Pitmasters of Charlotte: Matthew Barry and Michael Wagner of Midwood Smokehouse

While there is certainly good barbecue to be found in Charlotte, I wouldn’t quite say that it’s a barbecue city…yet. However, there are pitmasters out there doing great work, and I hope to spotlight that a little more in this series of posts called “Pitmasters of Charlotte.”

Monk: I was recently fortunate enough to interview Matthew Barry and Michael Wagner of Midwood Smokehouse in person at their Park Road location. While it was my first in-person interview, after a few minutes my nerves melted away due to a fun conversation with the two about their passion for barbecue. This is a little different format for the Pitmasters of Charlotte series than previous entries but I hope you enjoy the first part of a two-part post nonetheless. (This interview was condensed and edited for clarity)

So first I’ll just start with each of your official titles with Midwood Smokehouse and how long you’ve been with the company.

Matthew: Matthew Barry, I guess I would be the executive pitmaster but I just call myself the pitmaster. I’ve been with the company it will be 8 years in June. I moved down here in 2011 from Raleigh. I was up in Raleigh before going to college and then trying to figure out my life and honestly if you had asked me, like, 15 years ago if I would get to do barbecue for a living, I probably would have been like “oh that’s funny, that would be cool.” It wasn’t really a plan, it just kind of like happened.

Did you grow up in the Raleigh area?

Matthew: I grew up in Charlotte, actually. I went to NC State. I went to Charlotte Catholic and South Meck. And then went up to school at NC State and stayed up there for a few years. Then my uncle worked for Frank [Scibelli] at Bad Daddy’s – he was a GM for Bad Daddy’s – and when Frank opened Midwood up he called me up a couple of times asking questions. I did some barbecue stuff up there but then some of these questions they asked me I didn’t have answers to – more complex stuff than I was used to. And then one weekend I came down here and cooked some stuff for Frank and two weeks later I moved down and started working for him.

And Mike, how long have you been here and what’s your title and obviously you came from Texas but how did you come to be here?

Mike: Sure, so Michael Wagner and my title is sous chef for the company. I’m also sort of the right hand man to Matt when it comes to pit training and pitmaster stuff. I’ve been here 3 years this summer. Six years ago I was managing a book store and I quit that and opened a food truck and after the food truck I started working for the Black’s Barbecue family out in Texas and did that for a couple of years.

And you were in San Marcos?

I trained in Lockhart at the original Black’s in Lockhart and they were opening a second location for the first time in 83 years in San Marcos. I went out there as one of the pitmasters and eventually the Assistant GM of the store. During that, I came across a job listing online for a company in North Carolina that was cooking Texas-style brisket and ribs and was looking for someone who understood the process. I reached out and the rest was history.

I actually remember that job posting and Texas Monthly kind of made fun of a NC barbecue joint wanting a pitmaster and having to go to Texas. I don’t know if you ever heard that feedback.

Matthew: I never heard that but it’s interesting.

Mike: I’ve never heard either and it is interesting but what I’ve learned about Frank and FS [Food Group] is that if they are pursuing a concept they go to the source of where it’s done best and Texas is beef country and that’s where brisket cooking originated. I don’t find it a fault on us or them that they had to go to Texas. I think that’s part of what makes i great. I’ve learned a lot from them and I hope they’ve learned a lot from me. It’s been great.

Matthew, before you joined, were you doing a lot of backyard smoking on your own or was it something you grew into?

Matthew: I dropped out of college and and got a job at a barbecue restaurant in Raleigh – Q Shack on Hillsborough Street – and I worked there for a bit before I went back to school and got my history degree. I was trying to figure out what my next step in life and I wasn’t really happy with the options I had. I was going to some interviews and ended up taking a job as a catering director with the company for a little bit and I was just kind of feeling it out and wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I started thinking “what did I like doing” and I said [to myself] “I liked working at that barbecue restaurant and that was fun.”

And what kind of work were you doing? Bussing or waiting?

Matthew: I was working in the kitchen and was a line cook there. Then I started handling the pit stuff and ended up going back and working at the company as a manager and then the company expanded very rapidly and then contracted. And I think the only one that’s still around is down in South Charlotte. I actually came down here for a couple months and opened that up before moving back up [to Raleigh]. So when that kind of dissolved and I was trying to figure out my next move and that’s when I met Frank and kind of opened up a whole new avenue for me that I didn’t see before. I didn’t realize I could make a living and take care of my family doing this. And that’s pretty awesome.

