When asked what kind of cigar he prefers, Tyson Ho takes a puff and replies, "Free."
It's a straightforward answer from a straightforward man. Ho has transformed himself from a financial research manager to a whole hog barbecue pit master in just a few years. He still has the day job, which isn't any help to anyone who's about to spend the next 14 hours watching over a 200-pound hog. None of this—the sold-out guest list, the stacked demands of a full-time job, family life, and a summer series of serious barbecues— phases Ho. The name of his pit crew is "Arrogant Swine," but as far as cooks go, this one is anything but.
Ho's unassuming demeanor carries the party he's put together. Dubbed "The Hog Days of Summer," the string of summer barbecue events that he and John Brown Smokehouse are hosting in Queens and Brooklyn is a breezy, laid-back hat-tip to the original form of American barbecue: a community cookout with the biggest, tastiest animal on hand. It's like the Big Apple Barbecue, brought down to Ho's speed—and bolstered by his favorite kind of beer (free).
As with good barbecue, simple appearances mask a depth of culinary knowledge. Guiding a new pit apprentice in butterflying two massive Gloucestershire hogs, Ho drops a wealth of practical knowledge that only comes from a serious commitment to craft. He slices away just enough bone to expose the shoulders (all the better to maximize browning), makes sure not to crack the rib cage (to better protect the loins from that same heat), and demonstrates the different knives, grips, and angles he uses to exact only what's needed from the carcass before bringing it to the pit.
"I wasn't really intending to master barbecue in the sense of getting professional with it," says the 34-year-old Queens native when explaining his motivations. "I was struggling at that point professionally and needed an escape mentally...There are no calls or emails at 2:00 a.m. Just me, a cheap cigar, and my grill enjoying the silence."
The Hog Days of Summer began as an escape from the drudgery of white-collar life, but Ho's relationship with Eastern Carolina-style barbecue began with a road trip to The Skylight Inn. Ayden was the first on a string of destinations Ho had charted in a survey of barbecue towns throughout the country.
"I'd say we were in the middle of nowhere but that would have been an insult to 'nowhere,'" says Ho. "My GPS wasn't working, and we had no phone signal. And we're staring at the most gaudy looking barbecue joint ever. Seeing the Capitol building on top confirmed every single Blue Collar TV joke ever told. My wife and I walked in and got a barbecue sandwich and a barbecue tray. While I expected the tart, I didn't expect the heightened porky flavor. I didn't expect it to be so savory. I expected North Carolina to begin my journey, but that bite ended my quest. I found what I was looking for. I will go no further."
Since that pilgrimage, Ho has apprenticed with Ed Mitchell, cooked about 40 hogs, and rubbed pork shoulders with the new generation of pit cooks in New York. He smokes heritage hogs over oak wood coals, which he burns down from cords procured in Long Island.
On cook nights, he goes to sleep with an alarm clock on his stomach, waking up every 40 minutes to burn more wood or tend to the pit. The labor-intensive process and quality meat yields an impressive product: vinegar-and-pepper sauced, aggressively porky barbecue that's chopped just coarsely enough for meticulous diners to recognize exactly what part of the hog they're tasting in any given bite.
A glance at New York's food media (this blog included) makes it seem like we can't say a word about our city's barbecue joints without wringing hands over "the state of New York barbecue." Ho is a traditionalist when it comes to technique, but when asked about the state of New York barbecue, he dismisses the tropes of regional warfare.
"If it were the case that the vast majority of joints in the South cooked with the integrity of tradition using all wood, then there might be a claim of superiority. This is not the case," he declares. "There is no moral high ground. Everyone uses the same gas-powered smokers, which produce the same generic barbecue found from New York to Florida."
Ho's lament doesn't equate to a free pass for the Northeast. Skeptical of the notion that a bundle of highly reviewed restaurants translate to barbecue culture, he shows little interest in blood feuds or barbecue kings. Instead, he's on a mission to spread the straightforward spirit of his craft, one pig-picking at time. He'd like to recreate the moment he decided to end his road trip in North Carolina and pledged himself to that first bite. "We have pit masters here of the highest caliber here in New York, but that doesn't a barbecue town make," notes Ho. "We can get there. but it'll require educating the public and getting them passionate about barbecue."
If cold beer, a muggy summer breeze, and the mingling of cigar smoke with pork smoke constitutes an education in barbecue, I look forward to receiving my barbecue diploma.