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Will barbecue ever go upscale and gourmet?

Will we ever see the day that American Barbecue goes haute?

Y'know, where menus are listing Kurobuta or Berkshire pork spareribs and pulled pork sandwiches? Kobe or Wagyu beef ribs and burnt ends?

And where purveyors are bragging about the appellation and terroir of their coals, and how the wood chips in their smokers are organic and from heirloom trees?

Everything else has gone haute ... from Mac N Cheese, to hamburgers, to fried chicken.

Why not barbecue?

Or has it already and I just don't know?

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  1. I'm sure it's out there. I can envision the plating options. Towering mounds of ribs piled like Lincoln Logs with pulled pork filling the center and a lattice of brisket slices topping the whole.

    What about the Molecular folks? Could smoked pork fat be foamed? Baked bean puree freeze dried, crushed, and the resulting bean powder rimming a cocktail glass of Lynchburg Lemonade?

    1. In major metropolitan regions, yes, I can see it. In the hills of South Carolina and roadside shacks in Memphis? No way. They wouldn't deign to be so prissy and pretentious!
      That fancy pants shit is for Yankees ;-) Any good ole' boy would throw you into the smoker for sissifying his brisket like that.

      1 Reply
      1. re: monavano

        ! ! ! None but the good meat goes into my smoker... I wouldn't sully it by tossing in a sissy chef!

      2. burnt-end foam? brisket water? spherified cole slaw? essence of chicken thigh? yeah, what an important contribution to the food world THAT would be. But you're right, ips, the weenie chefs will find a way to screw up bbq too

        18 Replies
        1. re: BiscuitBoy

          Bun powder with spherified pulled pork and cole slaw foam. Sous vide collards and mac and cheese cream on the anti-griddle- artfully smeared across the plate, of course.

          1. re: monavano

            I've already seen hybrid recipes for barbecue that use a combination of traditional smoking and sous vide cookery.

            1. re: cowboyardee

              Sous Vide barbecue, eh?
              Well, that 's a sad development.

              1. re: The Professor

                Not really, IMO. It's basically just the combination of sous vide and smoking. Bound to happen, really. Not really any more of a bastardization than using an oven in conjunction with a smoker when you think about it.

                1. re: cowboyardee

                  The Kansas City BBQ Society has already forbidden sous vide in competitions.

                  1. re: Msample

                    That's interesting and sort of funny. Do they ban conventional ovens and such as well?

                    1. re: cowboyardee

                      Would it even be practical given the time constraints in competitions? I wouldn't think the texture would be a plus in competitions either.

                      1. re: laststandchili

                        There are lot of different options for texture - it doesn't have to be the super tender result most people associate with sous vide. Likewise, not all preparations call for the 36-72 hour cook times SV is known for. On top of that, I imagine that in some competitions, were the technique no banned, a contestant could precook the meat sous vide and then refrigerate or freeze it still vacuum packed, all ready to go for the beginning of competition.

                    2. re: Msample

                      I haven't cooked in a comp for a couple of years, but the rules have always stated that the barbecue must be cooked over charcoal and/or wood only. Sort of rules out SV without any new clauses.

                      1. re: chileheadmike

                        I thought of the competition BBQ as soon as I read the OP. They are already doing it upscale. Some people spend hours arranging the garnish for their turn in boxes, and then the meats that go in them get extra prep care and are given an artistic flair in the display.


                      2. re: Msample

                        "The Kansas City BBQ Society has already forbidden sous vide in competitions."

                        Well, after a few attmepts and finally perfecting cold smoking a brisket and then cooking it sous-vide I have figured out why the Kansas City BBQ Society has banned it from competition. It pretty much wipes the floor with any traditionally coooked BBQ Ive ever had, and Im currently living in austin texas, and there is good BBQ here.

                        1. re: twyst

                          Care to share a little of your method?

                          1. re: cowboyardee

                            Took cues from Modernist Cuisine and just made a few tweaks based on my personal tastes and adjusted for my equipment.

                            the first order of business is getting a great brisket. For some reason brisket quality seems to vary pretty wildly even in the same market. Trim excess fat etc then get ready to start.

