesinger does it all the time: Blue Room and Back Eddy and All Star Sandwich Bar. He expands out and then pulls back in. There are all sorts of chefs that have done that, and that’s the reason why. It’s really hard to make the place run at a level that you’re used to while you’re not there.
That expansion and contraction happened with Tremont 647 to some extent.
It definitely happened at Tremont, with Kestral and Rouge, and Tremont certainly suffered.
My last two meals there, after the consolidation, were really good. Speaking of Rouge, I used to got to a lot of the barbecue events there, did you do those? There was an event that I went to in 2004, I think it was a Jack Daniel’s night, that really stands out.
Yeah, I wasn’t involved in that restaurant but I did all the barbecue events there.
Good stuff. The thing that all my barbecue buddies talk about whenever we get together is those lamb ribs. You did those?
Those were incredible.
Cool. I do remember doing that. Those were fun: in the Backwoods, simple wet rub of fresh herbs, garlic and olive oil.
When you do vending at events like Harpoon, how closely does that approximate what you do in competition?
On the special events, I’d say it approximates the competition fairly closely. A couple of differences, and I’ll hit on that. Vending? Not so much. We try to put out good food for vending but it doesn’t get the tender loving care that the competition does. I think the difference at some of the events I’ve come back at some of Andy’s restaurants and done—I’ve done three or four barbecue nights—is we try to tone it in a slightly different direction. We cook it the same way. But instead of some sweeter sauces that we typically do in competition, we tone that down. It’s a little more savory. And it’s typically a matching event, so we try to match the flavors with Jack Daniel’s or beer. And we don’t want to blow away the beverage component with a really sweet, spicy sauce. One of the events I want to do, and I’m working with Andy right now, is a barbecue and wine night, matching barbecue with wine.
One of my thoughts about some of the barbecue restaurants is that there certainly isn’t an under-representation of barbecue joints that are a side of the road place, very casual, and those are great. I just thing there’s more opportunity for barbecue at a slightly higher end, at the competition level. I think barbecue could work great with wine. And I think one of the reasons barbecue has gotten kind of a bad rap with wine is that so many folks just think of barbecue as sauce. As liquid smoke infested sauce that will decimate any kind of wine. They think the only thing it works with is a Bud. I think that the Texas Hill Country style of barbecue—that’s mostly just salt, pepper and post oak—goes great with wine. I want to explore that idea a little more.
So what kind of wines would you recommend?
One chef out there who’s matched a non-traditional food with wine is Rick Bayless with Mexican food. For some of my ideas with barbecue I look to Rick Bayless. With Mexican food there are a lot of joints but he’s brought it to a different place. Not necessarily a better place but a different place. And he’s explored matching these Mexican foods with wines and I think barbecue could do the same.
What matches great? I think any sparkling wine is fantastic. A Cava from Spain or a Proseco. I’ve even heard of people doing vintage Champagnes with barbecue. I typically like to stay away from anything that has tannins. The tannins and the spice that’s in the rub don’t usually go well. You’re looking for big fruit. I like Zinfandel; I like Shiraz; I like Spanish Grenache. Anything that has a big, strong fruit element usually does well. For whites, I like something with a bit of viscosity to it. I’d think Gerwertztraminer or Riesling. Something that’s slightly off dry and has a bit of sweetness. I could see a smoked chicken with a little bit of salad and a Gerwertztraminer. That’s one barbecue idea I’m working on right now.
Have you been out to Chicago and tried Topolobampo?
Yeah, just once. I was in Chicago for the NRA show. Chicago’s on the cutting edge on the molecular gastronomy front. There’s of course CharlieTrotter’s. Tru, I’ve heard great things. But the food thing that’s missing from Boston is good street food. There are some great restaurants in Boston but Chicago has the Chicago Eats and they have the hot dogs, stuff like that and New York has their own thing going on. Boston is missing that a little bit. Chicago has it all going on. It has good ethnic foods, it has high-end food, good street foods. It’s a good city to tour. A good restaurant tour.
Part 2: Getting Serious About Competition Barbecue
Pigtrip: I’ve seen you in videos on YouTube. The most memorable was the video of IQue winnng first place in brisket at the American Royal. The last time I saw it, it looked different. Was it edited?
