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New Groove for Barbecue A food defined by tradition is now an opportunity for innovation

Chicago Q’s Lee Ann Whippen applies her competition experience to a mix of regional barbecue styles, accompanied by Southern-inspired sides.
PHOTO CREDIT: nocredit

It’s a new age of barbecue, make no mistake. An iconic food that used to be fetishized, argued over, and slapped down on paper plates and picnic tables in very specific parts of the United States has been democratized.

Barbecue is still worshiped, fussed over and treated to the very best chefs and operators have to offer, but it’s no longer a backroads regional thing.

“We’re taking barbecue to the next level here,” says Rob Magee, chef/owner of the new Q39 in Kansas City, Mo., which he describes as an urban-rustic hybrid. “We’re looking for maximum smoke and spice flavor and a more refined overall experience.”

Magee typifies the new breed of barbecue chef. Groomed on the competition barbecue circuit, he brings a combination of rigorous technique and a more open-minded attitude to the trappings of a ’cue restaurant. This includes the integration of different regional styles and the addition of mainstream amenities, such as a full complement of appetizers, more appealing side dishes, and desserts, as well as non-barbecue entrées and an ambitious beverage program. All the trappings of a contemporary restaurant, in other words, fused into the technique- and flavor-intensive discipline of barbecue.

Traditional to Trendy
The techniques of today’s barbecue are still rooted in wood smoke. And certainly, there are barbecue bastions where it’s only about the region’s preferred meat, the ribs or the pulled pork or the brisket—old-line places like Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, Mo., and Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas, and new cult favorites like Lamar Lounge in Oxford, Miss., and Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas. These are the sort of places where fans might get a pound of ’cue to go and eat it sitting on the hood of the car.

And then there’s Chicago Q, where you can get American Kobe brisket or a whole pork shoulder pulled tableside by the chef, with an appetizer of shrimp and grits and a side of bruléed mac and cheese, all washed down with a bottle of Prosecco. “We’re going for a full-on dining experience here,” says chef/partner Lee Ann Whippen, who also honed her craft on the competition circuit.

Why this, and why now? Andy Husbands thinks it’s the natural swing of the food-trend pendulum at work. “Things got a little crazy there for a while, with all the molecular gastronomy and centrifuged food,” says the chef/owner of two farm-to-table comfort-food restaurants in Boston—Tremont 647 and Sister Sorel—and a winner of the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue.

“People want real food, and barbecue is the essence of approachable, real food,” explains Husbands, who has been hard at work traveling the country doing R&D for a new restaurant that will put a New England twist on the “ancient, true craft” of barbecue. “Only now we’re applying modern-day attitudes about food to the traditional technique of barbecue and becoming proficient in several different regional styles.”

There’s also a great awareness of global flavor influences, says Husbands, citing the celebrated barbecue traditions of places like Southeast Asia and South America. “The style may be authentic, but there’s no longer a rule that you can’t enjoy more than one kind of barbecue.” Though the menus at Tremont and Sister Sorel are undeniably American, they might include anything from grass-fed skirt steak with chimichurri sauce to Korean beef dumplings to pork carnitas Benedict.

“Diners are much more adventurous now,” he adds. “And they have expectations for a better and more interesting dining experience overall.”

7 Signs You’re in a New-wave Barbecue Joint

  • Young chef from barbecue circuit
  • Non-regional approach (Texas mixes it up with North Carolina and Memphis)
  • Global influences from other barbecue cultures (Southeast Asia, Mexico, Argentina, etc.)
  • Emphasis on the flavor of smoke and rubs versus sauce
  • Elevated side dishes, appetizers and beverages
  • Upgraded presentation and accompaniments (i.e., housemade pickles, specialty mustard)
  • More thoughtful sourcing, including better quality, ethically raised meats and local ingredients

Catering to Change
One of those expectations includes healthier dining. At the same time, there’s always the challenge for operators looking to develop repeat business. Famous Dave’s is addressing both of these realities with an array of menu changes, including the addition of non-rib specialties and smaller protein portions (in the form of salads, sandwiches and the like), as well as more interesting side dishes, craft beers and other items designed to position the 21-year-old rib specialist as more of an everyday option.

The 198-unit chain will still emphasize its ribs, brisket, pulled pork and chicken, says veteran pitmaster/R&D chef Dan Conroy, “but we’re looking for other ways to let guests enjoy our barbecue.”

In particular, as center-of-plate costs rise and more people seek healthier choices, Famous Dave’s has introduced a number of menu items that feature barbecue as an ingredient, such as flatbreads, Korean-style tacos, and a new shareable Buffalo’d Bones appetizer—St. Louis ribs that are split, cut into individual riblets, flash-fried to order and tossed in Buffalo sauce, then served with celery and blue cheese.

