Not too long ago, the mention of ‘Brooklyn-style’ barbecue might have evoked Polaroid images of a dad sipping beer and cooking hot dogs over a smoking grill on a slowly melting sidewalk, surrounded by rowdy kids screaming with delight at the eruption of a water balloon fight on a hot summer-in-the-city night. Or something like that.
Not anymore. As disciples of true barbeque have returned from the South bearing deep knowledge of the variegated arts of smoking meats, we in the Northeast have begun to understand that the term ‘barbecue’ represents a deeply diversified culinary culture, rooted in regional traditions that have evolved over many generations.
Turns out, there’s nothing simple about smoking meat. Endless variations in the types of wood used for smoke, the types and cuts of meat, the seasonings, smokers and sides, represent a Rubik’s cube of possibility for aspiring pitmasters not wedded to the dogma of a particular old-school of ‘cue.
Matt Fisher is a New York City native who was turned on to the mysteries of the smoker as a kid by his parents, who took him along on many extended back-road expeditions through the South. Today, he’s the pitmaster at Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbecue, where he’s taken some tried and true Kansas City and Texas-style techniques and added a few Brooklyn twists – like working only with pastured, grass-fed meats, a cocktail of smoke from fresh, local woods, and allowing himself a little creative license with the spice rub.
We stopped by to learn a little more about the mysteries of ‘cue and to try some of Fletcher’s specialties.
So Matt, what should we have today?
Well, we do counter service here. You take a try, move your way down the counter, tell us what you want to eat and we give it to you. So why don’t you let me make a tray up for you? I’m thinking maybe some burnt ends, pork belly, and chicken wings with some of our sides. Sound good?
Sounds good. Can you tell us about what you’re doing here at Fletcher’s?
You know there are many, many, very well defined styles of barbeque out there. We’re not trying to exactly imitate one existing style or another. We’re drawing from them, but doing things our way, which is why we call our barbecue ‘Brooklyn Barbecue.’ All of our meats are dry rubbed with our house spice mix and then smoked low and slow at about two hundred degrees, like they would be cooked in Kansas City or some parts of Texas.
We smoke with a combination of fresh-cut red oak and sugar maple from upstate, and our spice rub is made with a combination of spices, which is more like Kansas City style approach – a little less austere than most Texas barbecue. We use sugar, salt, paprika, a few different kinds of pepper and chili, just like you’ll find in just about any other barbecue rub, but we use some more exotic spices too, like coriander and allspice and a few others, that are a little less traditional. But we’re in Brooklyn, and we think what we’re doing in terms of the spices is kind of reflective of the super-diverse cultural makeup of this place where we are.
The other thing that we do that I think ties in with Brooklyn is that we only use meat from pastured, grass-fed, antibiotic and hormone-free animals. We’re not trying to do mediocre food quickly and cheaply. We are putting a lot of work into producing the highest quality barbecue that we can. We work with small farmers who share our passion for doing the best work we possibly can do, and for doing it the right way. For us, there’s really no option in terms of how we source our meat. We just wouldn’t consider doing it any other way.
And can you walk us through what’s on the tray?
Sure. First we have the burnt ends. The burnt end is a part of a brisket. It’s a Kansas City specialty. There’s a place in Kansas City called Arthur Bryant’s, which is kind world famous in barbecue. It’s been around for almost a hundred years. They would smoke their meat in these big old-school brick smokers, and some parts of the briskets would end up in hotter spots than others. They’d get a little bit charred, and the carvers would cut those little bits away and set them aside. They were called ‘irregulars’ because they weren’t considered good enough for service.
Eventually, the cooks discovered that those irregulars were delicious. They started making sandwiches with them for themselves, on the side. At some point some customer saw that and said, “I want to try that charred part there that you guys are eating!”
Over time they became so popular that people were coming in and asking for them so frequently that they had to find a way to produce them on a regular basis. Originally, they just used whatever portion of a brisket happened to get a little charred, but when the demand for them increased, they started making them from the deckle part of the brisket, which really lends itself well to the intense smoke and longer cooking needed to get that heavy, caramelized char, and that’s what we do here.
A brisket has two parts to it. The bottom part is flatter and leaner, and it’s called ‘the flat.’ The top part is much more marbled and fatty, and it’s called ‘the deckle.’ The flat and the deckle are different in the way that the white meat and dark meat on a bird are different – they’re different muscles and they don’t cook at the same rate. The deckle needs to cook for quite a while longer than the flat, so when the flat is perfectly cooked, we separate it from the deckle and serve it, and we put the deckle back in the smoker to finish.
