Jacques Gautier, chef and owner of Palo Santo in Park Slope, has made a name for himself with his unique take on pan-Latin food, made with the best possible ingredients – pastured meats, sustainably-caught fish, and fresh local produce, including some grown on his own rooftop garden above the restaurant.
When a space on Union Street near 4th Avenue, just down the street from Palo Santo, became available, Jacques decided to take on a new project – applying his ingredient-driven philosophy to a new kind of cuisine – barbeque.
He opened Fort Reno Provisions this week, with former Palo Santo sous chef Lia Forman at the helm in the kitchen, and Akil Marshall behind the bar. We met up with Jacques, Lia and Akil for look inside Brooklyn’s newest ‘cue.
So Jacques, why barbeque?
Everybody loves barbeque. People in New York have always loved barbeque, and it’s amazing that there hasn’t been good barbeque here until recently. People in New York love tacos, and it’s only been recently that good taco places and taco trucks have opened. We wanted to open an authentic barbeque joint.
What makes for authentic barbeque? There are so many regional styles…
It’s a tough thing to really put your finger on because a lot of people in a lot of different places have different ideas about it. There are so many styles. When I think of barbeque, I think of large cuts of meat, slow-cooked and smoked. The smoking is the key.
We’ll be serving four main barbeque dishes here. We’re opening with three – pulled pork and ribs made from whole pigs we get from Heritage Foods, and brisket from Creekstone Farms, that we get from Pat LaFreida. We’re using only grass-fed, humanely-raised meats here. The pulled pork, ribs and brisket touch on three very distinct styles of barbeque. We don’t want to be specific to any one style here. Just as at Palo Santo, where we incorporate Central American, South American and Caribbean influences in our food, here we’re incorporating barbeque styles from all over the States.
So the beef brisket I think of as being more of a Texas thing – smoky, really tender beef. We’re brining ours, then slow-cooking and smoking it.
When you’re doing barbeque with grass-fed meats, does it affect flavor or the cooking process?
Definitely. With the brisket, it’s all about the fat. You need to have a lot of fat left on the brisket after butchering. That’s the key to a great barbequed brisket. As you cook it slowly over a long period, all the fat is rendered into the meat – it basically bastes itself throughout the cooking process. If there isn’t enough fat, the meat is going to dry out.
Like I said, our brisket is coming in from Pat LaFrieda – it’s from Creekstone Farms. It’s pastured, grass-fed beef. We experimented with a few different briskets, and this one was the best.
The pork ribs we’re doing are inspired by Memphis-style barbeque. Now, I don’t really want to say specifically that the brisket is Texas-style or the pork ribs are Memphis-style, because we really do it our own way here. I don’t want to say the ribs are Memphis-style ribs, and then have someone come in with specific expectations about what Memphis-style ribs should be like, and think, “This is nothing like I expected!”
We just want them to enjoy it for what it is. When I mention the different styles we’re incorporating, it’s more just to show you how broad the range of influences is. We’re not trying to replicate a classic style of barbeque in any of our dishes.
But the pork ribs are done with our barbeque sauce, which is how they tend to do ribs in Memphis. We came up with our own recipe for the sauce. It’s made with tomatoes and molasses, and it’s kind of a hearty, chunky sauce. Our style, coming from Palo Santo, is to use all fresh ingredients all the time. But we’re using canned tomatoes for the sauce. At first I was like, “I don’t know…maybe we should use fresh tomatoes…” Of course I’d rather use fresh tomatoes, but we want to be able to use the sauce throughout the year. You can’t get fresh tomatoes here for most of the year, and tomatoes aren’t good unless they’re fresh and ripe. And actually, the canned tomatoes we use are picked ripe, so it’s the only way for us to do a really great, consistent sauce throughout the year.
So our sauce has lots of chunky tomato, molasses, fresh garlic, fresh onions…and a lot of other stuff. We just slather that on the ribs before barbequeing them and it’s really good.
The whole pulled hog we do with a little vinegar and sauce served on the side. That’s an approach that’s usually associated with the Carolinas. We’re doing homemade hot sauces for the pork. We make one of them entirely with home-grown ingredients from the Palo Santo rooftop garden. It’s got tomatillos, hot peppers that we pickled and pureed, and we’ve got another one that we do with just habaneros and apple cider vinegar. I really like the pulled pork with the hot sauce.
So those three form the core of the menu right now. The fourth dish? Not sure yet. We thought about putting another beef on, but a lot of people have asked, “Where’s the poultry? Where’s the chicken?” If people want chicken we’ll find a way to give them chicken. And it’ll be good chicken – free-range.
