Pitmaster Profiles: Spencer Purcell of Hubba Hubba Smokehouse

Monk: For this Pitmaster Profile, we are branching out of Charlotte and spotlighting a pitmaster in Western North Carolina. Spencer Purcell is the pitmaster/fire tender/”BBQ guy” at Hubba Hubba Smokehouse in Flat Rock, who we recently reviewed. Thanks to Spencer for his time in answering my questions and I hope you enjoy hearing from a new and different voice in North Carolina barbecue.

For more about Hubba Hubba Smokehouse, check out their website, Instagram, Facebook page, or Spencer’s Instagram.

If you know of a pitmaster who we should feature next, let us know!

Courtesy of Spencer Purcell

How long have you lived in the Flat Rock area and how did you get there?

The Hendersonville/Flat Rock area became my new home in 2017, after living in Chicago for roughly 13 years. For four summers prior to moving here, I worked at a summer camp down the street from Hubba that specialized in giving kids with Autism and/or ADHD an option to enjoy the beautiful western Carolina area. I fell in love with the mountains and vibrant culture of Asheville pretty quickly and made it a mission to make it here.

How did you become a pitmaster?

We are using a live and at-times large fire at Hubba. At least for our sake, if you think you’ve mastered fire or the ten foot brick mason pit (Starla), you are probably about to burn something important. I tend the fire and am known as the “BBQ guy” at our window. I had worked in BBQ in Chicago for a few years while in school but really didn’t fall in love with BBQ until moving here. The owner of Hubba, Starr Teel, convinced me that this is something that I would be good at and now I just try to learn more everyday.

What is your favorite meat to smoke? What type of wood do you prefer?

I’m originally from, and have most of my family in, the very cow-centric state of Wisconsin. Briskets, burgers – anything beef typically – will come first for me on an order. Brisket took a frustrating amount of time to understand, but now is something I enjoy cooking greatly. Red and white oak as a base and hickory to flavor have worked well for us at Hubba.

What are your barbecue influences?

Elliot Moss [of Buxton Hall Barbecue] is one of the most laid-back, creative, unique, can-cook-some-serious-BBQ dudes that I am inspired by. Billy Durney’s style [at Hometown Barbecue] of ethnic fusion into classic BBQ dishes is pretty awesome as well.

The biggest influence on me would have to be the five or six bad ass moms that we have working at Hubba. BBQ is a war of attrition that they put in place day in and day out.

What is your favorite barbecue joint or style?

One of the first meals I had when I moved to the area was a fried chicken sandwich and about 5 bourbon slushies from Buxton Hall. Since then I’ve gone back countless times and really value their kind of whole picture approach. Their burgers are unreal.

Courtesy of Spencer Purcell

What is your earliest memory of barbecue?

While I was growing up in Chicago there wasn’t a ton of great BBQ (much different now) so I rarely had a memorable moment. Maybe 2009 on spring break, my mom took me and a friend to Southern Soul BBQ on St. Simon’s in Georgia and I had a damn near spiritual bite of brisket.

What is the best thing about barbecue in western North Carolina?

BBQ and the food scene are both transforming pretty much in parallel with the new influx of people coming to the area. This Asheville-Hendo-Greenville (SC) corridor is blossoming with new diverse families that are bringing their unique traditions and dishes. These are then meshing with the tradition that Carolina style BBQ is steeped in.

What is a weakness or opportunity of barbecue in western North Carolina?

WNC is at a sort of crossroads that has begun a fusion between the traditional style of Carolina BBQ and other regional specialties. You can go to Noble Smoke and get Texas Style brisket. Elliot Moss does oysters and other oddities that you wouldn’t see on a BBQ menu typically. At Hubba Hubba, one of our most popular items are the burnt ends, which aren’t common to the area at all. Its a very exciting area to cook in right now.

Courtesy of Spencer Purcell

Anything else you’d like everyone to know?

Since Hubba is an outdoor patio/garden of a restaurant, when the temps drop we close up for the season. We will be reopening mid-March 2020. In the mean time we are focusing on opening a new pub and grill down the street from Hubba called Campfire. It will not be a BBQ joint but will have many smoked items on the menu that you can enjoy with a tall draft, inside from the cold. Opening Mid December.