Chris Hart: Andy’s been into food videos and he’s been posting to a site on YouTube, and there are four videos from the Royal. Two are on how we did pork for the invitational. Then there was the raw unedited dump of footage from when we won first place in brisket. And then someone went back and edited the brisket one. It was a lot of fun. We just got lucky capturing the video on the brisket call. Andy had his camera going during the awards, and for the open there’s 500 teams, they call from 20th place to first place in every category and there’s a ton of categories. It’s not just the KCBS four; there are three side dishes, dessert, all these other categories. So there’s eight categories, 20 down to 1, and we were super optimistic. We thought our food was great. And we didn’t get calls in any of the side dishes, or the dessert. Chicken no calls, ribs no calls, pork no calls. Brisket: 20 all the way down to 2, nothing. So Andy by that point isn’t even really videoing. His camera was facing the floor, and for whatever reason he held it up and they called our name for brisket and we got all this great footage. It was fun.
Was that your proudest moment? Or maybe your first contest? What are some of the things you’ve been most proud of over the years?
Recently, I would say winning for brisket at the American Royal is our biggest win. The one I was most proud of was a contest just Kenny and I went down to in Virginia last spring. We cooked in the Smithfield Cookoff. A big prize pool attracted a lot of top teams, like Johnny Trigg, Pellet Envy, Cool Smoke. They were there in their RVs and their $20,000 rigs. We showed up—late—and we were kind of back behind the bleachers. It rained all weekend and we were literally up to our ankles with mud. The wheels broke on the cookers, so we had to prop our backwoods up on bricks and we were totally slumming it. We took reserve grand champion, second place overall, with all these top teams, and we were pretty pumped. That was a real good time.
At the 2005 Harpoon, didn’t you win the equivalent of a barbecue triple crown? First in grilling, first in KCBS and team of the year, all in the same weekend?
Yeah, we did that year. That was a fantastic day, that was the pinnacle. And that year we were also the number 10 team in the country in KCBS overall. We had a good year, that was a great year. And it’s gotten a lot tougher since then. In New England you see more good teams get calls: Lunchmeat, of course I Smell Smoke!!! There’s up and coming teams like Transformer. There’s a whole mess of really good teams out there that it’s tough to beat them.
When you do contests in other parts of the country do you change things up because you think the judging is going to be different?
I don’t think that’s the most important thing. We have changed things up for big contests and it’s actually been to our detriment. At the Jack Daniel’s it’s kind of like Manny in the World Series: hey, it’s just the World Series; if we lose, who cares. He got a lot of flack for that but I can really identify with that. If you go down to the Jack or the Royal and you try to change things up or try to do it better, sometimes you don’t. Some of the best stuff I cook is in my back yard where I’m not really paying attention. I just relax and cook and it comes out great. And sometimes if you overthink it, it doesn’t necessarily help. The most important thing is just cooking the meat perfectly. So it’s execution. The flavors? To me those aren’t that important. The dry rub, the sauce? They’re important, but they don’t matter at all if you don’t cook your meat right.
So it’s fire management?
Numero uno. The contest we won a couple of weekends ago, Freeze Your Butt Off, I didn’t have any of my normal stuff. I used Sweet Baby Ray’s, a finishing glaze Andy made, and I used a dry rub I threw together, and we just cooked meat properly. It was nice and tender, and juicy, and we just put light barbecue sauce on it and let the meat stand on its own. We try to focus on cooking the meat well and the thing I’ve always fought against for years is trying to do something special for the event. Sometimes I sabotage myself when I try to do that kind of stuff.
Kind of like swinging for the fences and striking out, to continue the baseball analogy?
Besides the pressure of the bigger contests, I was wondering if you do anything differently because of the regional aspect? Maybe because you know the teams in that location are cooking a certain way and you deliberately to do something similar. Or maybe do something different to stand out?
I hear you and there is a touch of that. If it’s a new contest in a new area where there’s a lot of recently certified judges, I’m interested in that. That’s good information to know. I went and did a contest in Philadelphia, in the stadium. I think it was 2003, the Liberty Bell Cookoff. It was all new certified judges. We did pretty well and we decided to sauce it up. There were judges who haven’t really done this before, so we put a lot of sweet barbecue sauce on, and that did well. I think in general, and that’s one approach I’ll take with a bunch of new judges, is sweet sauce. In Kansas City, where maybe I have a high amount of experienced certified judges, I might want to let the meat stand on its own a little bit more, give it a little more undertone to the sauce. Or in Virginia, we went with more of a vinegary approach on the pulled pork. In Kansas City we went with a sliced pork. There’s sliced pork in the restaurants out there. So there is an element of that, but you don’t want to go overboard on it, because it all comes back to how well you cooked the meat that day.
If you’re doing well with one of the categories, do you just ride that recipe and presentation until it doesn’t do well anymore? Or do you change it before it starts slipping?
