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. Three and a half 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.

Friday Find: Dr. Howard Conyers on The Trip Podcast

The Trip interviews Dr. Howard Conyers, a SC native who received an undergraduate degree at North Carolina A&T followed by a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and materials science from Duke. Thusly, he is a rocket scientist by day and a whole hog barbecue man by night and weekend in his home of New Orleans. Spurred on by some fingers of whiskey, he and podcast host Nathan Thornburg discuss a number of topics, including Conyers’ future plans for a book and documentary on the history of barbecue.  The status of his web series Nourish is still up in the air, from what I gather.

The Trip is a podcast from Roads & Kingdoms, a food, travel, and politics publication which won a James Beard award for publication of the year in 2017. The late Anthony Bourdain was the first and only investor in Roads & Kingdoms, and they partnered on Explore Parts Unknown, the digital home for the Parts Unknown TV show, for which they won a 2018 Primetime Emmy.

Description:

Rocket scientist and barbecue pitmaster Dr. Howard Conyers talks aeroelastic engineering, whole-hog roasting, and how black pitmasters have been written out of the history of barbecue.

Linkdown: 4/17/19

The True ‘Cue Newsletter is no more for a variety of reasons, but we are happy to announce that we will help spread any future True ‘Cue news from them received via press releases.

In the final issue of the newsletter, John Shelton Reed did have some nice news to share:
In parting, there is some Campaign news to report. Our latest branch, joining those in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Kentucky, will cover Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. It is in the capable hands of John Tanner. We wish him well and look forward to hearing where one can get Real Barbecue in and near our nation’s capital.

An update on Bryan Furman’s plans for the Atlanta B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque

Mr. Barbecue in Winston-Salem had a pit fire last week, caused by embers, but they vow to return

Midwood Smokehouse has them some new fancy sandwiches

Stephen Colbert is at it again: “I love everything about North Carolina other than that damn vinegar stuff that y’all put on the barbecue.”

As usual, Kathleen Purvis puts it all in perspective:

Old Hushpuppy Ave: I want to go to there:

The 4th Annual Free Range and order/fire Pig Pickin’ featuring Lewis Donald of Sweet Lew’s BBQ

Each year for the past four, order/fire, a Charlotte-based culinary web series, and Free Range Brewing have collaborated on an annual pig pickin’ and viewing of the latest episode of the web series. You may recall two years ago they featured Sam Jones from Skylight Inn/Sam Jones BBQ. While I missed last year’s edition, this year they featured Lewis Donald from Sweet Lew’s BBQ, with all proceeds going towards a great cause, the Community Culinary School of Charlotte, a non-profit that provides workforce training and job placement assistance in the food service industry for adults who face barriers to successful employment. Definitely a great cause, and one in-line with some of the values of Sweet Lew’s more on that in a bit).

The location is the same, but the surroundings are completely different, with apartments now surrounding the Free Range Brewing building whereas it was an empty lot just two years ago. Because of the potential for inclement weather Saturday night, Lewis and order/fire host Marc Jacksina opted to utilize the covered Sweet Lew’s smokehouse for the majority of smoking before relocating to the brewery Sunday morning.

As I arrived shortly after doors opened, Lewis and his two sons were beginning to pull from the pig and before long the sound of chopping filled the back patio. Speaking of the pig, Beeler’s Pure Pork (who supplies pork shoulders for Sweet Lew’s BBQ) had graciously donated a 95 lb pig for the event, which allowed more of the funds to go to the Community Culinary School of Charlotte. Duke’s Bread donated the rolls, again allowing more of the funds to go to CCSC.

Lunch was served before the first showing, and with a suggested donation of $10 per plate everyone got a full plate of chopped pork and a roll, with sides of slaw, mac and cheese, and baked beans and a cookie. In a nice bit of synergy, the sides were actually prepared by the CCSC. Lewis was also walking around handing out slices of brisket as long as it lasted. With bellies full, it was time for the first screening of the episode.