Thanks again to Spencer for his time!

Pitmasters of Charlotte: Matthew Berry and Michael Wagner of Midwood Smokehouse (Part 2)

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 Berry and Michael Wagner of Midwood Smokehouse in person at their Park Road location. Part 1 posted last week, so here is the second and final part of the conversation. And stay tuned to the Barbecue Bros Instagram page for an upcoming giveaway next month for National Barbecue Month. (This interview was condensed and edited for clarity)

Read Part 1 here

So I’ll switch gears a little bit…a few years ago, Sam Jones came out here for a dinner at Central Avenue and I was actually at that dinner, because I just wanted to try that whole hog. Were you able to spend some time and learn from him?

MB: We took some things from that that we tried to implement here. We tried to do the whole hog – half hogs – for a while but logistically with the pits we have and the situation we have and all of the different other proteins we offer it just wasn’t something we could consistently do at the same level that it deserved and so we scrapped it not quite a year ago.

What’s the status of that – is it a trailer now? Is it more for catering? The whole hog trailer right – the BQ Grill?

MB: Even before we had the BQ Grill we were trying to do it over at Central Avenue but you’re taking a half hog and you’re sacrificing 8 briskets to fit that half hog

And you’re fitting it in the Oyler?

MB: Yea and that was a little nerve-wracking logistically which wasn’t great and Central Avenue is a busy store and you’re losing 8 briskets for that whole hog which isn’t a fair trade off.

MW: And the thing with the BQ Grill, we had it at this restaurant and you know, having what really was intended to be outside inside with the smoke and then how do you get the fire and how do you maintain the fire and where do you do that and you’re supposed to use a burn barrel but we don’t have that so we’re taking coals from the pit and taking from the fire…We couldn’t make it work.

MB: All the smoke was going up the one hood to the yoga studio next door so we had that issue to deal with too. They were like “it smells like barbecue in here” and we did it for a while but we learned a lot from Sam Jones where we add hot sauce to the pork which is something he did. Before the Sam Jones dinner we actually pulled the pork and then we started chopping.

With the cleavers

MB: It’s a coarse chop. Eastern NC its almost like minced but it’s more of like a coarse chop [for us]. But it’s fun just hanging out with somebody – like his family’s been doing barbecue for almost a hundred years and that kind of lineage. But he’s just a normal guy like you and me.

I think Midwood deserves a lot of accolades for bringing wood smoking barbecue back to Charlotte. If it was here before it had gone the way of gas-assisted smokers. Maybe you can clear something up for me – Lewis Donald of Sweet Lew’s BBQ has a Myron Mixon smoker and he’s saying he’s got the only “all wood smoker” in Charlotte. Now I know you guys use Oylers…

MW: I know Lew and I go to his restaurant almost every week and what he said was he had the only all wood, no electric assist. And I can’t argue that. I don’t want to start talking about what he does over there because that’s not what it’s about. If the electricity goes out, what can I do? We are very serious about the all wood, no gas. To cook at the volume we do in the locations our restaurants are, it’s not feasible to have a pit different than we have.

I did a little research and it seems like it really reduces wood usage. I don’t know if its more than that.

MB: It probably does because its controlling it more. Let’s say you’re manually controlling the fire and if the fire gets too hot you’re pulling wood out and you’re wasting it. Whereas here, it’ll cut the oxygen off so in that regard it probably does.

Regardless, you guys are both doing your thing and putting out some really good barbecue.

MW: I honestly remember the moment that post came and I had this whole thing and I was like…he’s not wrong.

MB: Our electric assist is the thermostat and let’s be honest, it’s gone down before. And we’ve had to go back. I’ve spent the night at Central Ave.

In that case you are manually doing it yourself, maintaining the fire and keeping he temps.

MW: And also, it’s not a no-brainer like even during the day you have to maintain it and maintain it the right way. If you’ve put the wrong amount of wood in it at the wrong time, you’re going to black out all your meat or the fire can go out. It’s not like a gas assist pit where you can let the fire go out…

It’s not a set-and-forget

MB: Definitely not.