                            I dry rubbed the brisket and let that work for 24 hours. After the meat was happy I cold smoked it in mostly mesquite with a little pecan for 9 hours. Then it was packed and cooked sous vide at 56C for 72 hours. Its a 5 day process, but its pretty sublime.

                            1. re: twyst

                              That's genius. Let's talk franchising....

                              1. re: twyst

                                Thanks. Adding that to my list of things to try.

                                1. re: cowboyardee

                                  The cold smoking was the only part that created any issue, I had to work with my bradley smoker quite a bit to get the cold smoke setup working properly and holding at about 90 degrees.

                        2. re: The Professor

                          Its actually pretty amazing. Cold smoking then cooking sous vide allows you to do some pretty amazing things with meat. Its not really BBQ though.

                    1. It would be a challenge to serve anything really resembling barbecue in a fine dining setting. Barbecue, as opposed to the other things you listed, is very difficult to serve in a place that's not wholly devoted to it, just because of the logistics of having a large on-site smoker. Tends to make the whole place smell all barbecue-y, which isn't conducive to haute cuisine. Also, I suspect a lot of the haute cuisine guys would admit freely that they can't do it better than the specialist shacks.

                      1. Sous vide pork belly grilled and foamed. Not really BBQ but I would eat it.


                        1 Reply
                        1. re: cajundave

                          I think it was the cauliflower that was foamed there. Though I'm sure you could find a way to make a foam flavored of smoky, fatty pork.

                        2. We had a place in Houston just recently called Phil's, while not haute, it was a nice restaurant with a bar and kicked up sides on a super location on red hot Washington Ave. It lasted maybe six months. Down here, the best BBQ is in joints, maybe a trailer or small building. Also, most places don't serve alcohol, iced tea is the drink of choice year round. Nobody cares about sides, if your talking about the sides, you can be sure the meat sucks. I also don't trust a place with a waitstaff, and please, no Southern Pride smokers.

                          1. Just last night I re-read a piece in "Cornbread Nation 2: The United States of Barbecue", from the Southern Foodways Alliance, that addresses this very topic. Essentially, the answer is it can't, really, because so much of what makes barbecue good is anti-haute, anti-tidy, anti-chain. It requires a few barbecue-obsessed people to do a fairly limited menu to start with, and to care more about the food than volume, table turnover, or "haute"-ness.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: jmckee

                              jmckee, They are so right. I recently tried Dave's BBQ (a national chain) and it was dreck.

                            2. I would guess that BBQ and fine dining will never cross paths. Good BBQ is messy finger food, and while a lot of more pedestrian fare (eg your mac & cheese and other examples) may have gone upscale, it's damn hard to eat a rack of ribs with knife and fork!

                              1. Have you been to New York? Because the hipsterization of barbecue is already well underway here. But while serving heritage pork might seem to run counter to the ethic of down home food, the end-product isn't bad. I might use a supermarket pork shoulder for my barbecue, but I don't mind stopping by Fette Sau for their far superior beef cheeks and Berkshire pork.


                                18 Replies
                                1. re: JungMann

                                  A fool and his/her money are soon parted!!! Maybe when D'Argentan ships gourmet Chliterings, tripe and spleen. we will all be in for trouble................

                                  1. re: ospreycove

                                    Gourmet tripe already exists. Nowadays I only make callos or kare kare when I have company that warrants paying the price for offal.

                                  2. re: JungMann

                                    I agree, just head to Hill Country,Blue Smoke or the excellent Fatty Que. the quality and execution is some what spotty at Blue Smoke lately but the others turn out some good Que but at city prices.

                                    1. re: Duppie

                                      Yes, there's a Hill Country here in DC now, and you can run up a considerable tab easily.

                                      1. re: MsDiPesto

                                        Yeah, there is no cheap BBQ in the big city.

                                    2. re: JungMann

                                      I understand the BBQ cooks in NY style themselves "chefs" rather than "pit bosses." That is all I need to know. And aren't there environmental regs that militate against producing large amounts of smoke? I know outdoor grilling has been forbidden in certain Cali locales from time to time.

                                      1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                        That's why it's so expensive,Blue Smoke's chimney climbs more than 14 stories so as not to piss off the neighbors and the grease trap is sucked out twice a week.

                                        1. re: Duppie

                                          That's not a chimney, it's a smokestack!

