Anthony Bourdain and Daniel Vaughn Talk True BBQ

Prophets-Smoked-MeatIf you keep your ear to the food-world ground, you may have heard that Anthony Bourdain--chef, storyteller, tastemaker, traveler, and fearless eater of Parts Unknown--is launching a line of books. Aside from rumblings of a Mark Miller kickboxing memoir, he's mostly (no surprise) focused on food. His inaugural offering, The Prophets of Smoked Meat, comes from Daniel “Barbecue Snob” Vaughn of Full Custom Gospel BBQ blog fame. It's aptly billed as a "rollicking journey through the heart of Texas Barbecue." You'll find the occasional recipe, but it's much more of a guidebook and tribute to the holy men of Texas meat than a traditional cookbook. It's also on my list of May picks for the Best Books of the Month in Cookbooks, Food & Wine.

Here, Bourdain gets the low-down from Vaughn on all things BBQ. Enjoy. --Mari Malcolm

Bourdain: Why Texas BBQ? Why not NC or KC or Memphis?

Vaughn: There is only one state where the barbecue culture holds the brisket up to the highest regard, and that is Texas. The brisket is the hardest of the smoked meats to master and the hardest to do well consistently. In Texas we celebrate great brisket by not messing with it. If it's done right then you slice it pencil thick and slap it on a piece of butcher paper. It's naked, quivering and vulnerable, so it has to stand on its own.

Bourdain: Is enough ever enough BBQ for you?

Daniel-VaughnVaughn: I recently took a road trip to North Carolina just for barbecue. On the first day we ate at seven different barbecue joints across the eastern side of the state and came back to Raleigh where we were staying. We were stuffed, but wanted some pie at Poole's Diner. At the counter there we learned from another diner that a place down the street did North Carolina pulled pork empanadas. It was midnight and we were beyond the uncomfortable point, but we paid our bill and immediately went to order barbecue empanadas for our real nightcap. The short answer: No, I don't get sick of barbecue, especially good barbecue.

Bourdain: Define "the cookie"; also, "pink ring."

Vaughn: The sugar cookie is the intersection of fat, salt, smoke and time at the corners of a brisket slice. When the fat starts to render and contracts it concentrates the flavors of the rub and the smoke and the fat nugget even tastes a little sweet like a buttery sugar cookie. The smoke ring is the pink line just beneath the crust of smoked meat. It doesn't taste like smoke, but it does show that the meat has been cooked at a low temperature for a long period of time with good air (smoke) flow across the meat while it cooks. When those all come together a smoke ring forms and chances are the meat will taste good and smoky.

BourdainPhotoBourdain: Competition BBQ or stationary: what's the difference? What's better?

Vaughn: I prefer the discovery of barbecue joints around the state and the country rather than eating bite after bite of faceless barbecue at a competition. Learning the stories of who is cooking your meat and how it ended up on your plate the way it did is part of the fun, and that connection isn't possible in the blind tasting setting of a competition. I'm also a bit of a purist, so simple seasoning with salt, pepper and smoke is what I prefer on my smoked meat. Loads of brown sugar and squeezable margarine that are common on the competition are no way to treat a defenseless brisket in my opinion.

Bourdain: What are some warning signs which definitely indicate imminent arrival of sub-optimal BBQ?

Vaughn: If you don't see a stick of wood around the property, there's really no need to get out of the car. Barbecue joint signs that include 'catfish' or 'salad bar' are also dubious, but I still try to go most anywhere that serves smoked meat.  

Bourdain: Does anyone in NYC come close to "great" BBQ by Texas standards? Anywhere else up north?

Vaughn: I haven't eaten at a barbecue joint in New York that comes close to the greats in Texas, but I'm hopeful that something will come up in my search when I visit again in May. Smoque in Chicago is the furthest north that I've eaten great brisket.

Bourdain: Is wrapping brisket or ribs in foil EVER okay? Why not?

Vaughn: Foil is known as the "Texas crutch." Once the briskets are wrapped, it's hard for them to dry out because they steam inside the foil package. This might result in tender brisket, but it sacrifices a great crust and can easily lead to slightly smoky pot roast instead of well smoked brisket. It's hard to condone, but there are a few places out there that can still use it successfully. The best joints either don't wrap at all or wrap them in butcher paper.

Bourdain: Sauce or no sauce?

Vaughn: Good barbecue does not require sauce. Period.

Bourdain: When Australians refer to the “Barbie,” what the hell are they talking about?

Vaughn: I have no idea. I think I've only seen American actors with fake Australian accents refer to the "Barbie," but I think it has something to do with grilling, which isn't barbecue.

Bourdain: Which BBQ joint would you currently choose to die in?

Vaughn: Franklin Barbecue. When I die I want to be forever preserved in a brisket fat confit from Aaron Franklin's brisket.

Bourdain: What is the best beverage to enjoy with BBQ in an ideal situation?

Vaughn: I love beer, but I don't love it with barbecue. I'd rather have something sweet, so give me a Dr. Pepper or a half sweet, half unsweet iced tea.