The whole idea here is to give people what they want. To make it great quality, use great quality meats from Heritage and Pat LaFrieda, that are all grass fed and humanely raised. The idea here is to never compromise the quality of the ingredients we use. The integrity of our food is really important to us. I think that’s what has set us apart at Palo Santo and that’s what will set us apart here.
We get all our milk and cream from Ronnybrook – another Greenmarket favorite from upstate. And that’s important. We’ve developed our reputation by using good quality ingredients. And I think ingredients are a concern for people when they’re eating barbeque or Latin food – unfortunately there’s a lot of Latin food made here in the U.S. that’s not done the traditional way. It’s made with Goya products or whatever, and it’s loaded up with preservatives and additives. And the same goes for barbeque – a lot of barbeque here isn’t made with the kind of meats that we’re using.
We avoid using processed ingredients of any kind – even when it comes to sugar for desserts, we use brown sugar. We never use white sugar because it’s more processed – it’s a little harder for your body to deal with white sugar.
But look, I’m not going to argue that barbeque is healthy. It’s a lot of fatty meat. It’s indulgent. As it’s supposed to be. It’s barbeque. But if you’re going to do it, this is the right way to do it – using hormone and antibiotic-free, grass-fed meats, free range chicken, vegetables from the Greenmarket…
Apparently the word barbeque comes from a Taino word – barbacoa. I never really think of barbeque as having Caribbean roots.
You never think of polenta as having Caribbean roots either! A lot of things you might not realize come from the Caribbean. It makes sense – that’s the first part of the continent that was colonized, so a lot of things spread out from there.
Barbacoa refers to the Caribbean practice of cooking a whole animal in the ground – something that’s at the roots of a lot of different cuisines. In Peru they cook whole llamas in big pits in the ground. In Mexico they do it with goats. That’s why we call the place we cook barbeque, ‘the pit.’ Now of course, the pit is really a stainless steel box smoker. It’s not a pit in the ground.
Come on into the kitchen. There’s a big pot of collard greens on. You know, there are a lot of vegetarians in this neighborhood, so we wanted to make sure we offered something for them. And also, I like to eat some vegetables.
Look at these collards. They look great. We start with fresh vegetables every day. There are so many vegetarians in the neighborhood, and we want them to feel welcome here. We’re not going to do tofu barbeque – we’re not trying to replace the meats – but we have plenty for vegetarians. We have mac and cheese, whole wheat biscuits made with butter from Ronnybrook. Leah has made this really good greenbean salad with fresh greenbeans and chickpeas and a mustard vinaigrette. In Park Slope it’s a big thing. At Palo Santo, if you have a party of four, at least one of them is a vegetarian.
So Lia, can we talk for a minute while you stir your sauce?
Lia: Of course!
Do you have a background with barbeque?
I do. American comfort food is something I’ve always liked to cook. When I was at Colicchio and Sons, my two chefs there were in a competitive barbeque group called Ribdiculous. They’re really serious about it. I think they were world champions at some point, actually. So that definitely piqued my interested. Also, my boyfriend is allergic to gluten, so barbeque, minus the beer, plus bourbon, really fits our lifestyle.
Before I went to Palo Santo my cooking background was really in Italian food. They don’t do barbeque, but curing meats is a big part of their cuisine. I think that working with curing meats gives you a really good understanding of meat and how to work with it in general.
So after spending a lot of time cooking in the kitchen at Palo Santo, where you’re doing a lot of more complex dishes to order, is barbeque…easier?
It’s not as easy as it looks. It’s really as challenging as anything. You have to master the technique of slow cooking in an electric smoker. You have to understand the animals and the cuts of meat you’re working with. Spare ribs cook differently than St. Louis-style ribs. One brisket cooks differently than another brisket. Pork has been the easiest thing to figure out. We’ve done some duck. It’s been really interesting figuring out the meats and the smoker and going through the process of achieving what we think is perfect barbeque.
But there are a lot of steps that come before you even get to the point of smoking the meat – sourcing pastured, sustainable meat; finding it at a price that works without compromising quality; finding the right cuts with the right amount of fat; developing the right cures, the right dry rubs, the right sauce for the ribs…I’ve been developing the barbeque sauce for months!
Tell us about the sauce.
We have a foundation of things that we use in cooking at Palo Santo that we use here too. Like Jacques’ sofrito. It’s a Caribbean cooking base that translates well into barbeque. It’s got those deep smoky flavors from onions, garlic, and poblanos. You can get a lot of different things out of a base like that, depending on how long you cook it, how much you reduce it, how you deglaze it. All of the different ways you can treat it affect how it works, and it’s worked as a great foundation for the barbeque sauce.
