How I Built a Barbecue Restaurant in Brooklyn: The Importance of Mentors

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[Photograph: Clay Williams]

Opening a beer hall is a lot like being back in college—there are mentors everywhere you go, eager to offer their assistance and support.
allow me
(And there's lots of beer.)

Early in my college studies, I showed a talent for academic research, and my department threw their support behind me. They all celebrated when I was accepted into the prestigious PhD program in the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, which only accepts about five students a year.

And like an idiot, I turned it down to pursue other research interests in Tucson, AZ, making me a great disappointment for my professors. Karma is indeed real, and my squandering of their efforts followed me for most of my adult career. I eventually transitioned from research to finance and couldn't find any mentors as I rose through the corporate ranks.

I had long given up on the chance to have mentors like in my college days, people whose expertise so greatly exceeded my own and who were always there to offer guidance. But the restaurant industry, for all its ills, does offer the opportunity for mentorship. And that mentorship is vital to know-nothing upstarts like me.

The road to opening the Swine wasn't paved by me seeking people out, but by kind experts who sought me out and made themselves available to help.

A Magic Incantation

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Pau; Giannone [Photograph: Jessica Leibowitz]

Paul Giannone of Paulie Gee's, a wildly popular pizzeria in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is every bored middle manager's hero. You have to be pretty cynical not be inspired by the tale of a guy who spent 30 years doing something he didn't love, only to quit and follow his passion and find wild success.

I had been reading articles on Paul for a while and always wanted to sit and chat with him. Back in March of 2012, a culinary tourism offer showed up in my inbox: "Make Pizza with Paulie Gee!" The deal was, for $300, you got to sip wine while Paul spends the afternoon teaching you how to make pizza. Now, I did want to talk to the guy, but $300 was out of my price range, so I sent him an email: "Drink Coffee with Paulie Gee?"

I told him I had no interest in pizza aside from eating it and wasn't really a wine drinker, so was there a way I could pay to have coffee instead? Despite having every reason to shove my email off to the spam bucket, he actually made time to chat with me. Here's part of that chat:

Me: I'd like to try and open a barbecue joint.
Paul: I'll stop you right there. From now on, whenever we talk, you will never say "try" again. You
will open a barbecue restaurant.
Me: I will?
Paul: That's the first step. Will it into existence. You—and I just met you—are going to open a barbecue joint. Just don't make brisket, though—Fette Sau in Williamsburg already makes the best in New York.

That was the first of a few meetings we've had, and several reiterated this point. At first I wondered if Paul was drinking too deeply from the self-help Kool Aid, but I certainly wasn't going anywhere with my approach. So I eliminated "try" from my vocabulary, and you know what? It worked!

Like some silly Harry Potter magical incantation, simply making every conversation about this barbecue thing a "will" versus a "try" made things start to fall in place. Doors opened where they didn't exist before. People took my plans more seriously. The foundation was nothing but a word, but it was solid enough to support the concrete walls and wooden bar that I now work in every day.

I'm so enamored with this magic incantation that I said it again the other day: "I will become a famous underwear model." Nothing yet. I guess it only works magic, not miracles.

But will, real will, is the foundation of any and every dream. To will something into reality is to be completely and totally honest with yourself. Right now there is a young woman sacrificing everything to get into the best schools, the right internships, the most exclusive pathways of influence, to one day be the President of the United States. We can joke about the presidency as something so lofty that it might as well be a lottery ticket, but imagine the mental fortitude it must take to even throw yourself into that arena. To say, "I will be President." By comparison, opening a barbecue joint is a piece of cake.

Deciding that I'd will the Swine into existence was liberating: It showed me that my limitations weren't an absolute barrier to achieving my goals.

Honor Among Thieves

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[Photograph: Josh Bousel]

Barbecue as a genre has blown up in the past few years in New York. But of the 40 or so barbecue joints in New York, only eight, including mine, are "stickburners," which is barbecue-speak for a place that cooks solely with wood, with no assist from gas or electricity.

The vast majority of barbecue restaurants across the country aren't stickburners, and New York is especially tough on us. Meat costs me the same as what it costs someone in North Carolina or Texas, but my New York address means I pay a higher cost for wood and the labor to fire it.

With only a few of us cooking barbecue the old fashioned way, we tend to gravitate towards each other, like stranded Martians seeking our own kind. Even before I opened the Swine and was doing weekly summer events, established pitmasters like Bill Durney of Hometown Barbecue and Matt Fisher of Fletcher's Barbecue considered me peers. They opened up their doors and kitchens and gave advice freely as I was struggling to figure out the logistics of setting up my space.