                                          I've got a feeling it costs a helluva lot more to run a barbecue restaurant in NY than it does to operate a cue joint in the Texas sticks. But some folks are obviously making a decent profit from it. Incidentally, what sort of wood do they use, and from whence does it hale?

                                          1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                            Can't really say but just about all of them have aligned their restaurants with award winning,recognized pit masters at least at start up. Some advertize wood transported from the hinterland and cut on nights with a full moon only from trees that was hit by lightning during the great storm of 67..... Well you get the picture.
                                            Some how to me they don't taste as good as my first real American BBQ at a little shack just outside Bristol TN where you got a heap of pulled pork,1/2 a rack of ribs,stack of wonder bread,slaw,beans and a cold beer for $3.99 and sat under a rusty old shed along with 20 of your new friends ribbing you that you looked too skinny boy.

                                            1. re: Duppie

                                              Heh heh. You've just limned the perfect examples of marketing versus authenticity. Now I do love New York, but gimme cue out of a roadside shack in Tennessee served up by guys named Billie Earl and Ricky Ned over the slickified, silkified stuff proffered in Manhattan anyday.

                                              1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                I've dined at pretty much all of the NYC BBQ joints except Fatty Que and while a vast amount of effort,expertise and resources have been expended to replicate the taste,ambiance and experience of that down home BBQ,It somehow falls short,at least in my mind but I am no BBQ expert. I don't know if it's the que itself or just the idea that BBQ is best enjoyed in that rusty shack or a beatup roadside picnic table,sauce running down your elbows and the sweet smell of smoke that settles into your hair and clothes.

                                                1. re: Duppie

                                                  Who can deny that context is important? I'm guessing the actual difference between country cue in its natural environment and the stuff they serve in NY is not that tremendous, but how can the senses be quickened and piqued for barbecue when you're within spitting distance of the MoMA and shouting range of Carnegie Hall? It just does not compute. If I'm dining in NY, it's either going to be upscale or exotic ethnic cuisine that can scarcely be found in other places in the US.

                                                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                    Agreed. Yesterday it was Assam Laksa at New Malaysian and Friday it was curried duck at ShriPraPhai.

                                                    1. re: Duppie

                                                      There ya' go. Just what I'm talking about.

                                        2. re: Perilagu Khan

                                          Most of the best BBQ joints in NYC have the chef, and the pit boss who runs the smokers. You need someone to specifically run the smokers when you are producing so much, and you need an executive chef and line crew for the rest of the dishes. Places like RUB, Hill Country, Fatty Que, Wildwood, Daisy Mae, are excellent and their pit bosses have all spent years on the competitive BBQ circuit pulling down the top awards, before opening restaurants. I spent time working a whole hog, hardwood BBQ joint in Georgia, then helped out several of the local teams over the years. These guys know their stuff, but are still down to earth, except for a few exceptions.

                                          1. re: JMF

                                            What sorts of sides do these places serve? In Texas the Trinity is cole slaw, tater salad and pinto beans. All three can be whomped up in large batches in the morning and served until the meat runs out.

                                          2. re: Perilagu Khan

                                            In some Calif jurisdictions, bbq places have to install scrubbers on their vents to the outside. One can no longer find 'cue just by following the scent of the smoke.

                                            1. re: Melanie Wong

                                              Yeah, I would have been surprised were it otherwise.

                                        3. It is already being done in Cantonese Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong, with their version of BBQ.

                                          e.g. Yung Kee's roast goose (maybe not the best example but it is a pricey one in town), and every upscale high end Cantonese Chinese dining restaurant has their own version of cha siu (bbq pork) that is leagues above the best street deli's. The more absurd places have even resorted to using Iberico pork, but we're talking a small portion as an appetizer plate or entree as part of a multi course meal, not in dim sum bun form or as an upscale rice plate.

                                          3 Replies
                                          1. re: K K

                                            We ate the goose at Yung Kee this past July, waited almost 40 minutes for a table even with a reservation but I must say it was well worth it.

                                            1. re: K K

                                              From the OP:
                                              "Will we ever see the day that American Barbecue goes haute?"

                                              I think Asian style BBQ (e.g. Chinese, Japanese and Korean) has definitely gone upscale.

