Meet & Eat: Clint Cantwell, Smoke in Da Eye BBQ
We're finally getting a taste of the warmer weather, and for many of us, that means one thing—barbecue. For Clint Cantwell, who leads a competitive barbecue team here in New York, it also means the beginning of competition season. Clint took a few minutes to chat with us during the calm before the storm, and tells us about his love for the "low and slow."
Name: Clint Cantwell
Location: Garden City, New York
Occupation: Captain, Smoke in Da Eye BBQ Team
What is one of your earliest memories of barbecue? Barbecue has been a part of my life so long I might possibly have sauce running through my veins. I was born in Texas, spent a couple years in Kansas City, then married a woman from Memphis—so it's been impossible to escape the sights, sounds, and tastes of American-style barbecue.
It wasn't until my family moved to the Tri-State area in the late '80s that I truly realized what an art form low and slow cooking is. Throughout my childhood, I remember my parents getting up way too early to put a brisket on some cheap smoker in the yard, and it always seemed like something people just did. That changed though when they fired up that same cooker for the first time in their new fancy Connecticut town, sending the neighbors into a panic over the smoke billowing from their yard! Eventually I got my own house, got my own smoker, and started teaching the neighborhood the difference between a house on fire and the smell of a fruit wood fueled overnight cook.
How many competitions do you participate in annually? Six to eight, most years. I had the opportunity to participate in the American Royal Invitational in Kansas City last October, going head-to-head against 120+ grand champions—truly one of the more memorable experience in my cooking history.
Do you have a particular specialty or trademark style? When it comes to contests, it's really about producing consistent results across all four categories—chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder and brisket. And that's easier said than done when you consider the countless things that can go wrong when you're cooking for eighteen hours outside, and trying to hit four ten-minute turn-in windows perfectly in a span of two hours!
Outside of contests, I like to take traditional kitchen recipes and twist them up for the smoker or grill. Some of the stuff fails miserably ("grilled" graham-crusted, chocolate stuffed marshmallows)—but some is pretty awesome, like a pulled-pork lasagna. I think of it as Russian roulette with smoke and fire.
What are your favorite barbecue spots/dishes here in the city? It depends on what I'm in the mood for on any given day...Blue Smoke for a bit more upscale meal, Hill Country for authentic Texas beef including their killer fatty brisket, RUB for some more innovative specials like the smoked reuben sandwich, Daisy May's for a special whole pig pickin', Wildwood for an overall solid meal, and so on.
If you could put together a three course meal with dishes from three different NYC restaurants, what would you include? That's like asking a junkie his favorite way to get f'd up! But I'd some of my all-time favorites, including the new-style sashimi appetizer and a couple ounces of thinly sliced Wagyu beef at Nobu, followed by beef cheek ravioli pasta course at Babbo, and a medium rare porterhouse (for two) at Peter Luger for "dessert."
Best late-night eats, both out and at home? When I get the chance, I make my way to Blue Ribbon for late night eats. At home, I almost always have the makings of a fine sliced ribeye and carmelized onion cheesesteak or a batch of pulled pork nachos.
What NYC foods do you crave the most often? A too-big-to-fit-in-your-mouth corned sandwich on rye. They can try to replicate it elsewhere, but it'll never be the same. You also can't beat an authentic Nathan's hot dog and big old beer on the Coney Island boardwalk, or a perfect slice of fresh mozzarella pizza from Joe's on Carmine Street. So much to eat, so little time.
What is in your fridge that you'd be embarrassed to tell us about? While my fridge currently contains large vessels filled with rendered beef and pork fat, I'd have to go with Baconnaise Lite—not because I love bacon flavored mayo but because I own the "Lite" version.
Everyone has a go-to person they call for restaurant/bar recommendations. Who's yours? The great thing about New York is that everyone knows someone, you just have to be able to connect the right dots to get what you want. For my tenth wedding anniversary, I called on a good friend who also happens to represent a number of major chefs. He booked us at Scott Conant's Scarpetta, claiming it'd beat the pants off my old standby, Babbo. And he was dead on. Hands down, Scott turned out one of my favorite meals of all time down to a cheese plate that included a honey and truffle drizzled ricotta that I will never forget! (Maybe I can convince Scott to send me a vat of it for my birthday!)