Some might think us Brooklyn barbecue people are competitors, but Brooklyn is so large that we aren't really pulling from the same customer bases. It takes me less time to travel from my Bushwick restaurant to upstate New York than Bay Ridge, once you factor in Brooklyn traffic. And compared to restaurants as a whole, we're way outnumbered. Sushi and ramen restaurants outnumber barbecue about four to one.

Once I opened, other barbecue people kept me alive. When some of my equipment broke at my grand opening, Fisher lent me his. When I ran into issues with the Department of Buildings, the folks at Delaney Barbecue and John Brown's Smokehouse gave me guidance. Without them I would have had to do a lot more "willing" to get over those initial hurdles.

My Incubator

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[Photograph: Josh Bousel]

As much as I'm all for the "fuck it, just do it" mentality of entrepreneurship, even I will acknowledge that it's generally a bad idea to quit your job and hop into a new project without any plan or safety net. That's why I found a way to dip my toe into the barbecue life while still keeping my corporate salary. Enter John Brown's.

John Brown's Smokehouse is New York City's only Kansas City-style barbecue joint, where they specialize in the double-smoked fatty end of beef brisket known as "burnt ends." While I had a vague idea how to cook a pig in a large hog smoker, I didn't have any place to ply my trade. Getting good at cooking barbecue is the same as shampooing your hair: rinse and repeat, always repeat.

One day a friend called me up and asked, "Are you interested in cooking a hog in front of John Brown's?" John Brown's lawyer got them a 250-pound hog for their anniversary, which posed a logistical problem—the animal was too large for their smokers. So I dragged my big black portable pit in front of the restaurant and spent the evening smoking hog and talking shop with the pitmaster and owner, Josh Bowen.

That night earned me the honorary title of resident whole hog guy and village idiot at John Brown's. Whenever someone would call into the restaurant asking for whole pig catering, I would show up at their house, pit in tow, wearing a John Brown's t-shirt and ready to dish up some pork.

It was a great arrangement. Catering gigs were mostly on the weekend so I could keep my day job. And I was able to cook hogs for weddings, birthdays, and corporate outings—all perfect practice for when I started my own event series. When it came time to do my Hog Days of Summer pop-up, it was Josh who used his liquor license and kitchen infrastructure to allow me to showcase Carolina-style barbecue.

I couldn't have done the large-scale beer and barbecue events I'm known for without John Brown's. Time was I didn't know the difference between an ale and a lager—I thought stouts were a nice way of saying how fat I was. So it was Josh who brokered the sponsorship of craft beer star Founder's Brewing to support my summer series. He and his business became my incubator.

If you look at the layout of the Arrogant Swine, it's basically an inverted version of John Brown's. The fact that we have a massive craft beer selection came from Josh's love and selection of his own beer list, arguably the best pound for pound menu in Queens. Our massive outdoor space mirrors his beer garden. Our practice of giving out free samples of obscure craft beer to make it less intimidating to new drinkers is shamelessly stolen from him.

While many very, very successful people gave me great advice on opening my shop, Josh held my hand and walked me through what it took to be a barbecue entrepreneur. The Swine wouldn't be here without him.

You Actually Listened

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

About a month after I opened, Paul came by to see me. I showed him around and he delighted in my set-up. Even though he's an industry giant, he peppered me with questions. How did you do this? What do you think of that? Who should I contact for X? How wild is it that a small fry like me got to offer intel to a much better restaurateur? That we now talk as peers, fellow travelers on the road to glory?

We talked shop for a good while and took the required the selfies for social media. As he got ready to leave, Paul put a hand on my shoulder and told me he was proud of me. He was even proud that I didn't listen to him about my name—the Arrogant Swine. Paul hated the name and said I should go with something warm and fuzzy like Uncle Ho's BBQ. Indeed, I've received plenty of grief from critics who called me, you guessed it, an arrogant swine, arrogant jerk, arrogant (insert insult here), or the ever-so-creative "He has no reason to be arrogant."

(If you're wondering, the name came about when we were trying to find a pig-based url for my website. A whole hog joint needs a pig name, and url squatters had most of them. I tried every color pig.com, every variant spelling of hog, all to no luck. Then one day I walked past a poster for a beer called the "Arrogant Bastard Ale." I wondered if Arrogant Swine was available, and it was, so that became my name.)

"You know," Paul said, "I've had dozens of people come by and talk to me, and most don't follow the playbook, but you actually listened. I see what's going on here and you did everything I told you to. Everything here, I can see you in it. You willed it into existence."