                                              But if one talks to a Southern barbecue pit master, I think most of them would not consider Chinese barbecue to be "real barbecue" ...

                                              Personally, I think true Peking Duck is barbecue taken to the nth degree of refinement and perfection.

                                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                                +1 with the Peking Duck. But just because southern or midwestern American BBQ snobs pooh-pooh anything except what they consider authentic doesn't mean it isn't authentic to somebody else. The thing is, every bbq snob thinks "their" bbq is the only thing that's acceptable. I don't think that way, but i'm not a bbq snob at all..

                                            2. It's already happened.

                                              On the competition circuit, the teams paying attention to those details are winning big time and have for some years. The rest of the field is catching up and the restaurants too.

                                              3 Replies
                                              1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                I don't think the distinction between haute cuisine and non-haute cuisine is one of attention to detail. I don't think that anyone would claim that a top notch competitive pitmaster lets details slide, but most of us wouldn't consider that haute cuisine.

                                                1. re: cowboyardee

                                                  "Y'know, where menus are listing Kurobuta or Berkshire pork spareribs and pulled pork sandwiches? Kobe or Wagyu beef ribs and burnt ends?

                                                  And where purveyors are bragging about the appellation and terroir of their coals, and how the wood chips in their smokers are organic and from heirloom trees?"

                                                  All of the above are being done today . . . those are the details to which I refer. Whether you consider that haute or not, I'm just answering the OP's question affirmatively.


                                                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                    Fair enough. I guess my quibble (a minor one anyway) is with the OP's distinction. I guess when I think of haute cuisine, I think of stylishly designed fine dining restaurants, multiple courses, elaborate presentations, lofty prices. I don't see barbecue fitting in with that world even if the brisket came from wagyu cattle.

                                              2. I know for a fact it's out there in bits and pieces. I've been to restaurants that use better meats for their barbecue inspired creations, and also those that have taken a deconstructed or MG approach, but I've not yet seen or heard of a BBQ joint that does this kind of sourcing for all their ingredients.

                                                Kind of hard to see it succeeding widescale with stuff like ribs, but stranger things have happened!

                                                1. It's already been upscale in New York city for 5-6 years. Places like Blue Smoke, Hill Country, and the Fatty Crab / Fatty Cue takes on BBQ. Rob Richter, an multiple award winner for his 'cue, has helped start up several places, and the stuff he was doing with Zak Pallacio at the Fatty Crab/Cue places is way over the top.

                                                  1. Why try to make any form of Cucina povera, "poor people food", into something that the elite and unaware of its roots, would enjoy in "Haute" surroundings? You want a good Menudo or Spleen sandwich? Go to La Libertad Market in Guadalahara or Palermo for the Spleen Focaccia. Part of the experience in the culture of food is eating it where it originated and developed.

                                                      1. Perhaps if you could find a way to marry BBQ with very modest portions, artful plating, and a concern for texture and color contrasts.... But I don't see that happening. Worlds collide. BBQ is not haute.

                                                          1. As a Texan born and raised chef catering to the kosher crowd around nyc, we've definitely tapped into something serving traditionally prepared southern bbq, but simply having a bit of fun with the presentation.....here's a couple of pix to illustrate, plus a few back of the house shots....check the smoke ring on that kosher choice angus beef.....that's love baby!!!!

                                                            18 hour hickory/mullberry wood smoked brisket...pulled over creamy garlic polenta... with a crispy potato wave, chive oil and golden bbq drizzle........aka pulled beef with gritz and with huge french fry....

                                                            Apple and cabernet stave smoked bbq chicken.....duo of hot bbq glaze

                                                            Sliced brisket....hot sauced.....we've had 5 bbq themed menu weddings in the past year alone.

                                                            1. I wanted a grill to make Argentine Style Asado, so, being an engineer, I found a welder and began making Argentine, Uruguayan, and Brazillian BBQ grills at a company called NorCal Ovenworks.

                                                              I believe that Asado is the gourmet BBQ that you are wondering about!

                                                              1. They tried that here in Austin. Went over like a fart in church.

                                                                1 Reply
                                                                1. re: logburner

                                                                  All the little old ladies made a face, and all the boys snickered like crazy?