The Bryan Furman “BBQ Takeover” at Sweet Lew’s Brought Together Some of Charlotte’s Best Pitmasters

Monk: Bryan Furman, pitmaster of B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque and a 2019 Food & Wine Best New Chef, was back in Charlotte last weekend though it was not to continue scouting Charlotte for locations for expansion as far as I’m aware (unfortunately). It was, however, for a “BBQ Takeover” at Sweet Lew’s BBQ – think a tap takeover at a bar, but for barbecue. That Sunday, DJ Smitty was providing tunes on the patio, Birdsong Brewing was serving beer outside, smoked oysters were a special on the menu, and the line may have been slightly longer than normal but other than that it was more or less business as usual, just with Furman’s very good barbecue instead of Sweet Lew’s also very good barbecue.

The real boon for Charlotte’s burgeoning barbecue community didn’t take place that day but instead the night before, and I was sad to be out of town and unable to experience first hand. There, in the parking lot of Sweet Lew’s, some of Charlotte’s best pitmasters hung out, sampled each other’s barbecue, and assisted Furman in the smoking of several whole hogs. Garren Kirkman from Jon G’s Barbecue brought his brisket and Cheerwine hot links, Michael Wagner and Matthew Berry from Midwood Smokehouse brought their mobile BQ smoker to help smoke hogs, and of course Lewis Donald was there as the gracious host.

I have spoken separately with Midwood Smokehouse’s Wagner and Berry and Garren from Jon G’s about the lack of a cohesive Charlotte barbecue community, and this is certainly a step in the right direction to say the least. FS Food Group (the parent company of Midwood Smokehouse) Brand Director Rémy Thurston has recently mentioned to me that they want to be on the forefront of making Charlotte a true barbecue city, and some things may be in the works to bring these pitmasters (and perhaps more) back together sooner rather than later. All of this makes me hopeful that Charlotte barbecue is on the upswing and I truly believe that the best things are yet to come. World, you are on notice.

The Five Best Barbecue Joints in Charlotte – September 2019

Monk: It’s been over two-and-a-half years since we’ve updated the Charlotte Big Board and as you might expect, there’s been a lot of changes in that time. Longtime readers may recall that finding the best barbecue restaurant in Charlotte was the mission statement when we first started this blog, so we certainly take this seriously. Boone’s Bar-B-Que Kitchen (our previous #2) has rebranded as Gibson’s Family BBQ and is a shadow of its former self and fell way out of the top 5. Midwood Smokeshack (previously our #4) closed back in December of 2017 after unfortunately failing to find its footing in Matthews though thankfully pitmaster Michael Wagner is still lending his Texas expertise to the broader Midwood Smokehouse franchise. One thing that has not changed is that Jon G’s BBQ continues to hold down the top spot and always knocks it out of the park every time I am able to try them.

Starting last December, I believe we have entered a new phase in Charlotte barbecue that signals an upswing. That’s when Sweet Lew’s BBQ opened and hit the ground running out of their converted service station in the Belmont neighborhood just outside of uptown. And then of course, Noble Smoke finally opened a little over two months ago off of Freedom Drive and raised the bar even higher with their destination barbecue joint that is the cornerstone of the “Noble Smoke Campus” that will include Bossy Beulah’s Chicken Shack (also from Chef Noble) and the Suffolk Punch Blendery, their second location that will focus on Belgian lambics.

If Bryan Furman of B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque continues to pursue a Charlotte location (fingers crossed), that would certainly elevate the scene to a whole new level with his traditional whole hog barbecue (something currently missing from Charlotte), brisket, and hash. And who knows, perhaps a restaurant from a currently unknown contender is in the works and can come out of nowhere to challenge for the (queen’s) crown.

There’s no reason why Charlotte can’t mirror the barbecue scenes of Charleston or even Houston, each for different reasons. Charleston got an infusion of outside talent in the past few years in Rodney Scott’s BBQ, Lewis Barbecue, and Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint in addition to the expansion of homegrown local chains in Swig & Swine and Home Team BBQ. As Charleston-based food writer/historian Robert Moss has recently noted, the Charleston barbecue scene in the past five years has gone from “minor outpost to acclaimed destination.” Seems like Charlotte is always playing second (or even third fiddle) when it comes to the Charleston food scene and in this case, its no different for barbecue. While that may be too much for fine dining, there’s no reason why Charlotte can’t match or better Charleston in barbecue.

