Napa BBQ Chefs Share Their Secrets – A Barbecue Round Table

BBQwp

by Stephen Ferry

There are many ways to spell it. And, there might be nearly as many ways to do BBQ as there are BBQ chefs.

You know the drill.  Marinate, Rub, Slow-Cook, Sauce.  Along the way, there a lot of options as you go through the process.  Every BBQ chef in Napa has his/her own idea of what makes the best BBQ and smoked meats.  There seems to be only one common point of agreement: Nobody uses pelletized fuel.   

Bounty Hunter owner, Mark Pope, thinks that great BBQ must start with the best ingredients and the right equipment for the job.  “You must also take the time and effort to achieve excellence,” says Pope.  “There are no short cuts
in BBQ!”

When asked what makes his BBQ so good, Big Ned Foster, owner of Big Ned’s BBQ at the Food Mill, said “I do a New Orleans style of BBQ.  It’s the love that I put into it that makes it so good.”   

Michael Hanaghan, proprietor of the Five Dot Ranch at Oxbow Public Market, is opening The Cook House next to the original meat market to serve customers fresh cooked BBQ that will be smoked out on the deck.  Hanaghan said, “For good BBQ, it’s all about the beef.  We are a seventh–generation, cattle ranch, so we only BBQ beef.  We are committed to providing a product that is always 100% free of antibiotics or additional hormones. We practice low-stress handling and strongly believe that, in order to raise all natural cattle, we must provide healthy, open, grazing spaces that are sustainable to both the cattle and environment.”          

“What makes my stuff good is that it’s unique,” said Jon Bodnar, owner and chef at Smoakville.  “Texan and Californian BBQ is found everywhere. But, when was the last time you stumbled on a genuine, old-school, classic BBQ shack? Everything we have here at Smoakville is made from scratch, from the rubs and pickles to the sauces and desserts. We pay close attention to how the final product is seasoned, cooked, and even the visual aesthetics.”  BBQ means many different things to different people.  It’s not just about the food. “BBQ is important to me because it is all about preserving the history, culture, and tradition of America’s cuisine,” added Bodnar.

“My philosophy on great BBQ involves friends and family experiencing my hospitality,” said Richard “Joey” Ray, Chef De Cuisine at VINeleven at The Napa Valley Marriott Hotel and Spa. “Hospitality to me is the feeling of being welcomed, whether it be at my home or at my restaurant table.”

The thoughts are echoed by Bounty Hunter’s Pope. “BBQ is the true American cuisine. Born and raised in the USA and passed down from generation to generation, BBQ is a national pastime – an event that brings together friends and family.”   

The choice of wood is key to each BBQ chef’s technique.   “Hickory is our wood of choice,” said Paul Menzel, owner of Red Rock North. “We use hickory and cherry firewood, which is a part of what gives our BBQ its distinctive taste,” said Hanaghan of Five Dot Ranch.   “The other part we can’t tell you!” “For smoking our meats at Bounty Hunter, we use a mixture of woods,” said Pope. “The type of wood depends on the item that’s to be smoked. Most of it is apple-wood – not chips or little chunks, but large, split logs. The logs work better for us as they don’t fully ignite, but rather slowly smolder, giving the meat a nice consistent smoke. Other woods that we use are hickory, mesquite, oak (Cabernet Sauvignon-aged barrel staves), and grapevines.”    Ray declared, “For wood I like to use hickory, because it produces a rich, smoke flavor and the quintessential flavor most people think of when meats are smoked, but here in California good hickory is sometimes hard to find, so I also use cherry or another fruit wood.  The fruit wood tends to impart a little softer smoke flavor.  I prefer this for poultry products. It tends to complement things like chicken and turkey and not overpower them.”    Bodnar confided, “After rubbing the meat with our secret house spices we smoke the meat anywhere from 4 hours to 12 hours, depending on the cut. For smoking, we use red–wine, barrel staves.”    

Opinions about the best libation to enjoy with BBQ vary as widely as the recipes. “I have been doing food and wine pairing for Napa wineries for many years and the best pairing I’ve ever found was Bourbon with my ribs,” opined Bodnar. “This is  because we smoke with oak barrels and bourbon. Being aged with oak adds the right amount of spice, char, and vanilla notes that pair great with the ribs.” “For the gentlemen, anything – as long as it’s beer,” said Foster.   Ray agreed.  “A great, cold beer is one of my first suggestions. A lower alcohol content and something crisp.  I tend to stay away from big IPA’s for BBQ because they can get unpleasantly bitter when lots of spices are involved.  The carbonation in beer or sparkling wine tends to cleanse the palate of the fat that makes BBQ so delicious, preparing your palate for a next bite that is as flavorful as the last.  A good rose’ or white, with a good acidity level will also help wash away the fat from your palate in the same way the carbonation does. A beverage with a little residual sugar is nice for spicier BBQ to help put out the fire.  But, as I am a true Southerner, if nothing else, give me a glass of sweet or iced tea any day of the week.”     

“When we first opened Bounty Hunter Smokin’ BBQ, our customers thought we were crazy.  How can wine and BBQ go together?” recalled Pope. “Over time, we’ve changed their minds. Napa Cab, Syrah, Petite Sirah and, of course, Zinfandel, all work great with BBQ. With that said, if you want to enjoy a frosty cold beer with our smokin’ BBQ, we won’t stop you!”

Each chef has his own story about how they got all fired up about BBQ. “About thirty years ago, my brother, Dan, trekked through Texas to learn about BBQ,” Menzel said. “Upon his return he taught what he learned to me, I always took BBQ for granted growing up in Tennessee,” Ray revealed. “Great BBQ is everywhere in the south.  Each town’s local joint is an institution in the community.  Then, when I moved away to attend culinary school in the early 2000’s, I started to realize what I was missing.  My craving for great BBQ led me to want to create it here in California.” Bodnar added, “It’s always been a passion and a dream of mine and when I saw the need and desire for old fashioned BBQ in the Napa Valley it all just came together.”

Whether its pork or beef or chicken, if it’s summer, it’s always better on the ‘Q.

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