Free Range Brewing co-owner Jeff Alexander, order/fire host Chef Marc Jacksina, director Peter Taylor, and Lewis Donald took the stage for some quick words before the episode airing. In speaking with Lewis over the past few months, I’ve gotten a good sense of his vision for Sweet Lew’s BBQ – to be a community restaurant that is fully integrated with the Belmont neighborhood – but this episode really fleshed it out so much more through the conversation between Lewis and Marc. It’s hard to believe its only been about 5 months now, but Lewis clearly loves being in the Belmont neighborhood and was putting in work to build ties with neighbors starting with the construction of the restaurant last fall. And he’s got more great ideas for the coming months, from his continued practice of hiring teens from the neighborhood to a back-to-school carnival with free haircuts for kids next August. My social work wife was just eating up the backstory and vision, and for good reason because it’s something you don’t always see from a restaurant.

But the conversation also revealed more of Lewis as a person, from his background growing up in Cleveland, OH to his path in the food industry over the past 20 years, with stops in California, Hawaii, West Virginia, and ultimately Charlotte. Lewis has just about seen it all in the types of roles he’s had, from fast food, country clubs, fine dining, and corporate positions. Lewis is a guy who self-admittedly doesn’t talk a lot, but I was glad Marc was able to get quite a bit out of him in their discussion. Great stuff, and I’ll be sure to post the episode once its available online because it’s one you don’t want to miss.

Finally, a note on Free Range Brewing. I love what they have continued to do since they began operation. They actively promote a family-friendly atmosphere in which they want the NoDa community to gather. In addition to the annual pig pickin’, they host the other viewings of order/fire episodes as well as partner with local farmers and artists. If you live in Charlotte and haven’t been yet, I urge you to check them out well before next year’s pig pickin’.

Friday Find: Aaron Franklin on the Dave Chang Show

In this conversation, Dave Chang focuses on how Franklin has become a shokunin, or master craftsman, for barbecue. In addition to the usual barbecue talk, Chang also asks Franklin a lot of questions about the hospitality that Franklin shows everyone that comes to Franklin Barbecue and how hard it was for him to step away from being in the restaurant almost 22 hours day.

In 2009, when Aaron Franklin and his wife, Stacy, opened up a barbecue trailer on the side of a highway in Austin, Texas, they had no idea it would snowball into one of the most popular barbecue restaurants in the nation. But Franklin Barbecue wouldn’t have become what it is without Aaron’s unwavering commitment to hard work and dedication. A decade removed from the Austin institution’s humble beginnings, Dave speaks with the world-class pitmaster from the Uber Eats House during SXSW about transfusing love and care into cooking, making an intentional effort to maintain work-life balance, and growing the restaurant through failure.

Linkdown: 4/10/19

Sweet Lew’s BBQ is hosting a benefit for B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque later this month in Charlot

Photos of Truth BBQ‘s new Houston location courtesy of The Smoking Ho

Houston Food Finder on where to eat the best brisket in Houston

J.C. Reid has more from Houston with a profile of Southern Q BBQ

Dr. Howard Conyers, who attended NC A&T and got his masters and doctorate from Duke University, is reclaiming barbecue for black pitmasters

The first ever Gold Mine Barbecue Festival is this Saturday and several Charlotte-area restaurants are participating

Albemarle, NC has their own branch of the NC barbecue family tree via the Galloway family who have opened three barbecue restaurants over he years in the small town: Log Cabin, Whispering Pines, and Darrell’s Bar-B-Que in nearby Rockwell

Hogs for the Cause is not just a regular barbecue festival

This is not cool

Catching up with “The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America” Author Johnny Fugitt

Monk: In October 2013, St. Louis native Johnny Fugitt set off on an epic road trip across the lower 48 US states to try one barbecue restaurant per day for an entire year (Speedy and I were able to meet up with him in Charlotte). Johnny accomplished that feat, and his 2015 book “The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America” was the result (our book club review here), where his #1 was an unexpected Austin joint (no spoilers here).

