Editor's note: On Serious Eats and elsewhere, we read all sorts of interviews with major figures on the restaurant scene. But for every Alton or Bourdain, there are 10,000 other people in the food industry working every day, out of sight, to run the restaurants that bring so much to this city. In "Heart of the House," Helen Zhang will introduce us to one of these folks each week.
It's been a long road for Matthew Katakis and his new Astoria butcher shop and barbecue restaurant Butcher Bar. In the six months leading up to its opening in March, Matthew went through five different executive chefs before landing his current one, baby-faced 26 year-old Orlando Sanchez, formerly of Mable's Smokehouse in Williamsburg. But it looks like fifth time's a charm, because Sanchez has been serving up barbecue classics like smoked brisket and pulled pork to a Queens audience that has literally been eating it up. Oh, and a glowing New York Times review never hurts.
Orlando is still getting accustomed to holding the reigns of his very own kitchen staff—something he never dreamed he would be doing at 26. He talked with us on Butcher Bar's back deck about his Texas beginnings, future upgrades he hopes to make to his already highly praised establishment, and what barbecue means to him. With my own tray of burnt ends and mac 'n' cheese (among other tasty offerings) at my disposal, I could only try to listen.
How did a guy from Austin end up cooking barbecue in Astoria? I graduated from culinary school in Austin in 2010, and I got bored bouncing around the restaurants there. I just wanted something new, so I came to New York since there's everything out here—so why not?
I didn't know that moving out here was going to push me more into barbecue, but it did. I was doing barbecue at a place in Austin called Uncle Billy's Brew and Cue. Then I came out here and started working at Mable's, where I gained more experience. And then one day Matthew came in and well, kind of stole me from Mable's. I never expected to be in this position after living in New York for less than a year. Matthew brought me in and I made him some baby back ribs, some mac 'n' cheese, and cornbread on the fly. And after I was hired I had about a week and a half to create the menu and train a staff. It was intense to say the least.
You've got a lot of meat to be smoked, roasted and sauced. How does your kitchen handle the menu? We have two smokers inside. The brisket and the pulled pork take 12 hours, so we put them in overnight; when we come back in the morning they're ready. The burnt ends are actually part of the brisket—we just cut them off and stick them back in the smoker. I've left them in there for over 20 hours. The longer it's in there, the more it breaks down and gets a nice crust on it. We go lightly on the meats that we sauce so you get more of the meat flavor. Barbecue is very simple. As long as the fire's goin', you can't really mess it up.
How has your background influenced your cooking? I'm Mexican, so we didn't do too much barbecue; I grew up on Mexican food instead. To this day I've never had enchiladas in any restaurant the way my mother made them. Right now I'm actually braising some meat to make some barbacoa for tomorrow, which is a traditional Mexican pulled meat dish. Traditionally it's made with cow's head, but it's illegal to sell that here. We're using a ground chuck, so it's going to be a little different. Basically you braise beef until it gets really tender, add the traditional spices, a little salt, pepper, and garlic. Really simple stuff. Generally I serve it in tacos, but we're planning on making empanadas with it.
What has the feedback on those southwest flavors been like here? I didn't realize New York was going to be so big on barbecue. Or I guess it's picking up a lot more. That's what I feel like I'm doing out here, bringing a little Texas authenticity to the scene. So many people have told me they love it, and I've been loving all the appreciation, but there hasn't been anything too drastic. No one's asked me to marry them yet.
What are some of the biggest differences you've noticed between New York and Austin? I used to do barbecue differently back home. To me barbecue is being out with all my friends, standing around a smoker for 12 hours. We'd start at 6 AM and we'd have food ready by 6 PM. Barbecue's about bringing people together and having a good time.
The smokers are also a lot bigger where I'm from. The first time I saw the machines here, I thought they were toys. It definitely makes me miss Texas; the barbecue spot I came from in Austin has a building dedicated to smoking. But I understand, our kitchen is small so we don't have the space. But my issue with the machines here is that I don't get a true smoke ring on the meat. It's what all the enthusiasts looks for. Generally, if it's cooked correctly in a nice machine, you'll have a pink ring going all the way around the brisket, which shows that the smoke has penetrated the meat. I don't necessarily get that in these machines. So I'm going to try to change that up in the future. I want a better machine that can handle logs, not just wood chips.