"I don't understand why there's so much mystery around barbecue," notes Dan Delaney, about to open his first barbecue restaurant BrisketTown on November 15 after his summerlong tour of Brisketlab. "Because it's not hard. It's really not. It's not hard, but it takes an unbelievable amount of patience and focus. Hard is building an atomic bomb. Smoking meat is not that."
Dan Delaney, the founder of VendrTV and producer of 100 cooking videos for a daily web series called "What's This Food?" is a home cook who started running a barbecue supper club from his living room in 2011. Now stretched by the demands of opening a brick-and-mortar barbecue restaurant at breakneck speed, his mood is anxious. Even after winning over the hearts and bellies of New Yorkers who've paid $62,500 for 2,500 pounds of brisket since he started the Brisketlab project, the 26-year-old entrepreneur worries that his single-minded mission won't translate to a successful business.
The one thing that doesn't concern Dan is the brisket itself, which has only gotten better over time. Intensely juicy, crusted with a simple black pepper rub, and smoked entirely with hardwood, the rich cuts of brisket to be served at BrisketTown have won much praise (see our previous report).
What exactly makes this brisket (and any barbecue) too legit to quit? Barbecue pilgrims and local loyalists tend to describe barbecue in terms of regional authenticity. Barbecue cooks and the technically minded often break the food down to skill and science. The debate over what makes good barbecue touches so many topics that even the word itself is subject of contention.
Brisket can be particularly tough to crack, especially for those who demand well-rendered, full-flavored slices from a chamber filled with smoke. But when asked about the challenges of Brisketlab, Dan cuts through his own hype machine without hesitation.
"I thought it would be much more intricate," he notes. Having taught himself how to cook brisket in an 18-foot smoker he drove from Austin to Jersey, he doesn't discount the difficulty of the craft. But he doesn't make himself out to be a savant of smoke—what gives Dan the advantage is an inestimable amount of effort.
The new restaurant aims to sweat every detail, including from-scratch loaves of Pullman white bread. Pit operations will never be automated. The service counter might recall the feel of eating at Kreuz Market in Lockhart, while the stage at the front of the house will evoke Dan's fond memories of dining to live music in New Orleans. The furnishings take cues from of his favorite restaurants in Williamsburg, where he is an unmistakable regular.
"It's just, like, pay attention to it. Don't walk away. Don't click a button," Dan emphasizes matter-of-factly. He's talking about brisket, but he applies this mantra to pretty much everything. His stubborn attention to attention makes a case for what makes good barbecue: a seriously devoted pit master.
"I think that barbecue... there's a lot about it that I feel is harmonious with the business that I would want to run." His attitude reminds me a bit of pit masters like Ed Mitchell and Rodney Scott, Ollie Gates and Bruce Jones.
New York has plenty of high-profile barbecue restaurants that import styles of barbecue for all to enjoy, but BrisketTown is trying to succeed from a homegrown spirit.
"I'm not ignorant to the fact that what I'm trying to do with barbecue might only have been able to happen in 2012, in New York, where people are now traveling an hour to wait in line two hours to eat pizza at Roberta's."
The prospect of paying $25 for a pound of barbecue is something I've just started to warm up to, myself. But while BrisketTown is in the same league of Brooklyn restaurants that gave us Diner and DuMont, Dan looks up more to Brooklyn restaurants like DiFara and Peter Luger. His straightforward challenge is to make some damn good meat, one fatty brisket at a time.
"It's like a Jeopardy question: I have the answer, I just have to figure out the question. I have to figure out how to get there. I like that."
About the author: James Boo has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2010. Working as a freelance journalist, he is also the founder of Real Cheap Eats and a documentarian. Check out his food-and-travel blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.