However, in the years since we haven’t heard much from Johnny; his site Barbecue Rankings hasn’t consistently been updated since 2016 and his Twitter since 2017. I recently wondered the reasons behind the hiatus of sorts, so I reached out to him for an interview to see what he’s been up to lately. Big thanks to Johnny for his time and thoughtful answers as well as the use of some of his photos from the big trip.

So last time we caught up during your yearlong barbecue odyssey I believe you were based in St. Louis. Where are you now and what have you been up to for the past few years?
Missouri is home, but I haven’t been there much the last few years. I’m in the Navy Reserves and that brought me to the Middle East in early 2016 for what was supposed to be a year. Three years later I’m still here. I agreed to extend and support so it wasn’t as if I was forced into anything. I’m not here for too much longer, however, as I’ll return to the States this summer. Obviously friends and family are the main thing one misses when away, but it’ll also be great to get back to the regular, American patterns of life. Among other things, I miss watching sports and sharing that experience with a community, the ease of American life and, as you can imagine, foods. Barbecue is at the top of that list, but Mexican food and Chick-Fil-A are up there too. I also just miss the ritual and shared experiences of big meals with loved ones – the prep work in the kitchen, passing plates around the table and the simple laughs over a meal. 

You mentioned you had been focusing on freelancing more recently. What type of work have you been doing?
I started freelancing when I kicked off the book project in 2013. Once the book came out I wrote and edited full-time for a couple years and really enjoyed it, even though it isn’t the easiest way to make a living. I loved meeting a variety of people, the flexibility of the work and being my own boss. Unfortunately I have had little opportunity to keep that up over the last three years as you can tell by my outdated Barbecue Rankings site. Nevertheless, I still write and edit just a little bit for some St. Louis-based outlets. It’s actually quite therapeutic for me as it helps take me home mentally for a few hours and offers an escape. I’ve written a little bit about some of my international travels while on leave and covered a few things where a local presence is not required.

Are you still eating barbecue much and if so, how often? And are you still as skinny as ever?
I don’t think I’ll ever match the pace or amount of barbecue I ate on my tour for the book. With that said, my barbecue consumption is definitely at a low point now, not by choice but simply by my surroundings. First, on occasions when the galley serves something akin to barbecue (often baked or steamed), let’s just say I go with another entree. Locally, pork isn’t easy to find in the Middle East and I don’t have a smoker or even charcoal grill with which to work. Options are not great. I am still pretty lanky. An active lifestyle is a big part of that now.

What’s the best barbecue you’ve had recently?
It’s been a while. I was able to spend four days in Missouri last May – just enough time to see family for a couple days, watch the Cardinals play at Busch Stadium and get some City Butcher in Springfield, Missouri. Some restaurants drop off over time for a variety of reasons – over-expansion, cost cutting, pitmaster departures, for example – but I think City Butcher is only getting better and it was already one of my favorite places years ago when I did my book tour and they had just opened. I look forward to a barbecue binge this summer when I get home.

Any plans to get back into barbecue game in some aspect? No chance there’s going to be a second book, right?
I certainly hope to reintegrate into the barbecue community upon my return home. Maybe I’ll do some freelance work covering barbecue restaurants, maybe join a competition team sometime down the road, maybe do a little more restaurant consulting, who knows? I don’t know exactly how that will look, but I miss it. I miss the food, but also the community. You can meet some incredibly kind, interesting, gracious, hard-working people in the barbecue world. I certainly hope to write more books, but I don’t know that I’ll ever get to embark upon a year-long road trip around America again. 

Anything else?
I’m glad you guys are so dedicated to Barbecue Bros. We started around the same time with, I believe, some shared values and goals – provide a local voice in barbecue to share news, give honest opinions, build community and explore something we love.

