We Chat With: Chef Kenny Callaghan of Blue Smoke

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Kenny Callaghan cutting the "rib-bon" at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. [Photographs: Joshua Bousel]

Chef Kenny Callaghan—the executive chef, pit master and partner to Danny Meyer at Blue Smoke—may be a born and bred New Yorker, but he exudes southern charm and hospitality. Maybe it's because he's immersed himself in the varying regions of barbecue to build his menu. Or because he believes so much in making it a respected cuisine that he's a founding organizer of one of the best barbecue festivals in the country, and has had to pull a few teeth to pull it all off.

This weekend, June 9th and 10th, over 100,000 eaters will flood Madison Avenue for Union Square Hospitality Group's Tenth Annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. With 18 of the country's best pit masters serving up whole hogs, ribs, pulled pork, brisket, and other cuts, live music, and those food demos we smart New Yorkers love so much, it'll be one hell of a party.

"It's a great festival, and I'm proud and honored to be a part of it. We look forward to seeing everyone on Saturday and Sunday."

You were born in New York City—not exactly the home of barbecue—and are now credited with pioneering its popularity here. What about it so excites you that you've taken this on? I couldn't really turn down the opportunity to be one of Danny's chefs! I was always passionate about food and he has a passion for barbecue, so luckily I'm a fast learner.

Have you seen an advancement in our understanding and love of barbecue since you started? Absolutely. We kinda started the movement ten tears ago and now it's the more the merrier. More restaurants are not really competition—they just heighten awareness. I'm really excited about the barbecue movement in New York: I want to see it grow and be part of growing it.

Is there anything we're still missing? I think we're in a good place, and that New Yorkers have been yearning for this for a long time. It's a regional cuisine but it's been under-celebrated in New York. We're happy to fill that hole and celebrate it.

What's your approach to barbecue on your menu at Blue Smoke? There's a lot of places that specialize in one type of barbecue. At Blue Smoke we try to pay homage to them all so New Yorkers can get all their barbecue in one place. I also like to bring in a lot of fresh ingredients. Barbecue may be the focus, but I like to have fresh fish and greenmarket vegetables.

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Blue Smoke's beef ribs.

So you're cooking up all sorts of styles, but do you have a personal favorite? That's a controversial question, as I'm inviting 18 guys from around the country to cook with me next weekend! I'm partial to all barbecue—I really love it. I can't really say I love one more than the other—it's just whatever mood I'm in.

Then what would you say your choice would be for, say, a celebratory meal? Maybe a North Carolina pulled pork, only because I'd rather have an extra appetizer than a dessert, so I always lean towards the savory. And that Carolina style denotes savory. They put a very vinegary, red peppery, black peppery, garlicky sauce on the pork, which is kinda rich and fatty, so it's a nice complement that suits my palate if I'm going to celebrate something.

You're expecting well over 100,000 people at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party next weekend. What are you excited for about this year? The people I invite are the real deal—they are the cream of the crop—and I'm just really, really excited that the best barbecue in the world is going to be cooked right on the street on Madison avenue in New York City. It's the grandest stage and a tremendous environment. It's going to be a great weekend seeing people gathering for the love of barbecue. Ten years ago I couldn't imagine what it's blossomed into today.

Where would you like to see the party go in the future? You know what? The sky's the limit. It's just really exciting to see barbecue come into its own as a legitimate cuisine.

Have you learned anything from the pit masters you've had come up? The barbecue community itself is just a tremendous group of individuals: very caring, very giving. They will give you the shirts off their backs. They will lie to you through their teeth if you try to ask them any secrets, but they will do it in the most hospitable manner possible. They're a great group, and I've learned a lot from these guys on how it gets done. They came, they took a risk, and now they just keep coming back. We've had guys that are here for their tenth year. But I couldn't convince them otherwise if it wasn't worth their while and they weren't happy to do it.

What goes into preparing for the festival? Basically, by the middle of this month we're preparing for next year. We're literally cooking thousands and thousands of pounds of meat. I procure that for everybody. This year I'm doing beef ribs, whole hogs...it's just an incredible endeavor that's really grown. It's one of those events that you can't really imagine until you actually get there and see a whole hog smoking on Madison Avenue.

Any advice for 'cue lovers on how to get the most out of next weekend? I would say come early—the crowd builds very quickly. We start at 11 AM both days, and it's better to get there early and get what you want. Once you eat, just relax in the park and listen to some great music.

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