So to start, we rub the entire brisket with our house spice mix, and smoke it for about sixteen hours. Then we take it out, remove the flat for service, and put the deckle back in the smoker for another six to eight hours, so it gets about twenty four hours total time in the barbeque. They becomes this melty, caramelized little cubes of joy. The fat just melts into the meat, so you get this buttery, beefy, really densely smoky piece of meat with a sweet caramelized crunch on the outside. We call the burnt ends beef candy. They’re just these luscious, sumptuous treats.
Today, burnt ends have become one of the more legendary manifestations of barbeque out there, but they’re still hard to find. Not too many places actually serve them, or if they do, they’re generally not making them the way they’re supposed to be made – a lot of places will cook a lean brisket, then wrap it up in foil and steam it to make it tender, but that’s not really a burnt end. We’re able to get pretty close to the true thing by doing it the way we do it with the deckle.
So what’s next?
Next here we’ve got our pork belly. This is one of our specials tonight. It also gets our same house spice rub, and it’s smoked for eight to ten hours. We use Hampshire pork for our pork belly. It’s a wonderful heirloom breed. It has a rich, sweet, but mild-flavored meat. It’s got clean, thick, white fat but it’s not heavily marbled.
We experimented with pork belly from several different breeds of pig. A lot of people love breeds like Berkshire and Ossabaw, that are pretty heavily nutty and earthy in flavor, and can have a lot more fat. For us, those breeds had so much going on flavor-wise that rubbing and smoking them seemed almost to defeat the purpose. We found that the Hampshire’s sweetness, fat ratio and subtler, perfumey pork flavor were perfect for us. It works really nicely with the flavors from the smoke and the spice rub. We experimented with all kinds of glazes and sauces too, and just settled on this very, very clean, pure approach to it.
Like everything else, the pork belly is cooked low and slow. It’s inherently a very rich, decadent product. When it’s done right, you get a super tender, juicy, almost liquidy consistency from the rendered fat holding together these thin bands of meat. It’s all just redolent with smoke and accented by the spice. It’s just a pure, buttery, sweet, nutty pork explosion. That’s pretty much it.
And then also on the platter here, we have our house chicken wings. We get our chicken fresh from a small farm in Pennsylvania. It’s fresh, never frozen, meat from free-range birds raised on vegetarian feed, that are killed, cut and brought to us fresh.
Like all the meat here, the wings are smoked. We don’t have a fryer in the restaurant. That’s just not what we do. So we just rub the wings with the house barbeque spice, smoke them for about four hours, and serve them with three different sauces. The chicken comes out super-tender. You bite right through the skin, and inside the meat is very moist and tender and succulent, and just rich with the smoke flavor and that slight spice hit from the rub.
You can really taste the meat and the smoke, and then you have a range of sauces to jack up the heat or to add some tartness or sweetness, to give you some different perspectives on the chicken. We serve the wings with our house barbeque sauce, which is sweet and smokey and savory at the same time, and with a white barbeque sauce which is something you’ll normally only see in northern Alabama. In Alabama it would be made with mayo, vinegar, pepper and horseradish. Very austere, very sharp. We do ours with mayo, horseradish, two types of vinegar, chives and some ancho chili. So the chive and ancho are our own Brooklyn-style twist. We call the last sauce our Superfund sauce, in honor of the canal. It’s our take on the Buffalo-style sauce. It’s tomato-y, spicy, and has a lot of other spices going on, so it’s a little more complex than a classic Buffalo sauce.
Tell us a little bit about the role of the rub and the smoke. Are those the areas where you really get to put your own stamp on ‘cue?
To some extent, yes. The essence of what we do is meat and smoke, and everything else is designed very carefully to compliment those things without getting in the way.
So with your rub, the spice mix you use, you’re really trying to come up with something that compliments the flavors of the meat and the smoke without overpowering them. You want to have enough sugar to help create some caramelization, which is what develops what we call the ‘bark’ – the crust that forms on the outside of the meat. And you want to develop a little complexity of flavor that will basically enhance the subtle flavors in the meat, and the whole range of flavors in the smoke. A really good rub should almost really be invisible. It should compliment the meat and smoke flavors without being overly noticeable itself.
With the smoke, the types of wood that you choose to smoke with have a lot of impact on the flavors and color in the finished product. We use red oak and sugar maple, two kinds of wood that are very common in the Northeast. They’re indigenous to our area, which is another element to what we do that gives our style of barbecue a Brooklyn twist.
