And, Action! The True-Life Tale of a Reluctant Food Network Star

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Back when I was first starting my search for a restaurant lease, I sat down with my mentor, Ed Mitchell, to talk about my future plans. Ed has long been considered the senior statesman of North Carolina barbecue, and he's still esteemed as among the very best whole hog men in the state, if not the best. In fact, he's probably done more to educate America on traditional Carolina whole hog barbecue than anyone in recent history.

"You'll be the first whole hog man in New York! Are you ready? The cameras will be coming," he said. I laughed it off. Ed's a master on camera, and he has appeared on countless TV shows, from Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations to the Travel Channel's BBQ Crawl. At over six feet tall, with a caramel-sweet Carolinian accent, he's the kind of man who was made for television. Unlike me, he oozes charm. When he speaks, he commands the room. His folksy demeanor makes his rich understanding of history and deep philosophical thinking palatable to the common man.

"That's your domain," I said. "I couldn't do what you do. I just want to set up my little shop and cook some pigs."

He looked me in the eye and, with the same gravity he used when teaching me his carefully guarded recipes and techniques, said, "It's not about you. You're going to have people working for you. People who will give you their all, people who will commit to your vision. It's your job to let everyone else know what great things they're doing."

It was the sort of final graduation lesson that any good tutor gives to his charge: I learned that there was more to being a whole hog man than simply cooking a pig. And it was a crucial lesson to absorb: In New York's notoriously competitive restaurant industry, media coverage can make or break a business.

From the earliest days of my career, I've been lucky enough to get great press—food websites and magazines have been especially kind, and the Arrogant Swine has had its fair share of bustling evenings thanks to their praise. But none of that press prepared me for how it would feel to get a phone call from the Food Network. Michael Symon is shooting a brand-new television series called Burgers, Brew & 'Que. Would you be interested?

Would I? I thought back to Ed's words. As a business owner, it was a no-brainer: I want the Arrogant Swine to get as much exposure to a national audience as possible, and this was a huge opportunity to talk to the country and tell everyone about the work we're doing. The only downside was the prospect of, well, being on camera.

As an introvert, I hate crowds, and I especially hate attention from crowds. I hide from parties, preferring the sweet silence of a book and a cigar. Unfortunately, none of that really fits with my newfound role of creating a party atmosphere every day and schmoozing with media types. Most folks in the television industry complain that the camera adds 10 pounds and that the lights are hot. That didn't bother me—I'm already a fat, sweaty person; so what if I looked even fatter and sweatier? But I'm also a shy guy who hates the sound of his own voice. If I was going to put myself out there, the payoff had better be worth it.

Food Television 101

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Chef Michael Symon [Photograph: Courtesy of The Food Network]

Getting on TV in the food world isn't as difficult as you might imagine. I don't have a PR agent, nor do I have some massive Rolodex of network executives I can reach out to. But with the explosion of reality and contest-focused shows, it seems that just about every chef gets a shot at being on screen. The issue is that many of these shows can do more harm than good to a chef's reputation.

Take, for instance, the cooking shows that feature what I like to call the Pandora's box, in which chefs are presented with a mystery box of three goofy items, like emu testicles, Burmese preserved ant eggs, and blueberry pancake syrup. They're given 20 minutes to make something extraordinary, often in a challenging or absurd environment—cooking with live fire on the beach, or dishing up omelets while being chased by bears in a Canadian forest. It closes with a panel of three judges, expressing their utter disgust that a trained chef would dare serve an entree that looks and tastes like ass.

Then there's the editing—the countless carefully selected shots of chefs screaming or crying or fighting with each other. It's rare that the editors of these shows choose to highlight the times when the chef is acting like a normal human being; instead, they opt for the most humiliating 30 seconds of behavior they can find. And that's not counting the interviews—those weird cutaway segments in which your competitors get the chance to rip into all of your weaknesses in front of an audience of tens of thousands of people. I'm pretty sure that's not gonna translate into sales.

But then there's my favorite type of show: the traveling eater. The equation is simple—the host, typically a famous food personality, goes around the country looking for interesting things to try. Think: the spiciest wings in Chicago, some guy making authentic Cambodian pork chops in Minnesota, or the best diner on the Jersey shore. Shows like this answer the all-important question we all have when we travel: Where should I eat?

This is the type of show you want to be on. Other shows fall into the category of heads-the-network-wins, tails-I-lose. But with the traveling celebrity, everyone wins. For all the criticism that Guy Fieri gets, his show is like Christmas for restaurants—his presence creates jobs and helps owners pay down debt. Luckily, this was exactly the kind of opportunity I was being offered on Burgers, Brew & 'Que. Great beer and great barbecue are what I do best, and getting millions of eyeballs to pay attention to that just wasn't a chance I was willing to pass up.

