Daniel Vaughn is sitting down to lunch at the legendary Brooklyn restaurant Peter Luger Steakhouse. The midafternoon sun is streaming through the windows, illuminating his cherubic face and catching the mischievous glint in his eye. A porterhouse for two, a rib steak, French fries, and creamed spinach lie before him. They won't be there for long. Before arriving, Vaughn ate a dozen oysters in Manhattan, and afterward he will head to the King's County Distillery to sign books, shake hands and hang out with his pal Anthony Bourdain. Of course, there will be brisket, courtesy of Delaney Barbecue.
Vaughn is on a whirlwind tour of New York to promote his barbecue opus The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue, which also happens to be the first book from Bourdain's Ecco Books imprint. When he isn't promoting the book, Vaughn is busy eating his way through the city's top barbecue restaurants, escorted by some big-name food critics on the so-called "Convince the Texan Tour." "They didn't convince me that New York is some sort of barbecue capital on par with cities like Lockhart or Austin in Texas," says Vaughn. "But a couple of joints—namely Mighty Quinn's and BrisketTown —could hold their own in Texas."
Vaughn's book is only part of the story. His newly-minted business card reads "Daniel Vaughn, Barbecue Editor, Texas Monthly Magazine." It's a position created explicitly for him, and a testament to not only how important barbecue is to Texas but also to the dedication, passion and encyclopedic knowledge that Vaughn brings to table.
The good fortune is the result of Vaughn's beloved blog, Full Custom Gospel BBQ. FCGBBQ chronicles Vaughn's meticulous examinations of some 600 barbecue joints, 202 of which made it into his book. His online moniker became—appropriately, considering his stringent rating system and his aversion to mincing words—BBQ Snob. And this was all essentially a hobby. "The thought of writing a book never entered my mind when I started the blog," explains Vaughn, an accomplished architect who was well on his way to a full partnership in his firm.
A chance meeting with literary agent David Hale Smith convinced Vaughn that there might be some currency in compiling his barbecue adventures into a book. "David had just been taken into the Inkwell fold, where Anthony Bourdain was already represented. The timing worked perfectly, with Bourdain having just announced the launch of his publishing line," says Vaughn. 20 months later, The Prophets of Smoked Meat was the first book released in Bourdain's new line.
The opportunity to become the full-time barbecue editor at Texas Monthly required that Vaughn resign his position and take a substantial pay cut. Being married with children didn't make it an easy decision, but after attending a Southern Foodways Alliance conference in Louisiana and witnessing the passion at the event, Vaughn's decision was made. "I had never been to an architecture conference that was like that," he says.
Perhaps unsurprisingly when Bourdain is concerned, it was controversy that brought him and Vaughn together. In a brouhaha later dubbed "BBQ-Gate," Vaughn essentially accused Dallas Morning News critic Leslie Brenner of plagiarizing his list of Dallas's best barbecue spots. The court of public opinion by and large sided with Vaughn. Bourdain, already feuding with Brenner over a negative review of one of his cookbooks, listed the incident as one of his things to be thankful for on a year's end list. As a result, Vaughn bought a VIP ticket to meet Bourdain backstage at an event in Dallas and present him with the full-color book proposal.
Unbeknownst to Vaughn, Bourdain had not only already seen the proposal (thanks to Smith), but he had it with him, and told Vaughn right then and there, "We're going to do business together."
That was back in October 2011. Fast forward to present, and Vaughn is sharing the stage with Bourdain at a sold-out Barnes and Noble event, waxing poetic about barbecue. A long line of smoked meat aficionados await his signature, which he doles out with the efficiency of a carver in a Lockhart smoke joint.
Although Vaughn had done a ton (literally) of research prior to the book in form of FCGBBQ, he had a lot to learn when he hit the road in an official capacity. "I used to think that the only 'real' barbecue was that which was indirectly smoked low and slow, but that's really just one type of Texas BBQ. We have plenty of joints around the state that cook with direct heat over wood coals and those that do barbecue hot and fast as well. The definition shouldn't be as limited as I first assumed," he says.
On top of the book tour, Vaughn is busy with the release of Texas Monthly's "Top 50 Barbecue restaurants" list, which will be announced to the public on May 22. The list runs every five years (although Vaughn plans to accelerate the schedule to every four years), and can have a profound impact on the fortunes of an establishment. (A previous winner, Snow's Barbecue, is only open one day a week, and almost always sells out within four hours of opening, at 8am).
While Vaugh could have used some time to digest the "great" Luger steaks, he instead spends the few hours between lunch and the event caught up in a flurry of emails and tweets about the list. By the time he picks up his head from his iPhone, the room at the King's County Distillery is packed with guests eager to break brisket with him. Just another day in the life of a BBQ Snob.
About the author: Nick Solares is an NYC-based food writer and photographer. He has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2008 and has written 400+ restaurant reviews and feature articles.