It’s a hard call. The analogy I’ve used before is that it’s kind of like playing golf. You get up to the tee, you swing and you hit the ball. You start making adjustments: “I could it it better if I held my elbow in a little more and held my chin up a little more and keep my feet pointing north and south.” But you make too many adjustments and all of a sudden you’re a pretzel. You’ll hit the ball into the woods because you’ve made too many adjustments and you’ve lost your stroke. I think that happens sometimes: you had a recipe that worked and you make a slight tweak to it and all of a sudden you’re off track. Sometimes it’s just better to relax and swing easy and do what comes naturally to you. It’s a thing you have to remind yourself sometimes. But you have to make tweaks with competition. There’s people coming up with new ideas, new presentations, new ways of doing things. You gotta try to stand out, stay ahead of the curve a little bit. I think in 2004 and 2005, our team was ahead of the curve. We were doing some stuff that other teams were not doing. I’m not saying that people were following us necessarily, but some other teams started doing similar stuff and now you gotta stay ahead of the curve to some extent if you want to be successful.
So if you came in top three you’d leave it alone?
I’d tweak a first place entry if I thought it could do better and my teammates hate me for it. They’re all, “Keep doing your thing, keep doing your thing.” There’s that. But a lot of times we have basic recipes but we cook differently sometimes. I think a real element to why we’ve had success is an ability to adjust to what happens. Sometimes the meat’s done at 6:00 in the morning, or the meat’s behind, or whatever. It’s not like every single contest we put it on at 10:00 and it’s done at 8:00. For whatever reason, it just doesn’t work out that way. The meat’s different, or the cooker was 10 degrees below temperature all night and we didn’t realize it, whatever the reason is. I think a big part of being consistent is being able to adjust to things that go “off.” Dave Frary just cooked with us and cooked with I Smell Smoke!!! He said it doesn’t really matter what rubs and sauces you use, he agrees wholeheartedly. He’s seen us do that and he’s seen I Smell Smoke!!! do that. The reason they win is that they’re cooking the meat properly. Not because they chose sauce X and rub Y. That’s where I see a lot of new teams get off kilter. They come into it and try to figure out what rub, what sauce, what presentation. For me that’s all secondary.
That was actually one of my questions: how much comes down to execution versus the various decisions you make.
Sometimes it comes down to those little decisions. Sometimes they’re important, sometimes you can win by them. Sometimes you win by a point, so you try to do everything you can to get that extra point. But it is ultimately about executing.
Execution will get you the tenderness but will it get you the flavor? Aren’t they unrelated?
They’re more related than you think. Take someone like Mike Davis from Lotta Bull. At the Freeze Your Butt Off a few weekends ago, there were 15 New England teams there. If they brought him in there and gave him nothing more than salt and pepper and a jar of Sweet Baby Ray’s, he would have won. He just would have cooked: the smoke… the fat… a little bit of sauce… that’s all it takes. It doesn’t necessarily take all the other stuff. Yes, some ingredients that have a unique flavor profile can help. And it helps win contests. But sometimes you can go too far. Sometimes you can make too many exotic tweaks and add butter… or turbinado sugar at the end… sometimes you gotta scale it back, keep it simple, and cook it right. That’s all it takes.
Speaking of butter, in the YouTube video of you doing pork at the Royal, you revealed that that’s what you do at the end. And the bouillon.
I think that’s a good example, because I don’t always do that at the end. But that day, with the food I had there, I felt it could use butter. That’s it. I don’t always put butter on it. It felt a little dry to me; the bark was a little hard. So I wanted to soften up the bark a little bit and moisten it up a little bit. So that’s a perfect example of what we do, we don’t have a pat way. We react to the food we have and make it the best we can.
Do all the other guys on the team taste it and chime in with their two cents?
It’s kind of controlled. Kenny Goodman is the key person to help me taste the sauces and glazes and help me evaluate which piece of meat is the best piece of meat. And/or Dave. The other guys? It doesn’t necessarily help to have three or four people saying this, that or the other thing. You get too much. Sometimes I’ll go to them and ask them what they think, but in general Andy and Ed will back off and let us do our thing.
When you taste the food prior to entry, can you tell at that point how well you’re going to do?
Usually. But I’ve given up on trying to predict.
In the video you say you don’t like to make predictions.
But in your head you must have an idea.
Sometimes I’ll have an idea. At Freeze Your Butt Off everything was good, it felt great cooking for the first time in a while, doing all four of them at the beginning of the season. It was great. The national contests, no. I don’t feel like, “We got that!” I rarely feel that way. It’s more like, “We did what we set out to do, this is the way we like to cook, we’re happy with all the entries.” And whatever happens happens. I’ve given up trying to predict. This past summer  at Lake Placid, I thought we cooked great. And we didn’t do very well. Sometimes it happens.