Shooting Day

Opening day at the Arrogant Swine

[Photograph: Clay Williams]

It didn't take me long to realize that being filmed for network television is a huge production. The day of the shoot, a small militia paraded its way into my shop—there were camera men setting up 50-pound machines, and dozens of little GoPros were spread out to capture every angle. There were sound people, makeup people, mic people, a transcriber, and even a photo editor with a separate photo booth outfitted with a space-age camera mounted to a robotic arm. There was the producer, the assistant producer, the assistant to the assistant producer's assistant. And then there was Michael himself.

I was plenty familiar with Michael Symon going into the shoot—he's a star on two national television networks, an author of seven books, and an all-around giant of the industry. What I didn't expect, though, was that he'd be a mountain of a man—Symon might not look like it on television, but the guy's built like a medieval fortress, thick enough to fend off attacks from cannonballs and peasant uprisings. When he patted me on the back, I nearly keeled over.

Lights, Camera, Action!

[Photograph: Clay Williams]

Most of us know that when it comes to reality television, what you see is a far cry from what actually goes down. But what did that mean on this particular set?

Every episode of Burgers, Brew & 'Que is broken into three segments, each focusing on a different American restaurant and the food it does best. In this particular episode—the third in the six-episode season—Symon starts at the Arrogant Swine, then visits a burger joint in Nashville and, finally, a pub in Cleveland. My segment was slated to be all about capturing the whole hog experience from start to finish.

Obviously, Symon wasn't flying to each location and shooting the segment live in a single day. But there's a whole lot more to post-production than suturing the segments together.

For starters, even though it was early spring and cold as balls, we were told to dress in warm-weather clothes—the episode was set to air in summer, and we had to look the part. We filmed the whole segment in shorts and T-shirts, shivering our asses off.

Second, filming isn't always a linear operation. One of the first things we shot was the process of butchering the hog—even though that part wound up in the middle of the segment.

And, speaking of that pig, there were actually several. Since barbecuing is far more time-consuming than frying up a burger, I couldn't exactly cook "live" for the camera—a pig spends hours in the smoker before it's ready to eat. To condense the shoot, they filmed us throwing a raw pig into our smoker and then, in the following frame, cut to one we'd cooked ahead of time. You'd never know the same hog hadn't been cooking all day.

We also had a small crowd of friends and family come out to serve as the restaurant "patrons" for the shoot. It's common practice in these sorts of shows, in order to limit the number of star-crazed fans who might otherwise make a scene. These folks were real troupers—film shoots are long and slow, with multiple takes of virtually every shot, and my "guests" had to wait around for hours before it was time for their scene. It probably helped that we plied them with alcohol; if you pay attention to my episode, you'll notice more than one person slurring their words on camera.

Luckily, the cold weather, long hours, and copious amounts of alcohol didn't detract from the energy and enthusiasm of the place—the crowd roared when food was finally presented. And Symon himself proved a pleasure to work with. He had long friendly conversations with the staff, made himself available for pictures, and even bonded with my partner over some obscure Greek island from which both their families hail. In fact, the most harrowing part of the whole endeavor was moving the pig from the pit room into the restaurant on a giant grate. If we had dropped the animal on our way inside, there wasn't really a "take two" shot we could work with—it would've splattered everywhere, an instant pile of pulled pork. I've never been so nervous about moving a pig in my life.

Once we actually got it inside, though, the work was practically over. We did the required food-porn scene, and Michael—who'd already announced for the cameras that I was "the only pitmaster in the entire Northeast ambitious enough to smoke Carolina-style whole hog barbecue"—finally took his first taste. To say I was anxious would be an understatement, even though I doubt he would've trashed it on camera. But since he actually kept on eating after the cameras were off, I think it's safe to say he genuinely liked the food.

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

When the show finally aired in late July, I couldn't bring myself to watch it—I didn't want to see myself on screen, let alone listen to my own voice. But the rewards were almost instantaneous. Business picked up, and we've become something of a tourist destination for viewers of the show —they always give themselves away by ordering exactly what Symon tried on the segment (a pulled-pork sandwich topped with a fried egg, and a side of Serious Eats-inspired waffled mac and cheese). I'll admit to being proud, and not just because I overcame one of my greatest fears.

On shoot day, we had just finished a tough two weeks. The winter season had come to a close, and the blitz of catering and restaurant service had my staff on edge. People had been working double shifts for days, and I could see the worn-down look in their eyes. As the cameras positioned themselves, the boom mics hovering over my head, the producer about to signal the beginning of the shoot, I thought back to my conversation with Ed Mitchell. I had been given a very special gift. Here was my shot to talk to the country and put our brand on the map. To make the name Arrogant Swine a valuable addition to my employees' résumés. So, while I've avoided being the center of attention my entire life, I knew this was my chance to own the conversation. The director yelled, "ACTION," and I put away my insecurities, suppressing my instinct to hide. I looked straight at the camera, with all the confidence of someone who believes he has something the country needs to hear, and started.

"Hi, my name is Tyson."