Chef Adam Perry Lang knows his way around a grill. Working under Daniel Boulud early in his career, Adam used his French foundation and technique to create Daisy May's BBQ, one of NYC's first and best urban barbecue destinations. Since opening Daisy May's in 2003, Perry Lang has taken his barbecue on the road, earning acclaim and awards. Not bad for a kid from Long Island. We met with Adam at Daisy May's to discuss barbecue craft, art, and his new cookbook, BBQ 25.
Name: Adam Perry Lang
Occupation: Chef, Owner Daisy May's BBQ
What prompted you to become a chef? Honestly? Taking one of those exams at the end of college that said what you'd be good at—the top result was "chef." I got really excited about that possibility. My college counselor suggested I go work at the best restaurant in town—a place called L'Etoile—and I went in. I asked if I could work there, without pay, to explore the option of being a chef and I took off running.
For my thirteenth birthday, I asked to go to Lutèce. [The chef] André Soltner to me was like a god (what thirteen year old thinks that?) and I still do to this day. He walked into that dining room and he glowed. I had written him a note before I came that said, "my name is Adam, I love cuisine and cooking, and I just wanted to let you know that I'm coming to your restaurant."
The concept of being a chef was not what it is today by any means, so the concept of making a living doing it was so alien and so different that it wasn't conceivable to me. I might as well have said that I wanted to be an astronaut.
At what point did you decide to focus on barbecue? I got my foundation in haute cuisine because if you build a strong foundation, everything will fall into place. When I was working as a private chef, I wanted to focus on just the food, and one of the places that work took me to was New Mexico. There I got to cook with cowboys and ranch hands who had welded a barbecue pit and we cooked barbecue outside. I learned that barbecue starts with the wood, the fire, the humidity levels, the time of day, the whole thing, not just when you turn on the stove like with other cooking. That's when I fell in love with barbecue.
How is your barbecue different from anything else out there? It's great, great barbecue! Every barbecue where you have a chef who cares and has a passion for it has a story. It's simple—it's meat, spice, and seasoning, or no spice and seasoning—smoke and wood, and have a nice day. How could it be so different everywhere you go? It has to do with personality. Mine is different because of how my mind works; I can't stop thinking. I have my barbecue craft, but then I explore my barbecue art. I like to make my favors three-dimensional. The other difference is that I'm not afraid to look outside the traditional pantry. I look at different chiles, which add flavoring and color, and the visual aspect is part of the eating experience.
You've been in London quite a bit lately; tell us what you're doing over there? I was introduced to Jamie Oliver by our mutual publisher, Will Schwalbe; Jamie came to a dinner here at Daisy May's, and I had been a huge fan of his for years. We left all the people and went to hang out in the kitchen to show each other what we were doing, and what started off at 7:30 ended at three or four in the morning. From there we had many conversations, and over a bottle of Sassiciaia one night we started talking about cauldron cooking and wood-burning tandoors and robata grills and churasscarias. We put something together—we're still putting it together—and I was off to London. It's going to be called Barbecoa, and it is all about elemental cooking using wood and charcoal-fire cooking. (The antithesis of molecular gastronomy and nothing like Daisy May's.)
What New York foods do you crave the most often when you're not in town? First of all, hot dogs with mustard and sauerkraut. I love deli—corned beef, pastrami—and the French fries at Nathan's: the squishy French fries with that frickin' red fork. New York pizza in all its bad forms and all its good forms. I would also have to say Chinese food as I know it as an American, but not real Chinese food, like great chow fun.
Tell us about your upcoming cookbook, BBQ 25. BBQ 25, although it seems like a small book and looks like a simplification, is a distillation without dumbing anything down. I wanted to be at the grill like that person would be, and figure out what their needs are. It opens up flat so the wind doesn't knock the pages over, and it provides information in sort of a multimedia format, which is how we think nowadays. There are symbols, pictures that have meaning, and I encourage people on how they should choose their ingredients without being preachy.
I had actually done thirty recipes, but I whittled it down to twenty-five, because I figured out that these twenty-five recipes are the ones that you will use as an outdoor cook 95% of the time, representing the cuts that a decently stocked butcher or supermarket will have available. This is a field guide; it's 68 pages.
What are your top BBQ tips for the home chef? Constantly look to make flavors bold. First and foremost, layer flavors and don't do one-dimensional seasoning. You have pre-seasoning, you then build the layers of seasoning, and then finishing seasoning. Board dressing—never put anything on a naked board. When you cut the meat on a board, form a barrier with oil and then season it so that it becomes a sauce. Add a little citrus and then toss the salad on the cutting board. The last thing is most important—go with confidence. You have to cook at the grill with confidence, even though flames can be intimidating.