From afar, the Houston barbecue scene is a little more homegrown but has proven that a barbecue scene can sizzle even in an urban setting (the Houston metro area is nearly 3 times larger than Charlotte). But even in that spread-out urban setting, the barbecue community seems tight knight and the competition appears to be mostly friendly (again, this is from afar as I haven’t had the opportunity to visit Houston yet). When I spoke with Matthew Berry and Michael Wagner from Midwood Smokehouse earlier this year, they cited the lack of community in Charlotte’s barbecue scene as an area for opportunity. Perhaps until that improves, Charlotte can’t become a true destination for barbecue.

For #6-43, check out the Charlotte Big Board here.

And now, on to the only Charlotte barbecue list that matters…

Honorable Mentions: The Smoke Pit, Buddy’s Bar-B-Que

5. Bill Spoon’s Barbecue (review)

The one truly old school NC barbecue joint on this list, Bill Spoon’s has been around since 1963 on what was then a country road south of Charlotte. Charlotte has a bad habit of losing what few institutions it has, whether due to neglect or development, but let’s hope that Bill Spoon’s doesn’t fall victim to that trend because they are still making some fine eastern NC barbecue.

4. Midwood Smokehouse (review)

While somehow our last official review was in 2015 (I plan to remedy this in the coming months), Midwood Smokehouse is still a regular stop for the Monk family and seemingly most of Charlotte, as it has expanded to 4 locations in the greater Charlotte area (as well as one down in Columbia, SC). Not to mention that it’s the go-to spot for any celebrities or figures of note that come into town; President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bill Murray, Justin Timberlake have all been patrons of Midwood in recent years. Regardless, I will continue to give credit to Frank Scibelli for bringing wood-smoked barbecue back to Charlotte in 2012, saving us from the gassers and faux ‘cue that had plagued the city for decades.

3. Sweet Lew’s BBQ (review)

Sweet Lew’s BBQ was recently named to Thrillist’s 33 Top Barbecue Restaurants in the US and Garden & Gun’s Best New Southern Barbecue Joints, and it couldn’t be more deserved for Lewis Donald (the “Lew” in “Sweet Lew’s”) and partner Laura Grice. The menu has been described as “unfussy” and that’s precisely the right adjective for this barbecue shack located in an old service station in the working-class neighborhood of Belmont.

But in addition to the worthy smoked meats and homemade sides (including the only hash and rice I’m aware of in the Piedmont of NC), I’d like to give props to their work in the neighborhood where Donald donates his time and food for block parties and even recently partnered with a local barber shop to give kids free back-to-school haircuts. Now that’s the type of barbecue joint that should be in every neighborhood.

2. Noble Smoke (review)

You may be a bit sick of reading about Noble Smoke on this blog lately, but it has truly given Charlotte a destination barbecue restaurant and raised the bar for the city’s barbecue. Let’s hope others follow suit. Read more from our review here.

1. Jon G’s Barbecue (review)

Jon G’s Barbecue has topped our Charlotte Big Board for 2+ years now, and doesn’t appear to be to be losing the crown anytime soon now that Garren Kirkman (the firekeeper behind Jon G’s) is no longer working full time and is fully in the barbecue game. For that, the greater Charlotte area should be thankful even though it’d be hard to imagine his Central Texas-style brisket getting too much better (in addition to his other meats and scratch made sides). I predict more big things to come from him and his wife Kelly. For any serious Charlotte barbecue fan: SEEK OUT JON G’S BARBECUE.