Mike: I’ve had kind of the same experience when I was doing the food truck. I was just doing it and didn’t know what it was going to be but I never knew that it would turn into this. Being out there and just learning everything I’ve learned from Frank. I can’t overstate his commitment to quality and how much he cares about what he does and the people who he has doing it for him.

You mentioned you were working in a book store and then decided to open a food truck. What was the thought process? That was a pretty big leap it sounds like.

Mike: At that point in Texas we were in the middle of a big oil boom. Down in south Texas with the Eagleford shale things were cranking. I knew barbecue people down there and some guys who went all in and made a killing so that was the impetus. Unfortunately, I was a little behind the curve but you know, the oil industry is nothing if its not a good ol’ boy network and I just didn’t know the people. So with that business model in mind to try and restructure with the equipment I had it just wasn’t feasible. I tried to do some typical food truck stuff and the rig was like a 35 foot gooseneck trailer and you couldn’t go into a small downtown area and “food truck it” so that just didn’t work.

It sounds like at least it got you some experience that got you to the next job.

Mike: Yea, if I wouldn’t have done that I wouldn’t have gone to work for Black’s. When I was at the bookstore my district manager would come up on Fridays for meetings and we’d go to Lockhart and eat at Black’s and at that point in my life I was doing a lot of cooking in the backyard. Eating their stuff it was great but it wasn’t better than mine. And then bookstore stuff with online and Amazon…I saw the writing on the wall so I was like “man, I’m going to do this” so I just went all in and do this. It didn’t work but then in my mind the only place I wanted to work was Black’s and that’s where I went.

So Matthew, correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe you and Frank have gone to Camp Brisket at Texas A&M a couple times or just once?

Matthew: I’ve only been once and I know Frank’s been once. We’ve had some other chefs go and other people at the company and sent them down there.

What type of stuff were you able to take from the long weekend?

Matthew: The number one thing I learned from it personally, having been kind of self taught, was the science behind everything. That’s what they are really big on down there – the science and chemical reactions taking place. You know, stuff that you just took for granted and didn’t realize why it was happening but you knew it was happening. So that’s the big thing – they’re all science guys. I think Texas A&M has the biggest meat science department in the country. We looked at the different grades of brisket and the wood and the flavor they put on the brisket.

And how early was this in Midwood Smokehouse?

Matthew: I had been at Midwood for maybe a year-and-a-half or two years. At that point we were good at what we were doing and were just trying to hone our craft. You know, being from North Carolina, I could cook a brisket but I didn’t know a lot about brisket. I feel like in that time since then I’ve really adopted brisket as my own.

Mike: Like when I was doing the food truck, I was cooking pork butts and I was doing what I thought was pulled pork and it was good, but coming here was a whole different thing and it’s been really interesting. The customers I had loved my food, but what I was serving as pulled pork was nothing like here so its been really fun.

Did the Brisket Camp change anything with the restaurant?

Matthew: We switched to prime brisket from choice. We started trimming the brisket differently. It actually changed a lot and really opened our eyes to some stuff. Before, I had never temped a brisket in my life. So they talked about temping briskets there and people say 190-200 (degrees) and this was the first I had heard of it. So then we started using temp[erature] as a guideline and feel is how we pull but I had never associated temperature with brisket before in my life.

Mike: That’s interesting to hear you say you never had because before here I never had either. It’s changed from two years ago to today but I had never associated a number with brisket.

Matthew: I think when you are commercially trying to do barbecue and you have people working for you, you have to give them some kind of guidelines. For us at this point, you put your hands on something and something in your brain says “yes or no.”

Mike, have you had the chance to go to any brisket camps?

Mike: Like that? No…

Matthew: Well, he got to grow up in Texas

Mike: I’ve never gone to the brisket camp. I just by nature am a really analytical person so when I decided that cooking brisket professionally was what I was doing to do. I knew just from eating so much of it throughout my life just how it should be. Before brisket, I did other cooking, so I had an understanding of what was happening to the meat while it was in there and then it was just trial and error. I always say that the best pitmasters are the ones who have messed up the most briskets. Every time I work a pit shift – even this morning – it’s all learning.

Check back next week for the part two of the interview plus some details on an Instagram giveaway for National Barbecue Month.

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