Oak is one of the most popular, all-time m.v.p. types of wood for smoking meat. It coals over really well in the fire. It give you a lot of long lasting heat, and it’s got a wonderful, robust, assertive, peppery, hearty flavor. Maple is sweeter, but it burns a little differently. It doesn’t last as long as oak but it lends that sweet familiar rich flavor that you might associate with bacon. We pair them together to provide that rich baseline of hearty, fiery, smoke flavor of the oak with that nice touch of sweetness from the maple. Different woods impact different colors too. Maple adds a nice red color to the meat. Oak adds more of a mahogany. So all of those things are factors – how the wood burns, how it looks, and how the flavors compliment our meats, rubs and sauces.
And the wood is complicated. It’s not just a matter of ordering up a bunch of wood. The quality of the wood varies depending on where you get it, and who you get it from. We get ours from a guy upstate. He gets us what’s called green, unseasoned wood, which gives you a really assertive flavor from the smoke. He cuts our wood no more than a day or two before we start burning it. That’s not easy to find. I wouldn’t buy wood from anybody else. [laughter.] He’s my guy.
So getting the right mix of spice and smoke takes a lot of work, a lot of trial and error. The type of meat you’re cooking, the type of spice mix you’re using, the type of wood you’re burning, and the type of smoker you’re using all have a major impact on the quality and flavor of the end product. Some people think of barbecue as simple food. Smoked meat? How complicated could that be? [laughter.] It’s actually the most complex simple food you can imagine.
So Matt, how did you end up as a barbeque pitmaster in Gowanus, Brooklyn?
I’m from New York City – born and raised. I learned about Southern food and barbecue as a kid on road trips in the South. We had family in Florida and Virginia, and we went to see them a few times a year. My parents never wanted to fly. They liked road trips, and exploring off the beaten path.
So on those trips we spent a lot of time driving back roads, meeting people and eating, and I really fell in love with Southern culture and food – sweet tea on the table, ambrosia salad, biscuits, hush puppies, smothered pork chops, soul food, fried catfish, and of course, barbecue – I absolutely loved everything about exploring those places and those foods on those road trips with my parents. We started doing that stuff when I was pretty young, like five, six, seven years old, so I was still really enthusiastic about doing that sort of thing with my parents.
Later in life I just could never find that kind of food, that kind of experience, anywhere around New York. I certainly couldn’t find anything resembling that kind of barbecue, and I missed it. I thought about it a lot, and I just assumed it could only exist in the South, where it was from. When I went to college in Binghamton, I found a restaurant called Theo’s. A family from the South owned it, and they’d bought an oil drum and cut it in half and started barbequeing in the parking lot. That was the first time this light bulb went off in my head and I realized that it was actually physically possible to produce barbecue someplace other than in the shade of an elm tree in Georgia. [laughter.]
After I graduated from school, I moved back to the city and found no one serving what I thought of as real barbecue. Everyone doing it was faking it, doing things like boiling the meat, then throwing it on the grill and baking it in the oven. That just wasn’t doing it for me and I realized the only way to do it was to make it myself.
At that point I was a writer for hire, doing corporate communications and that kind of thing, and slowly but surely this almost religious calling to barbecue started to overtake me. I was travelling all over the country for work, and everywhere I went I sought out the local barbecue culture. I couldn’t get enough of experiencing the real deal in its many, many, many varieties of natural habitat. The variety blew me away. Some people doing it inside, some doing it outside, some doing spicy, some doing sweet, or vinegary, some doing lamb, some doing beef, some doing pork. I was like, “Oh my god, there’s this whole world of cuisine out here hidden under this umbrella called barbecue.”
I was obsessed. While I was still working as a writer I started my own under-the-table catering business. I had a trailer smoker that I’d bring to events. I wound up consulting at Hill Country when they were opening. Little by little, without exactly realizing it, I was transitioning from this cubicle world to actually becoming a barbecue pit master.
One day in the midst of a kind of difficult time in my life, during my mom’s hospice care, I got a call from the people opening a place called Wildwood BBQ in midtown. They had heard about me and offered me a full-time job and I made the leap and took it. After that I was at RUB BBQ in Chelsea, and just getting deeper and deeper into it, and then all of a sudden, eight years later, I found myself here as pitmaster at Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbecue. I love it. I’m able to explore all the off the wall ideas I’ve had for years. It’s great. What we do here is really done out of a passion born from this obsessive need to…adore barbecue, I guess. [laughter.]
Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbecue is located at 433 3rd Ave., between 7th and 8th, in Gowanus.
Photography by Heather Phelps-Lipton. All rights reserved.