Bourdain: What's the most egregious misconception about BBQ?

Vaughn: The most egregious misconception about barbecue is that every pitmaster has some sort of secret ingredient or sauce that makes their barbecue superlative. To a true pitmaster the rub is about as important as the brand of sandpaper is to a master wood carver. If you think knowing that "secret" will substitute for having the skill and experience of a master, then you're an idiot.

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Comments (7)

City Market in Luling, Texas. Best BBQ on the planet and BEST SAUCE, also. 'Nuff said.

Posted by: Joe Bob Burris | Monday May 13, 2013 at 1:42 PM

This is a great interview. I love hearing from Anthony Bourdain. He is one of my favorites.

Posted by: Stephanie | Wednesday May 1, 2013 at 6:42 AM

Another article about the tired notion of regional supremacy in barbecue. I guess they can't cook pork shoulder or spare ribs in Texas, at least in the dozen or so places i've tried them. Just like the southern Italians cook differently than the northern Italians, so do the folks in the Carolinas and Texas. Why? Are Texans born with some inherent expertise on brisket? No, they just grew up cooking it because it is the meat that was widely available to the German immigrants that started Texas barbecue. Just like pigs were the widely available to the farmers and laborers who started cooking them low and slow in shallow dirt pits on the plantations in the South..

No good barbecue in NYC? So I guess Mighty Quinn and Fletcher's are not considered "good" by Vaughn's standards... Not to mention Hill Country, Fette Sau, or Daisy Mae's. I'd argue my home-smoked brisket is better than 75% of what I've tasted in the Hill Country, and I live in Washington D.C.! I will give credit to Franklin Barbecue's brisket, it is the Holy Grail to me. But even Franklin offers several different sauces (on the side), including an excellent Espresso Sauce.

About the smoke ring, the coloring is the result of the interaction between the smoke, salt and myoglobin in the protein. Highly salted and high-myoglobin proteins like Texas brisket and Jewish pastrami exhibit a pink color on the meat, whereas low-myoglobin proteins like poultry never have a great smoke ring, despite hours in the smoke.

The duration of time in the smoker is a factor, but to say Texas brisket is smoked "low and slow" is a misnomer, since most Texas joints (including Franklin, according to his interviews) cook at 300 or higher. Aaron Franklin himself has been quoted as saying he tries to keep the temps between 300 and 350.

I do agree with Vaughn on competition versus restaurant. The goal in competitions is to cook the barbecue to a very specific standard, and while it does result in perfectly cooked meats with excellent moisture, the flavors are geared towards KC style (sweet) since the predominant governing body is KCBS (Kansas City Barbecue Society). My biggest disappointment in sampling barbecue came when I saw that Tuffy Stone owned Q BBQ in Richmond, VA. I figured I would try a place that was owned by a competition legend and found it to be less than mediocre, despite the dozens of competition trophies adorning the restaurant. Once I startd cooking competition barbecue I realized that the amount of work that goes into each meat is astronomical. As an example, in a restaurant, each piece of competition-quality chicken would have to sell for $10 or more to make any profit.

Finally, the author is right that no single "secret" ingredient will make great barbecue. It is all about practice leading to perfection and after that, repetition repetition repetition! You cook 50 briskets in a year and tell me you didn't learn anything about managing time, temperature, and patience.

Sorry if this was long-winded, this was a very thought provoking article and obviously struck a nerve.

Posted by: Stephen | Friday April 26, 2013 at 8:13 PM

Sauce is to bbq, as bad fake breasts are to women.

They both should leave you asking: what are they trying to overcome?


Posted by: Richard A. F. Nelson | Friday April 26, 2013 at 1:29 PM

Flavor enhancement doesn't necessarily attempt to cover any shortcomings. Mustard on a great corned beef sandwich draws out even more flavor. Slaw on a great pulled-pork sandwich adds new and complementary dimensions to the meal. Soy on great sushi, mole on great enchiladas, the list is endless. Enhancement, not mask.

Posted by: Koop | Friday April 26, 2013 at 10:36 AM

Koop - So french fries. Most in restaurants come to them frozen. They are then quickly reheated in grease and served. They are pretty bland. Slather with ketchup for improvement.
Now, take a locally grown potato and FRESHLY cut it into french fries. Cook it in duck fat, TWICE. Add a bit of salt and pepper once it's pulled out of the grease while cooling. Now eat that. You won't need condiments for that fry. Now apply this concept/ideat to brisket, as done in Texas in the manner that Vaughn mentions. This is why he says you don't need sauce.

Posted by: Eric | Friday April 26, 2013 at 8:20 AM

Nice interview. But I've never understood the bizarre yet ubiquitous attitude that 'good barbecue does not require sauce. Period.' Is it true that good french fries do not require ketchup? Good hot dogs do not require mustard? Good salads do not require dressing? When a condiment is done right, it takes the main ingredient in a direction that it couldn't go on its own. It enhances, rather than masks, the flavor of the main ingredient. A good sauce does this to barbecue. Silly to proclaim otherwise.

Posted by: Koop | Friday April 26, 2013 at 7:03 AM

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