MW: It’s definitely not

I do want to talk about the new Midwood Smokehouse rub which came out a couple of weeks ago.

MB: It came out some time in March.

So what kind of led to this, why are you coming out with a rub now?

MB: Well we’ve had the rub…we made the rub ourselves for the longest time and with the volume we’re doing we got RL Schreiber to make us big cubes of the rub. Save some labor, more consistent product. And I think it’s just brand recognition. Frank [Scibelli] and the team at the corporate office know what they’re doing, I haven’t seen them mess anything up yet. Just trying to get stuff out there…if you go to the grocery you see Mac’s [Speed Shop] has a rub and you see some other places that are probably inferior products in all honesty. I think we’re just trying to share…we had a lot of popular demand too at Christmastime but we’d just put it into a deli container. I think this is just something a little nicer, a novelty item.

So is it truly just the rub you were using, it was being made by a manufacturer and you saw the demand was there and it was an opportunity for brand recognition?

MB: Hell it’s worked out great for me. I bought a case of it and it’s got my face on it. I’ve got it to give to relatives for a Christmas present next year.

MW: And the cool thing is, it actually is the rub we use.

MB: It’s not like we altered the recipe or anything like that.

Is it an all-purpose rub? It can go on anything? What do you use it most on at home?

MB: At home? I use it on burgers the most. I cook a lot of burgers at home.

Do you use it a lot, Mike? What are you using it on?

MW: I would use it on beef and pork. I would use it on chicken with maybe a little more black pepper, just cause that’s the way I like it. I mean anybody that knows anything about dry rubs, if they make one its going to have all of this in it.

So there’s no proprietary secrets or anything?

MW: Anybody has all of these spices on their shelf.

Are there any thoughts or plans to develop additional rubs?

MB: We do have a couple of the rubs back in the kitchen. We have a separate rub for ribs and then a poultry rub and then like a little chemistry we’ll mix and match some of the rubs together. You take some of the brisket rub and the rib rub and then that’s what goes on the burger.

Any plans to make them available? Will you just see if there’s demand for them?

MB: We’ll see if there’s any demand for them. Far and away, we use this rub the most in the restaurant. That’s what goes on the brisket and the pork. The volume we use on that is significantly higher than everything else. I know we are looking at sauces to get bottled up. That’s in the prelim[inary] phase right now.

Alright, well I just had a couple of rapid fire questions to wrap it up. You guys have been great with your time. So, favorite barbecue joint ever, anywhere?

MW: So here’s the thing we talk about “all time.” Your favorite barbecue joints are the ones that you remember. My favorite barbecue joint was whatever backyard it was happening in. For the first 2 decades of my life I can’t honestly say that I ever went to a barbecue “restaurant.” And if I did, it wasn’t memorable and until the Lockhart phase of my life I don’t recall eating barbecue at a restaurant that was as good as what we were doing at home.

MB: Growing up, Bill Spoon’s. That’s where I used to go with my dad when I was younger. The best barbecue I’ve had recently was this place called Green Street Meats in Chicago.

Yea in Chicago, I ate there a few years ago. It was good.

MB: I walk in, the first thing I saw was an Oyler – the same sucker we have – and well that’s a good start. My wife and I ate there about a year ago.

I’ve always heard – and I repeat it – is that your favorite barbecue is what you grew up on. It may not be the best ever, but it’s what you grew up on and you have a fondness for it.

MB: I still go to Bill Spoon’s once in a while when I’m on South Boulevard. Now it’s definitely not as good as I remember but it’s still there and the nostalgia makes it taste better.

What’s your favorite meat to smoke? In your backyard, what do you smoke?

MW: I do a lot of burgers like Matt, a lot of chicken.

Actually, do you do a lot of smoking outside of the job? If you have a day off, are you going to smoke?

MW: I’ve got a Big Green Egg in the backyard. I have an offset that I’m trying to get here from Texas. I do a lot of cooking on my Big Green Egg. I do a lot of steaks, I’ve smoked some roasts. I haven’t done a brisket just cause the amount it makes…

MB: …The amount of people to feed. I do a lot of beer can chickens. I’ve got a sidecar smoker and a Big Green Egg. I do a lot of smoking when I have yardwork to do. You can kind of check in on it and when you’re done you have something delicious to eat.  

