My buddy Chain Saw John is a barbecue guy in Crossville, Tennessee. He's so named because his side hustle involves carving whole logs into life-sized statues while he wears nothing but his underwear.
Chain Saw John is most famous for carving a 48-foot-long replica of Da'Vinci's Last Supper in front of the Crossville Courthouse, arguably the only tourist attraction in the town. A while ago, we were cooking together at the Big Pig Jig, the state of Georgia's barbecue championship, and during a long night of smoking we started to talk about my restaurant plans.
Chain Saw: I got a pork butt recipe for you that will knock those yankees away
Me: That sounds cool, but I'm actually gonna open a whole hog joint.
Chain Saw: Are you high again?
Me: Nope, I think people would enjoy it. I think it tastes better and it'd be preserving Carolina tradition
Chain Saw: You're out of your mind. You'll be out of business in a year! Listen, I'll give you some advice I learned from over 20 years of cooking barbecue—people just want their food cheap. They don't care how many hours you worked or how much it cost you. Just stick with cooking pork butts. Yankees can't tell the difference anyway.
Chain Saw John might not succeed at wearing pants, but he knows his economics. Cooking hogs whole in the Carolina tradition is mighty fun, but it's not particularly profitable. Designing any restaurant menu is a challenge, but how do you do it when your main attraction doesn't make much money?
First Principles: The Emperor Counsels Simplicity
My favorite foods are stupidly simple.
In college, I spent two months in Jerusalem studying Hebrew. Every single Friday I'd forget to get my shopping done before the stores closed for the sabbath, which meant I was stuck without food until sunset on Saturday. So every single Saturday I'd hike from my dorm to the Arab quarter to find something to eat.
The first weekend there I got lost and stumbled starving into a random stall. The vendor only sold hummus, but "only hummus" is one hell of an understatement. Made with a mortar and pestle, this hummus wasn't so much a paste but rather a mousseline so light it would make Escoffier weep. Palestinian olive oil darker and more floral than the finest oils of Liguria pooled in the center. "From my family's olive trees," the vendor proudly noted. A garnish of fresh tomatoes and warm pita brought me to a whole different state of being. Those plastic tubs of brown concrete labeled 'hummus' at Whole Foods don't remotely come close.
It's only hummus. And that's what I want to cook.
I love working within tight parameters—unfettered creativity makes me uncomfortable, so I take sanctuary in limitations. As a barbecue cook, this works in my favor; my clientele isn't looking for me to be inspired by travels across Asia or cutting-edge pickling. My little corner of the culinary world involves cooking this country's oldest form of barbecue.
Left to my own devices, I'd give the Arrogant Swine a single menu item: whole hog properly garnished with slaw and corn pone, a griddled cornmeal cake. That's it. As it stands, for cost reasons, I'll be doing a little more than that, but whole hog will still be the star of the show.
The Money Solution: Build a Bar
One thing in favor of a limited menu is my bar: the Arrogant Swine is as much a beer hall as a barbecue restaurant, and the fantastic part of a bar that serves food is the menu doesn't need to be very extensive. The Swine will not serve seasonal tasting menus. You can have any Greenmarket vegetable you like, so long as it's cabbage, and so long as it's in slaw. The bulk of my menu deals not with food, but with 40+ bottles of beer ranging from local to farflung, plus enough brown liquor to drown a horse.
A huge beer selection makes it easier to serve traditional Carolina barbecue as the menu mainstay. At less booze-centric Carolina barbecue restaurants, the tradition's austerity (whole hog and only whole hog) forces restaurateurs to shoehorn in other menu items, just so the place looks less bare. The most cringe-worthy of these hog alternatives is beef brisket. Every time brisket shows up on a Carolina menu, God runs over a basket of sweet fluffy kittens with a Mack truck. It'd be like pouring soy sauce all over a Sicilian pizza. I don't want to do that.