How much of how well you do comes down to the luck of the judges you get? The hard ones or the easy ones. Or even the spot in the order on the table: you might be the first, you might be the last. That’s a huge piece of luck there, isn’t it?
I would guess that the last position would be the position we want to be in.
Sometimes it can get cold. In pork I wouldn’t want to go last. Sometimes with the time it sits and takes to get served, that last entry doesn’t get eaten until 1:20 or 1:25.
I know there’s not supposed to be comparisons, but you could have this absolutely perfect piece of pork and the judges eat it first and score it 7-7-7. And then after they taste the other ones they realize that those sevens should be eights and nines. I feel there is potentially some comparison that goes on, so maybe you want to go later. There’s definitely luck. And I think the reps do a good job of rotating the teams to the different tables so that if there’s a tough table who scores low, you only hit them once and not multiple times. It’s part of the game; my wife thinks it’s gambling. There is a gambling element to it. But you gotta have both: you have to have world class excellent barbecue and you have to have luck.
How much of what your competition flavors are based on what you personally like versus what you think will do well?
Midway through the summer I’m not interested in barbecue at all. I probably cook the barbecue sweeter than I would at home. I really like—as I mentioned earlier—the Texas Hill Country salt/pepper/cayenne style. I like that, but I probably wouldn’t turn that in at a barbecue contest. I think the only difference for me is the finishing glaze. At home I probably skip the finishing glaze and at contests I add it. That’s really the only difference.
I like savory flavors myself, and the rib that I gave you the 9-9-9 on at Freeze Your Butt Off, I thought was perfectly executed and it was right down the middle. It had spice, not too much spice; sweet, not too much sweet. Everything was working. My personal preference is more savory. But it’s not about what I like. For what you were doing, it was perfectly executed.
I’ve actually been backing off the sweet a little bit. I’ve been experimenting a little and at the Freeze Your Butt contest I didn’t sauce the chicken. It was very natural; I was trying to get it to taste like chicken. It did pretty well but my brother tasted it and said, “You gotta put a sweet glaze on it.” So we might have done better if we glazed it.
But you do have to cook for the judges, not yourself.
You do cook for the judges, and it’s a consistency thing. It’s all about consistency. It’s about consistently cooking the food to the right temperature. But it’s also about consistently having people taste it and say, “That’s good.” And you can see teams win in a rib category and use something exotic, like a chipotle raspberry glaze. Some people really like that. Some people won’t like it at all. And I think that’s how you have to approach it; it’s like rolling the dice. So I guess you’re cooking down the middle to some extent, but I think that’s what the sweet glaze is about. Most people are going to take a bite of that and say, “It’s good.”
There was a rib at Rouge, maybe around 2004 but it was on the menu for a while, that was billed as a championship rib, with a thick cherry glaze. Is that what you were doing in competition then?
No, I think that was just for the restaurant, that was Andy’s thing. Andy had a Backwoods Competitor that he kept at Rouge. He had it in the kitchen, all hooked up, and they’d cook ribs back there. Ribs and they’d cook briskets overnight.
Is that the one Brendan Burek of Transformer BBQ has now?
That’s the one Brendan has now. It’s not really rated for a commercial environment. But Brendan’s trying to bring it back to life.
Do you have a favorite venue for competing, either based on how well you do or the environment?
Harpoon, easily. Harpoon’s great. It’s in the middle of Vermont, it’s right on the Connecticut River, the brewery’s right there brewing the beer. It’s the perfect venue for a barbecue competition, and it’s actually started to attract national teams: Myron Mixon from Jack’s Old South; we’ve had Paul Kirk come up; we’ve had the Slabs from Kansas City come up; Rodney from Pellet Envy and Johnny Trigg are supposed to come up this summer. It’s just a perfect venue. And the other one is the Jack Daniels: being at the distillery, Lynchburg, the cook’s dinner that they do in a huge outdoor house up on a hill that overlooks the hollow. And you can see the distillery and the town, and they give you this fried chicken dinner, with an open bar. And all they serve is Jack Daniel’s. Single barrel, Gentleman Jack, regular Jack. That’s just a beautiful spot. Those are definitely my two favorites. Lake Placid’s pretty cool, cooking in the Olympic oval, the racetrack. The Royal’s quite a party.
Any venues where you had trouble performing at? Larry Bird always had a few stadiums where he just didn’t seem to shoot as well as usual, so I’m wondering if there’s anything similar in barbecue.