So…the question is eastern or Lexington style barbecue but having grown up here eating Bill Spoon’s, which is eastern.

MB: I consider Midwood Smokehouse a mix of the two because you’re chopping it. We tried the whole hog thing for a little bit. Also, our vinegar sauce does have a little tomato in it.

Have you had a chance to try both, Mike, since you’ve been in North Carolina?

MW: Not yet

What is the best thing about Charlotte barbecue? The state of Charlotte barbecue?

MW: The fact that its still developing. Like, the two places we’ve talked about (offline) – Jon G’s and Sweet Lew’s – and others that are coming, can only make barbecue in general better and us the same.

MB: I don’t think there’s any constraints on barbecue in Charlotte whereas the eastern part of the state or like these places where the barbecue is very established and older and generational. Like this is what they do: “we’re going to have cornbread, pork, and slaw.” I think here you can do burnt ends, you can do pork belly, you can do other stuff.

I think if you tried that out east depending on the location, you wouldn’t get any traction if you tried to introduce burnt ends.

MB: Well if you want to have burnt ends, you have to have brisket. To have brisket – some people in that area might not come to you because you had brisket.

So what would be a weakness of Charlotte barbecue? Or an opportunity, if you want to think of it that way.

MW: One big difference that I see with what is going on here versus what is going on in Texas, which I think is also an opportunity for what is going on here, is in Texas all of the guys that own competing restaurants all are friends with each other. They have a barbecue brotherhood. They go to each others’ restaurants, they get up with each other at events and stuff around and they…its just different. Since its so new here, its like we work for people who are driven to be the best period, full stop. It’s a bit more of a competitive nature here. I feel like it doesn’t necessarily need to be that cutthroat. At the end of the day, all that we want to do is cook great meat and I’m excited to see more people come around and do the thing. To me, it reminds me a lot of what was happening in Austin when John Lewis started at La Barbecue and Franklin started with his trailer and then all of a sudden everyone was like “oh my God, barbecue” and I feel like that’s what’s happening here.

Would you agree? What’s an opportunity or weakness of Charlotte barbecue?

MB: I wouldn’t call I a weakness but Charlotte is still trying to find an identity for barbecue and part of that leads to, I don’t think there’s as much cooperation or cohesion to the people that are doing barbecue. Like, I had to ask you who you had talked to before. I know Lew (Donald of Sweet Lew’s BBQ), but outside of that I don’t know many people. I always grew up and barbecue had a community feel and in Charlotte it’s a little more isolated if that’s the right word. I think there’s an opportunity for Charlotte to really forge an identity.

Last question – where do you want to see Charlotte barbecue in two years? We’ve maybe touched on it with the last two questions but what would you like to see?

MB: I would like to see when people think of North Carolina barbecue, Charlotte comes to mind. I would like for Charlotte to be the spot. Charlotte’s more of a melting pot now and we have people from all different regions of the country and I think we should be more regionally known and North Carolina’s got good barbecue and Charlotte’s [could be] the center of all that.

MW: In Texas, everybody has known forever that Texas has good barbecue joints and back in the day Lockhart was the place because it was home to several. So you could go there and eat at three or four places but there were hundreds of them. But you get a concentration and you’re like “Lockhart’s the barbecue capital of Texas” and it has its own day. I think that’s kind of what is happening here. Barbecue has always been in North Carolina but…

MB: …It’s been a very rural phenomenon. But it can be done in a very urban setting.

Again, thanks to Matthew and Mike for their time. And stay tuned to the Barbecue Bros Instagram page for an upcoming giveaway next month for National Barbecue Month.

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.

Pitmasters of Charlotte: Lewis Donald of Sweet Lew’s BBQ

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.”

Our second profile (thus making it an actual series, woo hoo!) is Lewis Donald, who along with Laura Furman Grice opened up Sweet Lew’s BBQ in early December. Monk previewed them back in September as well as reviewed the restaurant, and is a big big fan.

How long have you lived in Charlotte and how did you get here?
I’ve been here 10 years. I came here to take a job at Charlotte Country Club, after I graduated the apprenticeship program at the Greenbrier in West Virginia.