The Mantra: Curb My Creativity
Instead, I'm taking whole hog as a point of departure. Rather than making hog merely one menu item among many, I've made it the central theme. The Arrogant Swine will be a church of pork.
But that still means keeping the menu in check; creativity is counter to what we're trying to do at the Swine. I take great joy in knowing that when burnt-down coals are shoveled under hogs, we're cooking in a fashion older than the U.S. itself. There's over three hundred years of tradition in every bite of hog. I want all my menu items to feel the same way.
I shy away from creativity because I'm not particularly good at it. Most of us aren't, and the number of truly uninhibited creative chefs in New York is a small one. Take M. Wells chef Hugue Dufour in Long Island City. "Zero" does not describe how few fucks he gives about public opinion concerning his food. Dufour does whatever his sick mind wants, when he wants, and we obediently line up for the taste.
I can't compete with Dufour, which is why I have two rules for a food joining the Swine's menu.
- It has to be pork-centric.
- It has to be built on a foundation of tradition rather than creativity.
The Other Mantra: Ham I Am
Months ago, Max came back from a trip to Spain with page after page of photos of the legendary jamon Iberico: the world's most expensive ham. It got me thinking. Like my hog, ham has hundreds of years of tradition behind it, and it tastes better than 90% of appetizers out there. Now I'm not the first guy to think of offering a country ham plate with my barbecue, but I'm excited to do it anyway.
But unlike most charcuterie plates, mine won't be Italian. Prosciutto, coppa, and sopressata are on any and every cured meat platter in New York. What's wrong with meat from Hungary, Bosnia, or Poland? Those are some of the cultures I'll be getting my cured meat from; the only problem is their names, which lack the romance of the rolling hills of Tuscany. (Let's face it: Warsaw and Sarajevo don't up high on the list of romantic destinations.)
The Menu: Meat 1 and Meat 2
Beyond cured pork, the Swine's menu is divided into two sections: barbecue and smoked meat. The former refers specifically to whole hog and Lexington-style outside brown, the super-porky bark-like crust that develops on smoked pork shoulder. In normal pulled pork, you simply mix that flavorful crust in with the milder meat. But in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, you actually have the option of requesting a plate full of the outside meat i.e. the "brown." So we're replicating this by chopping a pork butt in half to increase its surface area, thereby making the entire cut an "outside brown."
Other items, like ribs, go into the smoked meat section. These members of the standard barbecue canon aren't called barbecue in a Carolina joint, even if they are smoked.
A note on brisket: I give brisket plenty of flack. Now because the checks are fat and Uncle Ho needs to pay the bills, I do smoke brisket from time to time in my catering gigs as a concession to my non-pork-eating guests. It's definitely a violation of my convictions, but as Whitman, noted, man is no more true to himself than when he's inconsistent.
And How About Chicken?
Nothing frustrates me more than trying to work with chicken, but every restaurateur loves having it on the menu. It cooks quickly, the profits are high, and it satisfies the most uncreative of palates. People love chicken, and it makes money. I still haven't decided what to do about it.
The reason that chicken is a royal pain in my ass is the execution of the dish in a barbecue setting. Every other barbecue item has a relatively long shelf life—contrary to what some snobs tell you, it doesn't need to be eaten straight from the smoker. At Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, Aaron Franklin takes his brisket out at 3 a.m. to rest while the rest of his menu items cook. The restaurant opens at 11 a.m. and sells out shortly thereafter, which means that brisket you waited on line for hours for has been sitting in a warming box for no fewer than eight hours.
In a barbecue setting, everything is done and cooked long before you show up. Now chicken? Kept warm, it'll stay nice and juicy for maybe an hour. After that it's all downhill.
So I'm left with some choices:
- Completely forgo chicken and accept a higher food cost.
- Continually cook chicken throughout the night, which means a higher labor cost and extra stress on my team.
- Re-think how to not use whole chicken.
As of the writing of this post, I still haven't solved the chicken issue, but I'm guessing I'll go with some version of option three. Stay tuned.