We Chat with John Stage About Trial and Error Barbecue and His New Brooklyn Restaurant
"Now barbecue is everywhere; back then it was shrouded in mystery. It was a world I didn't know about and I kind of became obsessed."
If you've moved to New York rather recently, it's hard to imagine a time when brisket was served only at Shabbat dinner and a killer pulled pork was a hard thing to find. With some solid contenders from our fair city representing alongside pit masters from around the country at this weekend's Big Apple Barbecue (hosted by Blue Smoke), those days are definitely far behind us, and we've embraced the southern tradition as our own.
John Stage walks the north-south line in the barbecue world. He was slinging sausage, peppers, and onions around to festivals with his signature barbecue sauce when he crossed the Mason Dixon line and had his ego bruised with the discovery that his was not barbecue. So like a typical New Yorker, he set out to learn all he could and then took his findings upstate, where Dinosaur Bar-B-Cue was born. Now he's got six restaurants in the tri-state area, with our local home in Harlem and a new location opening this month in Brooklyn.
So, what does it take to stand up to Texas, Tennessee, Memphis and the Carolinas at the pit? We headed to Harlem on a Thursday morning to find out. And in case you're wondering, brisket and ribs make a pretty darn good breakfast at the Dinosaur.
You're Italian American from the north... I am a Yankee, yes...
And you were slinging sausage and peppers before you converted your focus completely to barbecue. Do you remember what inspired you to do so? I started this in 1983 doing biker events, fairs, and festivals. I did not grow up in a barbecue culture. The fairs headed down the eastern seaboard, and once I crossed the Mason Dixon line I was told what I was doing was not barbecue. I made my own sauce! I was like, "What do you mean? It's barbecue." I had no idea about pits in the ground and slow smoking.
How did you educate yourself? I got on my bike and took a very long trip through the south and just tasted everything until I got to what was the Shangri-La of barbecue, Memphis. This was in '85 or '86, and I opened up the restaurant in '88.
Why commit? Because I got the bug of it—there was a whole new world that I didn't know about. Now barbecue is everywhere; back then it was shrouded in mystery. It was a world I didn't know about and I kind of became obsessed.
I love a quote from Kenny Callahan's interview last year at this time about pit masters: "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." Without the resources we have today, how did you break in? You know, it really became trial and error. It's the same four things in barbecue: there's meat, there's spice, there's smoke, there's sauce. I had the sauce developed and felt pretty good about that. So it was about learning the technique. And everyone was really gracious—every time I asked a question it got a response. And then it became trial and error, without a doubt.
How has your focus changed over the years? Even with the amount of restaurants it became a never-ending pursuit to get better. You can never take your eye off that. There's so much competition, once you do you're fucked.
What does "better" mean to you? With six restaurants it's always about the people, and getting the people and the processes in line with what we're trying to do. Monitoring and training is the hard part.
And I assume training a pit boss is very different than a line cook. It ain't easy at all. Barbecue is very physical, and you're predicting the future. A lot of what we train is looking at what we've cooked before. There are so many variables in barbecue, and it's the judgment calls. If you have 40 briskets coming out, every one of those briskets has to be poked, prodded, and felt. So you have to train judgment in that long cooking process, and all those steps along the way.
There are so many people going into culinary school to be chefs, but barbecue is a different beast with, I assume, a smaller pool of serious contenders and greater variables? That's the hardest part. You have your pit bosses that have been around a long time take the pit guys under your wing. For a long time they'll do the seasoning, loading and building of fires. And then judgment becomes the job of the older pit boss. And that becomes the learning experience, every time you're taking meat out. And, again, I've been doing it 25 years and I still like to think I'm never going to stop learning about barbecue because there are so many curve balls and variables. Every piece of meat is different. You're taking this hunk of rough, tough meat and you're losing 50% of it. And what you end up with is hopefully something great. But there's a lot of judgment.
I'd bet mistakes are expensive, too. Yes they are, yes they are.
How does this fit into New York? Why did you feel you could succeed particularly in Harlem, a freestanding restaurant by the river under a highway bridge? Well, good question. If I did demographic studies and all that shit back in 2002, I probably wouldn't have chosen this. It was a different world in 2002 here, but I just loved the area. Number one, it was all auto-body shops, so I knew no one was going to complain about my smoke over here. But number two, this is where my family's from—Washington Heights—so I've always been familiar with this area. And I fell in love with this bridge—I love being under this bridge. There is so much energy, it just felt good here. I can't explain it, and everyone thought I was out of my mind, but it was a gut thing.
You've got six large restaurants, with another Dinosaur coming to Park Slope soon? June 19th.
In my reading Dinosaur was referred to as a "chain restaurant" a few times, which I was sorta surprised at. How do you keep each personal and unique to their neighborhoods? That was my fear when I opened this restaurant and it became my number one mission—to make each Dinosaur unique. I'm not trying to cookie cutter this. All six of these restaurants have a different vibe and feel. We just did the menu for Brooklyn, so that's got some new twists to it. So that gets me into the kitchen, to develop some new recipes. So that's just our mission, right there. I'm not going to let this suck or feel like a... I don't like the word "chain." Let's call it a "cartel" of restaurants.
I would imagine it's a little hard in Brooklyn to open up a big restaurant... I'm in Gowanus, and when I negotiated this lease a few years ago it was pretty cheap. We took over an old tool and die shop, and Gowanus has that very industrial feel, so again it felt like a Dinosaur. If I were on Fifth or Seventh Avenue it would be different.
Are you keeping the tool and die feel? It's got a lot of elements of that. It's pretty badass in there.
This Saturday and Sunday we've got the 11th Big Apple Barbecue Block Party in Madison Square Park, with teams coming in from as far as your beloved Memphis. How are you feeling about how New York represents? I think we've got a really good barbecue scene in this city. I really do. Like with anything you need new guys coming in, and then you have the old guys like me. I think barbecue is coming into its own, and it's a good thing.
Is there anything you look forward to particularly? I know a lot of these old boys so it's good to see everyone roll in. We get all liquored up and have a good time.
Are barbecuers competitive at this? Oh, hell yeah.
Last year I learned a lot about different styles of barbecue nationally. Do you think yours has a locale stamp? When I first started this I was obsessed with Memphis, so I modeled the pulled pork and ribs after the Memphis style. But it was never completely Memphis, it was just the inspiration. My brisket is inspired by Texas. Our sauces were different, our rubs were different, our side dishes were definitely different than any other barbecue restaurant back in the day—you were lucky to get anything other than beans and coleslaw then. And we always did chicken wings as a salute to upstate. We always reflected the sensibilities of who we are. Everything is from an inspiration, then shook up into a glorious mess.
So this is your New York barbecue? What is New York? It's a melting pot of everything, and I think barbecue is the same, because I took inspiration from all over the country and all over New York State and I don't know... it's just a big jumble!
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo writes about people who make food and cooks things now and then for her bread and butter. Read more at www.WordsFoodArt.com or tweet excessively with her at @WordsFoodArt.