We’re definitely going for a balance of sweet and tangy – that’s what makes a great sauce. I wanted it to taste homemade – not like something you could pick up in the store. And you do that by building layers and layers of flavor, using a lot of different ingredients.
For example, I use fish sauce, which isn’t something normally used in barbeque sauce, because it’s a really good seasoning. The fish sauce is basically pressed anchovies. The savory flavor from the anchovies works really well – it adds complexity. When you eat the sauce, you don’t notice an anchovy flavor at all. You don’t know it’s there but it adds a lot. I love anchovies!
We make our own chili paste and that goes in there. And lots of other spices. A great sauce is all about building – it’s like a building made out of all these different flavors.
How often do you make the sauce?
Every couple of days. I think it’s at its best around day three. Barbeque all lends itself to sitting. It’s best after all the flavors have had a few days to marinate and settle. It’s just the nature of the food. The meats, the collards, the cole slaw – it’s all a little more flavorful after it’s had a day or two to rest.
So how much of a Caribbean, or a Palo Santo influence is there on the barbeque at Fort Reno?
We use the sofrito base in our barbeque sauce. We have our house-made hot sauce. We have the same philosophy about ingredients here as we do at Palo Santo. But we’re blazing our own path.
You can use the same flavor base, like the sofrito, in any number of things, but the way you treat those onions, garlic, poblanos, celery, carrot…anything – it changes the entire feeling and flavor profile of the dish. We use a lot of the same ingredients here as we do at Palo Santo, but a lot of our flavors are totally different. In our dry rub, we’re using some of the same chilis we use at Palo Santo, but the dry rub comes out with a completely different flavor than anything you’ll find on the menu there.
Jacques is known for his mole sauce at Palo Santo, and we’ve talked about doing a mole-style rub for the brisket, using chocolate and coffee. But even if we do do that, it’ll be totally different than the mole there. Ingredients can be molded in so many ways.
Jacques: Why don’t we talk to Akil about the cocktail program?
Let’s do it. So Akil, cocktails. What do you have going on here?
We wanted to have a good beer and wine selection to go with the barbeque. We’ve got some Hudson Valley whiskies and local craft beers on draft. And we wanted to have cocktails too. We’ve got classic cocktails and we’ve got some of our own creations in which we try to match the flavor profile of barbeque to balance things out.
We’ve got one called the Bonito Farms. It’s a take on a classic cocktail typically done with scotch, vermouth and Benedictine. We make ours with mescal, which has a really nice smoky flavor, and we switched up some of the other ingredients so it has a rich, flavorful body with a really nice smoky background. And to really hit it home, we use a little bacon bitters.
Bacon bitters? Really?
Yup. They’re made by a guy who lives near here. His bitters are called Bitters Old Men. The cocktail tastes just like brisket to me. It has this nice smoky flavor from the mescal, a little meatiness on the aromatics from the bitters, and a nice rich profile on the palette. It goes nicely with the barbeque.
We have a house Old Fashioned too. We do our own take on it. Ours is less sweet, and we use our own housemade bitters. Our house bitters are made with orange, cardamom, betel nut, and cassia, all steeped for a few weeks in Rye.
Jacques: It’s exciting to have a full bar here, you know? At Palo Santo we don’t have a full bar – just beer and wine. Here at Fort Reno, I want to do everything that I wish we had done or could do at Palo Santo.
At Palo Santo we never tried to get a full liquor license – it was never part of the concept. It’s cool to be able to do cocktails here.
Every time I get a call at Palo Santo asking, “Hey, do you guys deliver?” I’m like, “Ugh. No. I’m sorry!” I would love to be able to say yes, but Palo Santo was never the kind of place that could do delivery. People wouldn’t be happy with the food if they got delivery, because it’s not food that travels well. But barbeque travels well really well, so it’s cool to be able to do delivery.
Having lived in the neighborhood, and having had a business in the neighborhood for almost six years now, I feel like I have a good understanding of what people want.
With Palo Santo, it was always about, “What sort of place do I want? What type of place did I want to live upstairs from? What type of place did I want to run?”
With Fort Reno, it was, “What sort of place do people in the neighborhood want?”
And I felt like something that was really missing was barbeque. Really good barbeque made with the best ingredients you can get.
Fort Reno Provisions is located at 699 Union Street, between 4th and 5th Avenues, in Park Slope.