Linkdown: 9/11/19

Noble Smoke is now open for lunch every day; ICYMI our review from earlier this week here

The First Recorded Use Of The Word Barbecue Was In 1697 By British Buccaneer William Dampier

Charlotte Magazine includes barbecue joints on a few recent list: Midwood Smokehouse is one of the best restaurants in Plaza Midwood and Sweet Lew’s BBQ is one of the best southern restaurants in Charlotte

Valentina’s Tex Mex gets profiled in Garden & Gun

The NC State Barbecue Champions were crowned at the Blue Ridge BBQ & Brew Festival over Labor Day

JC Reid: “Without cotton, there would be no Central Texas-style barbecue”

John Tanner’s BBQ Blog checks out Payne’s Bar-B-Que and falls in love with that sandwich

Jones Bar-B-Que in Marianna, Arkansas is believed to be the oldest African American-owned restaurant in the US and received a James Beard Award in 2012 despite being a humble 10 seat diner

Wait, what?!

Friday Find: Frank Scibelli on Order/Fire

Frank Scibelli is the restaurateur behind Midwood Smokehouse, which I would argue brought back “True Cue” barbecue to Charlotte when it opened in 2012. That is, barbecue smoked over wood with no gas or electric assistance. Midwood has grown from it’s Central Avenue location to a small regional chain with 3 locations in Charlotte, another in Huntersville, and one in Columbia, SC.

In this episode of the Charlotte-based web series Order/Fire, host Marc Jacksina sits down with Frank to discuss his restaurant history in Charlotte. It’s not exclusively about barbecue and Midwood, but it’s a worthy view nonetheless. The barbecue-specific section starts at 13:38 and lasts until 16:45.

Linkdown: 6/26/19

It’s important to understand the roots of the thing we all love so much

The Barbecue Festival has been named as one of the Top 20 Events in the Southeast, according to the Southeast Tourism Society

Vivian Howard of A Chef’s Life shouts out books from NC pitmasters Sam Jones and Matt Register in her latest newsletter

Register also gets a profile in the Winston-Salem Journal

“I was a real-estate developer. I didn’t even really cook,” Register said. “I was the grill guy who liked to be outside with my beer, listening to music.”

That changed when he happened to pick up a copy of “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue” by John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed.

New pork belly taco special from Midwood Smokehouse until July 4th

The Texas Monthly Reader’s Choice Bracket has reached the semifinals

Speaking of which, big news for Texas Monthly

A longish but certainly worthwhile read about a barbecue roadtrip through NC (and SC and Georgia) from Marie, Let’s Eat!

Linkdown: 5/22/19

Charlotte Magazine has released their barbecue issue. Several of the stories are below but consider buying a physical copy at one of their newstand locations

Oh Lordy:

The Improper Pig is relocating from its orignal Cotswold location to south Charlotte

A brief history of barbecue, according to Chowhound

A guide to Carolina barbecue sauces, also according to Chowhound

Barbecue and mountain biking: when you want some ‘cue after hitting the trails

LOL from Kathleen Purvis:

Midwood Smokehouse’s Barbecue Month special while it’s available:

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.

Linkdown: 4/24/19

Stephen Colbert donated $412,000 to NC hurricane aid relief for Hurricane Florence: “We all hope this will help the Carolinas recover from the disastrous weather of last fall”

The next TMBBQ Top 50 won’t be until 2021 but at the halfway point there’s this from Daniel Vaughn; Texas Monthly is now behind a paywall so don’t be surprised if you aren’t able to access

Pinehurst Brewing Co. hired away a former head brewer at Heist Brewery in Charlotte and is smoking pulled pork, brisket, and smoked chicken on site

Rodney Scott in a brief chat explains his philosophy

Ice Cube said, “Today was a good day.” You upped the ante and said, “Every day is a good day.” Can you please expound on that philosophy?
This is my personal belief to start off every day with a positive attitude. You made it through the day before, and now you have another chance to do great things. This applies to both my craft as a pitmaster and for my life as well. It helps me ignore any negativity and overcome the times when things get tough. I think to myself: “This isn’t a bad day. This is just a challenging part of a good day.” It also gives me the confidence to not take my time for granted and embrace learning new things.

Congrats to Midwood Smokehouse on their Charlotte Magazine BOB win

Sam Jones was mistaken for a car thief in Florida earlier this month

Jones Bar-B-Q and its sister pitmasters received the Queer Eye bump earlier this year and its brought business, fame, and love

Downtown Richmond is getting a new barbecue joint on Broad Street called Fatty Smokes

Mood:

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.

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: