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.

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:

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

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

Linkdown: 3/27/19

Wilber Shirley of Wilber’s Barbecue vows to reopen

“By cutting costs of operation, our long tradition of serving great eastern North Carolina barbecue and good food will be resumed quickly,” he says, adding, “I hope all our loyal customers will return when our doors are open again.”

Robert Moss on the reader-voted South’s 10 Best Barbecue Joints; Southern Soul BBQ in St. Simon’s Island in Georgia again takes the top spot

Bill Poteat of the Gaston Gazette has his own answer to the USA Today’s 10Best reader’s poll of best barbecue in the state, and he’s put Kyle Fletcher’s BBQ at number one

Leonard Botello of Truth BBQ in Houston is hosting a benefit for B’s Cracklin Barbeque at the end of the month

Houston’s best barbecue joints according to Eater

Congrats to Pitmaster Roy Perez of Kreuz Market

Mr. Barbecue – Winston-Salem, NC

Name: Mr. Barbecue
Date: 3/8/19
Address: 1381 Peters Creek Pkwy, Winston-Salem, NC 27103
Order: Chopped sandwich with hush puppies and Cheerwine (link to menu)
Pricing: $

Monk: Despite growing up within driving distance to a lot of really great barbecue in the Piedmont of North Carolina, I didn’t go searching much beyond my usual joints (Carter Brothers when I ate barbecue in High Point, Lexington Barbecue for a special occasion). This led to me not trying Stamey’s in Greensboro until after this blog had started and it took even longer for me to get to Mr. Barbecue, a wood-burning barbecue joint in Winston-Salem open since 1962. A few weeks back, I found myself in the Twin City on a rainy Friday afternoon and it was time.

As soon as I stepped in, I realized what a bonehead move it was not to get here sooner. Mr. Barbecue is just about everything I want in a classic NC barbecue joint that just happens to be located in a city. The brick smokestacks were going full blast outside and the order counter inside had a classic joint feel (albeit slightly updated with flat screen monitors displaying the menu instead of an old school letterboard). That same classic joint feel continued into the two small dining rooms on either side of the counter as well.

I loved the actually retro feel of the paper wrapper the barbecue sandwich came in even before I dug into the sandwich itself. The wrapper proclaims that Mr. Barbecue is “genuine hickory wood bar-b-q” and I could taste that wood smoke in the chopped pork – not overpowering but a good hit of smoke. Of course, I went with slaw on my sandwich and the cold and slightly tangy red slaw contrasted the warm pork as as classic chopped pork sandwich should. And the freshly fried hush puppies were great as well. Just a damn fine NC barbecue meal.

Mr. Barbecue is a True ‘Cue certified wood burning barbecue joint that appears to do healthy business with the locals but doesn’t nearly get its due on the NC barbecue scene. I checked my NC barbecue books when I got home and it has just a short review in Bob Garner’s Book of Barbecue and a passing mention in Holy Smoke in a short article on the influence of Greeks; no mention at all in The Best Tarheel Barbecue by Winston-Salem native Jim Early, who not surprisingly hasn’t included it on the NC Barbecue Society Historic Barbecue Trail. It also hasn’t been written up in Our State Magazine or included in their recent list of 26 Essential NC Barbecue Joints. Whatever the reason for its flying-under-the-radarness, I would urge folks to give it a try, as I found it to be perhaps just a small notch below some of the best Lexington-style barbecue joints in the Piedmont.

Ratings:
Atmosphere/Ambiance – 4 hogs
Pork – 4 hogs
Sides – 4 hogs
Overall – 4 hogs

Mr Barbecue Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Linkdown: 3/20/19

D.G. Martin: “Real barbecue restaurants and small towns: Do all you can to preserve them and do not miss any opportunity to enjoy them now before they are gone.”

But could Wilber’s Barbecue actually reopen? They have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Is Philadelphia becoming a barbecue town? I’m not so sure about that…

Southern Living has come out with their best barbecue joints in every state list for 2019; Buxton Hall Barbecue wins honors for NC

This has to be a good sign for Gardner-Webb’s basketball team; can they be the next 16 seed to upset a 1 (against UVa again, nonetheless)?

Heading from Charlotte to Austin? Of course you’re going to seek out some barbecue.

Rodney Scott already making an impact beyond barbecue in Alabama

R&R Bar-B-Que – Concord, NC (RE-REVIEW)

Name: R&R Bar- B-Que
Date: 3/1/19
Address: 755 Pitts School Rd NW, Concord, North Carolina 28027
Order: Small Brakeman’s BBQ tray with red slaw and hush puppies, small brisket sandwich (no bread), Cheerwine (link to menu)

Monk: There are really only a handful of “old school” style barbecue joints in the Charlotte area. And by that, I’m not talking about anything with a full-service bar or that doubles as a diner or even open for a certain number of years. When you think about an old-school feel, Bill Spoon’s Barbecue and Bubba’s BBQ are two restaurants that have history and fit the bill. As does R&R Bar-B-Que, a train-themed barbecue restaurant in Concord. Curiously, all three serve eastern NC-style barbecue, as I had noted in my previous review.

On a rainy Friday, I checked out R&R for the second time since my only visit a little over 5 years ago. This time, I liked it a bit more. I speculated that they smoked with some sort of gas or electric smoker not aided by wood (a la an Ole Hickory or Southern Pride), and according to the NC BBQ Map that appears to be the case. No surprise, since there wasn’t any smoke wafting around the parking lot on either of my lunchtime visits. Still, the barbecue that was presented was nicely chopped and moist. A few dashes of the hot vinegar sauce didn’t hurt, either.

The beef brisket, a Tuesday and Friday special, was another story. I ordered only out of morbid curiosity and not because I expected it to be any good. My concerns were validated a couple of bites in so I didn’t feel the need to finish my portion.

R&R does nail their red slaw, a pretty perfect representation of a Lexington vinegar-based slaw. It had the right balance of sweetness to tang and was served properly chilled. The hush puppies tilted more to the savory end of the savory-sweet spectrum but were still solid. Finally, they offer Cheerwine from the fountain, as every proper barbecue joint should (unless they have it in bottles, of course).

So R&R Bar-B-Que is still not essential barbecue, but for Charlotte its not bad and ably fills the niche of an old school barbecue joint.

Ratings:
Atmosphere/Ambiance – 4 hogs
Pork – 3 hogs
Brisket – 1 hog
Sides – 3 hogs
Overall – 3 hogs

Friday Find: Tyson Ho Talks Carolina Barbecue on the Beards, Booze, and Bacon Podcast

While I had previously enjoyed Tyson Ho’s series of blog posts on Serious Eats entitled “How I Built a Barbecue Restaurant in Brooklyn” documenting the opening of Arrogant Swine. I also enjoyed meeting him at the restaurant in 2015. However, I would quibble with a few of the things he says on this podcast:

  • He continually refers to whole hog barbecue as “Carolina” style which isn’t completely accurate. Ho is smoking eastern North Carolina style whole hog barbecue, which is similar as the style of barbecue from the Pee Dee region of SC. And of course there is Lexington-style which just smokes pork shoulders. There really is no singular style of barbecue called “Carolina Barbecue” that is only whole hog as he asserts.
  • He refers to “outside brown” as the “burnt ends” of pork and says its an off menu item. It’s not really – its just the bark from the pork shoulders in Lexington-style barbecue which locals know to ask for extra in Lexington joints. Not to mention that there’s actually a thing as “pork burnt ends” which is just cubed smoked pork belly tossed in sauce.
  • I’m not a big barbecue competition circuit guy but I wonder how accurate his classification of KCBS vs Memphis Barbecue Network competitions are when he says that KCBS contestants are way too serious where Memphis just wants to party

Regardless, I do appreciate Tyson Ho preaching the gospel of NC barbecue (both eastern and Lexington-styles, serving both at his restaurant) when the trend in barbecue for the past few years is all about Texas and brisket.

Having been born in New York, Ho wanted to know: Who makes the best barbecue in the country. This set him on a quest that would take him across the country, but he realized one thing soon. To him, the best barbecue was that from the Tar Heel State. After spending time learning from legendary pitmasters, Ho took his newfound knowledge and skills back to New York and opened Arrogant Swine.

But what actually makes North Carolina the best barbecue in the country? (Note: The editors do not agree on this point.) What even constitutes true North Carolina barbecue? Want to know where to get that barbecue and fulfill all of your porcine desires? Well, you’re in the right place. ‘Cue this episode up and prepare to be hungry.