How did you become a Pitmaster?
I don’t really use that term, not for myself. Those that came before me, those that learned the art through family generations, those that defined what we know as bbq today…they’re the pitmasters.

What is your favorite meat to smoke? What type of wood do you prefer? 
I like the staples, skin-on-shoulder, ribs, chicken, and brisket. It takes being able to cook all of them to offer a good bbq experience to family, friends, and customers. I prefer [smoking over] hickory and pecan.

What are your barbecue influences?
Simplicity, scratch cooking, consistency

What is your favorite barbecue joint or style?
I like them all, true bbq spot and styles. But I’m not a big sauce guy.

What is your earliest memory of barbecue?
Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, it was a gas grill with burgers and dogs. In 2003 is when I was introduced to bbq.

What is the best thing about Charlotte barbecue?
I think it’s great that it’s served in restaurants.

What is a weakness or opportunity of Charlotte barbecue?
There’s not much of it, so there’s room to grow it!

Thanks to Lewis for his time. For more about Sweet Lew’s BBQ, check out their website, Instagram, Facebook page, or Lewis’ Instagram.

If you know of a pitmaster who we should feature next, let us know!

Pitmasters of Charlotte: Garren Kirkman of Jon G’s Barbecue

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.”

First up is Garren Kirkman, who along with his wife Kelly own and run Jon G’s Barbecue out of Marshville/Monroe. You may recognize Jon G’s as the current #1 on our Charlotte Big Board, so Garren was a natural first choice to feature.

IMG_2499 (2)
How long have you lived in Charlotte (or the surrounding area) and how did you get here?
I was born and raised in Statesville, NC and moved to Union County in 2007 for work. I’m a nuclear medicine supervisor by trade.

How did you become a pitmaster?
First off, I call myself a firekeeper. If you are reading this and think I’m a pitmaster, thanks!

I went to Walmart, found a choice whole packer brisket on clearance, went home and smoked it on an offset Char-Griller bellowing gray smoke for 16 hours and produced a meteorite. Needless to say…I had some work to do (although everyone ate it happily that day). Brisket was surprisingly the first thing I ever smoked and not a Boston butt.

What is your favorite meat to smoke? What type of wood do you prefer?
Brisket and beef ribs are definitely top two, brisket being more of a challenge. My favorite thing to smoke would be beef ribs (dinosaur rib), but we typically save those for catering events due to regional unpopularity.

Mixture of well seasoned white oak and pecan are my choices for wood, but occasionally some red oak will slip in as well. We won’t turn red oak down as long as it’s seasoned. It is all about a consistent, clean burning fire.

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What are your barbecue influences?
If you’ve ever had our food it’s obviously influenced by Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin,TX. But aside from Texas influences, I admire Skylight Inn and Sam Jones in Ayden, NC. While I’m not smoking exactly like them, the history and their dedication to quality and product speaks for itself. I am not a trained “chef” so there is definitely some “Grandmas Sunday lunch” influence on our side dishes. On a side note, we do have a couple events planned this fall featuring a whole hog.

What is your favorite barbecue joint or style?
I’m not into chain restaurant barbecue. I like to go places where I can see the hard work that’s being poured into the food. I like to think we accomplish this even though we are a food truck (for now).

IMG_2509 (2)What is your earliest memory of barbecue?
Growing up in a small town in NC, fire department BBQ was a go-to and is honestly my first memory of BBQ. I’ll just say, it was for a good cause!

What is the best thing about Charlotte barbecue?
If I’m being completely honest, barbecue is not our first choice of a meal when we are home. We save it up for places like Buxton Hall in Asheville, Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, or when traveling to Texas, more up and coming places like Truth Barbecue. Of course we have made the rounds at Franklin Barbecue, La Barbecue, etc.

What is a weakness or opportunity of Charlotte barbecue?
I’d love to see more pitmaster-based barbecue joints. A face behind the food, if you will. And less gas.

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Thanks to Garren for being our first guinea pig for this series. For more about Jon G’s BBQ, check out their Instagram or Facebook page. If you know of a pitmaster who we should feature next, let us know!