Friday Find: Lolis Eric Elie on The Dave Chang Show

Lolis Elie, a food writer and critic who wrote the barbecue road trip book Smokestack Lightning, joins David Chang on his podcast for a wide-ranging conversation on food and identity, only a short portion of which discusses barbecue. It’s a good conversation between Chang (who is really coming into his own as a podcaster) and the ever-thoughtful Elie.

People have subjective definitions when it comes to quality, and food is no exception. To compare one genre of food to another often requires nuance and context, making the whole endeavor that much more difficult. Dave speaks to writer and food critic Lolis Elie about how to evaluate food with care and respect.

Linkdown: 4/3/19

Barbecue Bible profiles Asheville’s Farmhouse BBQ and their use of grass-fed brisket

Jones Bar-B-Q getting the Queer Eye bump:

Sweet Lew’s BBQ’s has added a fried chicken biscuit to their weekend brunch menu and Midwood Smokehouse has a new barbecue rub in Charlotte Five’s fifteen things you must eat (or drink) in Charlotte in April

Blood Brothers BBQ looks to be a must if you’re in the Houston area

See?

Drinking with Hometown Barbecue’s Billy Durney

Filing away for future reference

Congrats to the Tales from the Pits Podcast on their 100th episode

Gibson’s Family BBQ – Charlotte, NC

Name: Gibson’s Family BBQ
Date: 3/29/19
Order: Pulled pork sandwich and brisket (link to menu)
Pricing: $$

Monk: Last fall, I received word that Boone’s Bar-B-Que Kitchen, who at one point was our favorite barbecue in Charlotte, had closed (at least according to their page on Yelp). I reached out via Facebook (though their page had not been updated since the summer) but never received any word. As reader “John” pointed out in the comments a few weeks back, Boone’s had rebranded as Gibson’s Family BBQ, presumably with Dan “Boone” Gibson still involved.

In the years since we had initially named Boone’s our Charlotte #1 back in 2014, a lot has changed in the world of Charlotte barbecue. Having been a few years since I had tried them, how would Boone’s/Gibson’s stack up? They’ve been making the rounds at the local breweries lately, so this past Friday I got a chance to try them at Pilot Brewing, a small brewery that recently opened in Plaza Midwood.

Things appear to be status quo between Gibson’s as it was with Boone’s. The menu has the same items, all of the sauces have the same packaging, and the food truck even still has the branding of Boone’s. At this stop, however, Boone himself wasn’t there, though that may or may not be significant if he was back at their commissary kitchen in Southend. Everything felt very familiar up to this point.

That mostly includes the food itself. I ordered a pulled pork sandwich and brisket with no sides. I imagine Boone is still smoking on a Southern Pride gasser, which he was always able to coax some good smokey cue out of. On this day, I could taste the smoke but the pulled pork itself was quite dry as if it had possibly been reheated. Eaten on the humongous brioche roll, it was a big mouthful of dryness even after adding the slaw and their eastern vinegar sauce. I’ll chalk it up to an off day unless that’s the case next time.

On the other hand, the brisket slices definitely could not be accused of being dry. Upon opening the box, I was reminded how Boone’s brisket bears very little resemblance to just about all brisket out there. The brisket slices are finished on a grill and then doused in their sweeter PoPo’s sauce. It’s not a bad bite of barbecue, but just don’t expect anything in the Central Texas tradition as this preparation is unique to Boone.

I had removed Boone’s from the Charlotte Big Board a few months back when I believed they had closed. Of course I’ll be adding it back now that I’ve tried Gibson’s, but it won’t be anywhere near the top of the leader board. Charlotte barbecue, and perhaps more specifically my tastes, has evolved in the past 6 years and as a result, Gibson’s Family BBQ no longer stands out like Boone’s once did.

Ratings:
Pork – 2 hogs
Brisket – 2.5 hogs
Overall – 2.5 Hogs