We’ve won a lot of grand championships but we’ve never won the Massachusetts state championship. It’s been in Lowell and it’s been in a variety of places over the years. We’ve won reserve and got close a couple of times. At Lowell we just never have done that well. One of the reasons is I get burned out by the end of the season. Every September I try to sell my cooker. There’s only so much I can take, so those end-of-the-year contests we haven’t done all that well. As soon as the season’s over, I get a couple of months behind me, I can’t wait to get back out and cook again.
How did the sponsorship from Harpoon come about?
One of the other major things that Andy does for the team in addition to the grilling is he’s helped out with sponsorships. We’ve had Cattleman’s sponsor our team; Harpoon sponsors our team. We’re involved with some folks building the first year of the Harpoon contest. It’s a very popular contest now; it’s completely sold out every year. But that first year it was like 18 teams. And it was around the time that we were working with them on that contest that they sponsored us.
Based on what? Did they approach you, or did you approach them?
We approached them. There’s a lot of things. I think one of the main things that has worked for Cattlemen’s, and it’s worked for Harpoon, is hosting VIPs. So what they do is take a very important customer of theirs—for Harpoon it would be a restaurateur—and say, “Come up to Vermont, stay the weekend, and experience the best barbecue you’ve ever eaten, matched with Harpoon beer.” And we’ll bring them into our tent for the weekend, host them, and give them a real barbecue experience. That has a lot of value for someone who might buy a lot of beer from you. It makes them a loyal customer. Whether it’s a car dealership or a local brewery like Harpoon—any business, really—that’s the first angle I look to when working out a sponsorship. We go cook at Harpoon's special events. So we’ll be there at the events to cook barbecue and take care of the people who come into the brewery. Sometimes the Globe food section will do something on me like with the Big Green Egg. There’s a little bit of cross-pollination with Harpoon. And talking about food sometimes. Andy does stuff for them like that. They’re good to us and we’re good to them; it’s all about building relationships.
At these contests it’s often a big party. At the Royal you can tell from the video that it’s loud; everybody’s drinking. How hard is it to balance enjoying yourself and focusing on winning?
I do have a hard time with it. At the Royal that just passed, we got that ribbon for fourth in the invitational, but in general we did not do well in the invitational. It’s because we imbibed too much. You get so excited to get there and the tequila starts pouring. We partied pretty good that night and it showed in the food the next day for sure. But if it was only competition and that’s it, it would get old pretty fast. A big part of it, with that group of seven guys I talked about, is that they’re all my best friends, and if we didn’t have this competition barbecue thing, we might not see each other very much. We’ve got busy lives and things going on, and the ability to break away from it all and get together and cook and drink and have fun for a weekend is the reason we’re doing it. I’m not doing it just to win contests. We love winning contests, but that’s just part of the fun: having a goal, working together as a team, is a lot of fun. But the party is a certain part of it.
You can do that in your back yard though, the same seven guys…
It just wouldn’t happen. There’s no doubt that the adrenaline of the contest is part of it, and the back yard doesn’t provide that. Although we do get together and do a pig roast in the summer every now and then.
How about people stealing your stuff in competition? People using some of your methods. Have you ever knowingly had someone try to take something from you or watch what you’re doing?
Yeah, I’ve had that happen a few times. It’s somewhat annoying to have someone come over in the middle of a contest who’s not necessarily there to talk to you but more to see what we’re doing, but in general I really don’t care. If people come over and ask my opinion on what they should do, I try to help them. I try not to be super secretive. This past year was a pretty inconsistent season. We had some highs, won a couple of contests, won for brisket at the Royal, but it was up and down. Part of me was thinking I may need to hold my cards a little closer to the chest and not reveal what I’m doing. But I’m not too concerned about that. I think you can write down your complete game plan, give it to one person and give it to another person, and they’d come up with two completely different things. So if someone asks me something, I’m usually pretty open about it.
At work did you wind up cooking for all the company functions and become known as “the barbecue guy”? Do they know who you are?
Yeah, I’m definitely known as the barbecue guy. Almost every year I cook barbecue for the office. When I owe somebody who’s covered my ass at work I’ll bring in a couple of racks of ribs on Monday morning, or whatever. But they know me as the barbecue guy for sure. I bring in a trophy from time to time.
What advice would you give the back yard hobbyist looking to break into competition?
There’s a whole lot of cooks who would disagree with me on this one, and Andy King from the Bastey Boys comes to mind, but the first thing I would do is forget about making your own dry rubs and sauces. That’s a great thing to do; I like doing that; it’s part of the fun. But in competition? Forget it. Especially early on. Don’t even consider it. Go out and buy proven commercially available rub. Go buy some Head Country product. Head Country rub and Head Country sauce and that’s it. And focus on how you cook the meat. Cook what you cook at home. If you cook spare ribs at home, cook spare ribs at a contest. Try to keep it simple. Don’t try to do too many things, too many fancy preparations. Keep it simple and focus on properly cooking the meat.
Part 3: Chris Talks More About Restaurants
Pigtrip: Now lets talk about restaurants. Do you have any favorites in the Boston area?
Chris Hart: Now that I’m living in the MetroWest area, I don’t get out as much. I’m a home cook, I do a lot of home cooking. I make stocks on the weekend or whatever. Every weekend I have some sort of culinary project. Last week it was pastrami. What do I like? I like where we’re at right now; Sichuan Gourmet is probably the best restaurant in the MetroWest area. It has the bold ethnic flavors that you usually only find in Chinatown. I love the sushi at Oga in Framingham. And I often dine at Tomasso’s in Southboro where they have a nice Italian with local ingredients and a great wine list by Lorenzo Savona.
How about barbecue?
Because I cook a lot of barbecue, a lot of times at a barbecue restaurant I’ll get their catfish sandwich or something like that. I think an up and comer is SoulFire. Wyeth Lynch, who owns SoulFire, is really starting to come into his own. There’s a big learning curve there and he’s been coming up it for a while, but the stuff I’ve had there recently has been very good.
The best barbecue in the area in my opinion is Blue Ribbon. Some of the New York places I’m interested in, but I haven’t gotten a chance to try Hill Country yet. And I’ve heard mixed reviews on Fette Sau. I don’t get out much for barbecue. When I worked at Tremont one place was Speed’s hot dog stand by Roxbury. At the restaurant I’d be there from 10:00 ‘til late, and in the middle of the afternoon I’d walk over there and get at hot dog, and it’s fantastic. He uses Pearl Country Club dogs. I mentioned earlier there’s not much good street food but that’s probably the best one.
One of my favorite barbecue places in the area, and I mentioned this earlier, was the old Jake and Earl’s.
Yeah, that was good.
At East Coast Grill before they expanded, they had fantastic burnt ends. That was probably my favorite. The other one I like a lot, and I don’t think it’s there anymore is Jake’s Boss Barbecue. He used to work out of a trailer. Andy brought me to that trailer late at night a few times, around 2:00 in the morning, and that was fantastic. And then he moved into his own space in Jamaica Plain. Maybe a little inconsistent depending on the day you went, but if you went at the right time you’d get some good stuff.
Exactly. There were a couple of times I went when it was stellar. And then other times it was like, “Where did the guy go?”
I think the biggest challenge of a barbecue restaurant is consistency. You have that nirvana moment where you pull a perfect brisket out of the cooker, and its lifespan could be short if you don’t do the right things. The enemy of good barbecue is a steam table. And a lot of places are slicing it down, putting it in pans and putting it on a steam table, and if you happen to walk in the restaurant right when it hit that steam table, you’re going to have a great meal. If you happen to hit the restaurant after it’s been in the steam table for four hours, it’s going to be crap. And that’s the challenge.
When you’re on the road competing, do you have time to sneak a meal in at a barbecue restaurant? Is it something you seek out?
The site that I use is Roadfood.com. I check out my route and I check out Roadfood and I’m always trying to find that Roadfood joint so I don’t have to eat at a fast food place. I’ll often do that. This year on the way back from the Jack we stopped at a country diner in Virginia. We stopped for a half hour and had pork chops and meatloaf and sweet potatoes, that kind of down home Southern meal. Biscuits and the whole bit; it was nice. I try to do that as much as I can. But again, not usually barbecue. When we’re cooking it in competition, we get our fill for sure.
Do you get sick of it?
I don’t know that we’re sick of it; it’s just that we’re not seeking it out at restaurants unless we’re at a mecca kind of area.
So at Kansas City, you’d check out an Arthur Bryant’s?
I would, yes.
You said you liked the Hill Country style. Have you been to places like Kreuz Market and City Market and those guys?
I’ve been to Cooper’s. And when I was with Whole Foods I went down to Austin from time to time. It’s been a while since I’ve been to those places, but I’m pretty sure the two places I hit were the Salt Lick and Cooper’s. And that’s where I got the taste for it. I mentioned that Chris Schlesinger introduced me to barbecue and he tends to go for the North Carolina style: vinegar and pulled pork. And Texas is where I first got to try that amazing brisket and sausage.
What’s the biggest difference between restaurant barbecue and competition barbecue?
A lot of things, but the main thing with competition barbecue is you’re trying to make your statement with one bite. And at restaurants you want to eat a mess o’ ribs or a big pulled pork sandwich. So the thing is you want to be over the top with competition barbecue. Not necessarily spicy, but butter and sauce and injected flavor all throughout the meat and all kinds of intense, over-the-top flavors going on. That’s the main difference. The other main difference is you’re eating food fresh off the pit. In my opinion a properly cooked brisket fresh off the pit is one of the world’s best foods. It’s just a fantastic experience, and it can be hard sometimes to get that at a restaurant.
So you order the brisket if you do order barbecue?
Brisket, fat. If I could order it that way, burnt ends or the point/deckle, the fatty part of the brisket. The deckle on a brisket to me is the ultimate barbecue.
You gotta go to Hill Country.
What’s the thing you think barbecue restaurants get wrong that could be easily fixed? You mentioned the steam table. Do you think it’s possible to serve from the pit to the plate, or is that not practical given the traffic most people have?
I don’t think it’s the traffic. It seems to me that what a lot of places get wrong is that barbecue doesn’t have to be cheap food. It doesn’t have to be a “joint.” There are a lot of amazing barbecue restaurants that are no-frills establishments. But it can be something else too. And it doesn’t mean that you have to have gaudy displays all over the wall and that whole kind of thing with pictures of pigs with smoke coming out of their ass. It doesn’t have to be cheesy.
I think that in the same way that Italian can be world class cuisine, French cooking is world class cuisine, Rick Bayless has made Mexican cooking world class cuisine. I think barbecue can be that too. And a lot of restaurants that open up don’t really have that concept. And I think that barbecue restaurants would be a great place from the side dish standpoint, bringing a little bit of that "from the farm to the plate" aspect. Field greens, small items, serving corn in the summer, serving collard greens in the winter. And having a little bit of that grandma’s farm fresh food. It doesn’t have to come out of a can from SYSCO, but I think a lot of places do that. I don’t necessarily need a $4.10 pulled pork sandwich. The only way to make a $4.10 pulled pork sandwich work is if you’re doing volume. If you’re doing good volume, you’re serving fresh meat, but it also means you’re using steam tables. I’m interested in seeing a place that’s a little closer to a fine dining establishment. It would be interesting to see someone do something like that. Pit to plate might not always be practical, but I have some different ideas on how to serve BBQ in a restaurant setting. Once I get it open you can come by and I’ll give you a tour.
What about the possibility of seatings? There are some restaurants, not necessarily fine dining, that will have a 6:30 seating and 8:30 seating, and you reserve for one of them. At Daisy May’s in New York they have a thing they call the Big Pig Gig, where you can reserve a table for 6 or 12 people at a specific time and because they know what time you’re coming, they prepare the pig or lamb or pork accordingly. If a barbecue restaurant did seatings, it would be like competition: rather than have it ready at all hours of the day, just shoot for a specific time and have it perfect at that time.
Absolutely, I agree. One of the reasons is that places are doing service all day. They’re open from 11:00 to 9:00, serving pulled pork sandwiches nonstop the whole time. That’s not what most restaurants in town do. They’re open 5:30 to 10:00. So if you’re a barbecue restaurant and you’re running those kind of hours you can’t charge $4.10 for a pulled pork sandwich. You gotta charge more. But wouldn’t it be great to have those service hours for a whole mess of briskets off the cooker? At 4:00 in the afternoon to be ready for the 5:00 service. And that’s one way you could approach that high level of barbecue. There are places in Kansas City that do things like lunch only. Monday through Friday, lunch only; they’re shorter hours. There are places in North Carolina that cook what they’re gonna cook for the day, it’s fresh, it’s perfect, it’s pristine—and when it’s gone, it’s gone.
Do you think customers are willing to pay the price to get a better grade of barbecue?
I think if you introduced very good sides, chef-prepared sides, and added another element to the menu besides pure barbecue. I think to some extent Chris Schlesinger—not to keep harkening back to Chris—has done that at East Coast Grill. He has the grilled seafood focus now, but I can imagine a place similar to the East Coast Grill that had more of a barbecue focus. A fish fry kind of dish or double thick pork chop, some grilled steaks, that type of element. I think that’s a barbecue concept that hasn’t been explored enough yet.
Do you have any desire to open your own place?
I’ve been out of the restaurant business long enough, that I’ve forgotten enough that I’m willing to get back into it again. I’ve been looking at spaces in the MetroWest area, from Framingham to Hopkinton. When I was at Tremont I was 25 and I could take a risk. Now I’ve got kids and a family and a house and the whole bit, so I have to be a bit more calculated in my move. But it’s definitely in the plans. I’d like to explore a different kind of barbecue restaurant where I bring some of those competition flavors and some of the fine dining ideas I learned when I was at Tremont. Maybe bring some of those things together.
Would you ever guest chef somewhere just to try things out?