Company-owned units are testing bar menus as well as brisket burgers, sliders, sandwiches, and other items designed to appeal to Millennial diners. They’re also making décor changes that feature an expanded bar area, more open spaces, and less of the Americana “stuff” on the walls, says Conroy.

“It’s a huge departure for us, but guests are taking very well to it,” adds the chef, giving a shout-out to the Smokey Bacon Blue Flatbread with its ounce-and-a-half of bacon, smoked blue cheese, Brie and sliced tomato. It’s topped with fresh arugula salad at the last minute—hot, fast, tasty and different, but still very much in the barbecue vein. “We think this will encourage guests to come more often or visit for lunch, in addition to getting their regular barbecue fix.”

In fact, even with the addition of new equipment like induction cooking and combi-ovens for efficiency and versatility, Conroy’s favorite thing to do is to test new things in the smoker. “Every time we load it up, we try something new, whether it’s house-smoked salt, smoked olives, roasted vegetables, or sweet corn in the summer. We’re really opening up the gates here to look at barbecue’s core and more.”

Getting That Flavor
One of the things that characterizes the new barbecue paradigm is the emphasis on the flavor of the smoke, the meat and the rubs, rather than on the sauces. While the sauce is still very important, it’s more likely to be offered on the side to the customer’s taste. And instead of the hidebound strictures about regional sauce styles—tomato and vinegar in Memphis and St. Louis, mustard in South Carolina—today’s barbecue chefs are more apt to craft several different kinds of sauce to allow for experimentation.

At Chicago Q, Whippen promises “not your ordinary barbecue,” and that includes careful attention to the quality of the meat from the sourcing forward. She buys heirloom pork and above-prime beef, looking for flavor-giving marbling first and foremost, then cooks them low and slow, for 14 to 16 hours, to render out some of the fat and create a perfect ring of smoke.

She also uses different wood to bring out the flavors of different meats: white oak and cherry for beef, and hickory and apple for pork and chicken. And each gets a different rub: Pig Powder was developed by her dad, also a barbecue champion, to be sweet with a little heat for pork, and the salt-and-pepper-based Q Bold allows the flavor of beef to come forward. Wagyu beef ribs get half-and-half.

“I’m a big believer in serving sauce on the side, so as not to mask the flavor of the meat,” says Whippen, who prepares four different kinds: Original Mild, Spicy, Eastern North Carolina Vinegar and South Carolina Mustard. Servers are carefully trained to guide patrons through the choices and ritual of barbecue.

Rob Magee of Q39 is also serious about his sauces, not surprising given his background as both a CIA-trained chef and a kingpin on the barbecue circuit. “All of my sauces are very complex and designed to complement the various meats as well as the different rubs that are used on them first,” he says. “There should be layers of different flavors for maximum depth.”

Ingredients are top-secret, although they range from prosaic (and traditional) ketchup and molasses to a special unnamed fruit that he imports from Europe at considerable expense.

With most barbecue, says Magee, you taste sauce, rub and meat, “but with mine you get rub, meat, sauce, for an interplay of flavors. And each bite is different, so you just want to keep eating.” He describes the experience with the zeal of a true convert, outlining a sauce-making process that might begin with a vinegar-based gastrique, plus spice or sweetness: “You taste the spice and then you get the juiciness and flavor of the pork, and a finish of chipotle and fresh cilantro, with some good smokiness.”

If it sounds a little geeky, it is—and it’s typical of the degree of thought and training that goes into barbecue now. Magee is all about the side dishes, too, eschewing the usual afterthought of “Restaurant Depot potato salad” in favor of scratch cooking and side dishes designed to both complement and integrate the different barbecue items.

For instance, building on the baked beans that are typical of old-style barbecue joints, Magee makes a White Bean Cassoulet side dish that references the classic Southern French specialty: beans cooked slowly until perfectly velvety but still possessing a bite of texture, combined with the housemade chipotle sausage, tomato, fresh thyme and steak seasoning that incorporates barbecue spice so the dish circles back to barbecue.

Other side dishes put the twist to the barbecue standards: apple coleslaw; potato salad with hardboiled egg and tarragon; mac and cheese with five cheeses and herbed bread crumbs; house-cut fries with chipotle ketchup; and Q39 Spiced Onion Straws with BBQ Aïoli.

About The Author

Joan Lang

A freelance writer and editor living in the Portland, Maine, area, Joan Lang has been writing about food for more than 30 years, beginning her career in the financial and B2B press. She formed her own food and editorial consulting firm, Full Plate Communications, in 1989. She is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and holds degrees in architecture and journalism.