Absolutely. I keep my nose in it with some of the special dinners I do over at Tremont. I’m working on a barbecue and wine dinner.
Before I forget, let me ask a pet question of mine. I like to see people do two versions of things. Why do you have to have one rib and one type of pork? I’d like to see a place where they say, “This is our rosemary-basil seasoned pork butt, and this is our original standard barbecue profile pork butt.” Does that make sense?
Yeah, I think that’s a great idea. Sometimes you see that, but usually it’s the same cooked meats with different sauces: mustard sauce or vinegar sauce or whatever.
I’d like to see this in competition too, I’m curious to hear what you think. A lot of competitions have your basic four and then a fifth category. Why not have the fifth category be one of the first four, but you’re not allowed to do standard barbecue flavors, like Jamaican.
Yeah, you can still smoke it. Or balsamic vinegar on ribs. So maybe you use fennel seeds. Or different flavors that are more Mediterranean, but you’re still using ribs.
Sure, absolutely. That would be fun, and it works in a restaurant setting for sure. I like to see different pieces of the same thing, like pork three ways or beef three ways. Pulled pork, pork belly, sliced pork. Or deckle, sliced brisket and beef rib. I think different elements of the same meat on a dish is fun. And different flavors too. At home too I leverage my barbecue cooker but I don’t use barbecue flavors. I just keep it simple. If I’m cooking pork I use salt and pepper. And braised, the same way. I cooked a pork butt for Easter and used a ham glaze on it.
Getting back to your high-end barbecue place…
I don’t want to call it upscale or high end. It’s not going to be white tablecloth at all. It’s going to be casual eating. I just don’t see why it can’t go up one notch. Instead of the $4 pulled pork sandwich, I’m interested in the $9 pulled pork sandwich or the $14 half chicken, an $18 slab of ribs.
$18? That’s cheap.
Maybe an $18 half slab of ribs. The food would be a little more expensive, but bring the quality level up a lot. But I like the idea of mixing in some of the other flavors, but I’d lean on the competition flavors that I’ve developed over the years and found my sweet spot with, literally and figuratively. That’s kind of the idea.
How important is it to own it rather than have someone else fund it?
I would consider it, but it depends on the size of the restaurant. I think that one of the reasons I left the restaurant at Tremont was that it wasn’t really big enough to support both Andy and me. We’d need to open more restaurants. And with a young kid, I’m thinking, “I’m going nuts now, I can’t open more.” So you need partners. To open the restaurant I don’t have the $200,00 to $400,000 to open the restaurant. One way to own the restaurant is to have the investors own equity in the restaurant. They wouldn’t be operating partners but financial partners.
I've been thinking for a while that someone with the resume you have, if you were to go to Manhattan, you could be making a guaranteed salary and be a star in the city.
I just have to convince my wife and kids to go to Manhattan. I would certainly consider it.
One other concept I have is charcuterie. Sausages, summer sausages and all that kind of stuff in a meat market setting. Kenny’s dream is to open his own meat market, kind of like John Dewar’s, and I always thought adding a charcuterie element would be a fun thing to do.
Have you been to [Barbara Lynch’s] Butcher Shop?
Yeah, I like that. I don’t know if they make their stuff or buy it. B&G Oysters next door, I love that. My favorite food, maybe even as big as barbecue, is oysters. I’m a huge oyster fan. I’ll eat a dozen oysters for breakfast. But charcuterie is a fun thing.
Would you combine charcuterie with barbecue or do it separately? It kind of adds a classy element to barbecue.
Yeah, maybe an appetizer plate of assorted smoked sausages and meats. That would be interesting.
And it would allow a $9 wine as opposed to a $4 beer. It goes.
Yeah. I’m interested in being in a town, a community, a neighborhood place. At Tremont on the weekends we’d get the tunnel and bridge crowd, but during the week I’d say 80% of the people who come through the door walk there. People from around the corner, who live down the street. That’s the kind of spot that I want to have. The other thing about Hopkinton and Southboro is EMC is there, so you have all these office workers who have nowhere to eat. I want to be in a town center.
I’d think no matter how high end—sorry to use that phrase again—you were, a good percentage of the business would be takeout, so I think you’d want to have parking.
What I want to do is have a bar, 50 seats, where I execute on this higher end concept and the take out is just good old fashioned barbecue take out. I’d want to have a sit down menu that’s very different from the take out menu. I can imagine doing appetizers that just wouldn’t be available on the takeout menu. I want pulled pork sandwiches, brisket sandwiches, slabs of ribs and half chickens, six sides and that’s it. But the sit down would be a totally different experience.
You gotta get on this, I can’t wait.