Fletcher's Brooklyn Barbecue's Matt Fisher: "I Hate it When People Ask for Mayonnaise for a Brisket Sandwich"
"How's it going, man?" Matt Fisher recognizes a regular while we're mid-conversation in his Gowanus dining room. Over the course of an hour, the pitmaster for Fletcher's Brooklyn Barbecue calls many of the people who walk through the door by name, a testament both to his memory and the loyal customer base the restaurant has developed. Perhaps the latter was propelled by Hurricane Sandy: Fletcher's opened the week the storm struck, and because it was one of the only eateries in the neighborhood with power and, therefore, the ability to serve hot meals to harried residents, it spent its first few days in business feeding relief workers and helping to alleviate the damage suffered by new friends however it could.
Read part two of our interview with Matt Fisher of Fletcher's Brooklyn Barbecue.
Or perhaps it's because the Brooklyn-style barbecue resonates with Brooklyn residents: Fisher is clear that he and owner Bill Fletcher aren't trying to emulate any style at their joint. "I'm from New York and he's from New England," Fisher explains. "We wanted to draw upon flavors we found in the city."
That's a philosophy Fisher formed when he was traveling around the country competing in barbecue competitions. "Having come out of the parochial world of competition barbecue, which is all about cooking to the expectation of the judges, I'm very aware of how reductive adhering to style can be," he says. "As much as I love some of the other restaurants in the city that specialize in regional styles, we're not in Lockhart, Texas. I love and adore the original shrines of barbecues--all those places have the rich history and importance and history of the food. But we're creating a new school. We're being respectful of the traditions and generations of people that created the tradition to begin with, and we're being respectful about the best products at our fingertips locally. We're working with Asian and Mediterranean flavors because that's part of the New York City culinary fabric."
Fisher's had many years to meditate on the essence of barbecue, and his work at Fletcher's is the product of a long obsession. "I was born and raised in NYC, but we had family in Virginia and Florida, and during my childhood, we would drive down to visit them," he says. "My dad was a fan of exploring the highway, and I fell head over heels in love with Southern cooking. I started exploring how to make it myself. Then when I was in school, I saw a guy doing barbecue in a sawed-off 50-gallon drum. I had a job when I graduated, and I traveled around the U.S. I ferreted out local barbecue everywhere; I snuck into the kitchens. Anywhere there's indigenous barbecue--North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, even Chicago--I tried to absorb what made their regional local barbecue unique."
He turned pro eight years ago, when he realized his catering hobby was slowly overtaking his professional duties. "I'd take a week off and go cook at the Big Apple BBQ Block Party and come back to the office reeking of smoke," he says. "I was friends with Robbie Richter, the opening pitmaster at Hill Country and Fatty 'Cue, and he got me into competition barbecue." And that was it. After a long stint at Rub BBQ in Manhattan, he landed here, turning out smoked meats and sides like Kool-Aid-pickled watermelon rind and chili mac.
In part one of our interview, he weighed in on why he uses cheap knives, a sleeper restaurant in Queens, and the person who signed his cookbook "Fuck you, you asshole." For part two of our chat, check this space on Friday.
Describe your culinary style. Amplified comfort food with smoke.
Describe how you run your kitchen. Graciously. I'm a huge believer in educating. Some of the people who are in our kitchen were not even cooks before they started working here, and I'm excited to help people like that explore their love of food.
How do you develop your recipes and menu? There are certain dishes that I do that I had wanted to work into a menu for a long time, but I didn't have a venue for it. When I started talking to Bill, the first question I asked him was, "What is your favorite commercial barbecue sauce?" The goal was to understand his palate and go from there. I try to hit a familiar but interesting note. Now, the rub and sauce are set, and the sides are pretty set, but we do a lot of specials that sometimes get worked into the menu.
Who or what inspires you? Kenny Shopsin. He autographed my cookbook, "Fuck you, you asshole." Robbie Richter. Natasha Pogrebinsky at Bear in Long Island City. She's a single woman cooking in the kitchen alone turning out incredibly artful, passionate Eastern European cuisine, which is really not a style that's being honored. Will Horowitz at Ducks Eatery. He does this personal, high-wire, off-the-wall brand of cookery that's not really commercial, and that's brave and exciting.
On page 2, see which chef Fisher calls "prodigiously talented."
What chefs or food people do you most admire? Paul Leibrandt. He's so prodigiously talented, and he went through the horrible experience of putting it out there when Gilt first opened only to go through a crushingly humbling experience and come out on the other side as a more mature and driven chef. Scott Smith from Rub BBQ, who I worked with for four years. He has a genuine love of cooking, and he's a gifted teacher.
Who do you look to for feedback on new dishes? My brother or my wife and Bill Fletcher. And Scott Smith from Rub BBQ.
What brand of knife do you use and why? Cheap. I saw so many knives break in the kitchen when they were used to do things like hammer nails. I have a Sabatier at home and an antique Chicago Cutlery my father gave me when I was 23.
What's the most underrated kitchen tool? For me, it's tongs. Beyond the obvious, I use them for grabbing burning logs out of the fire and grabbing spices on high shelves. The kitchen staff isn't very tall. They're an extension of my hand.
Favorite item in your pantry or walk-in? Probably the Cabot cheddar. I could eat the whole 10-pound box of it myself.
What's the most underrated ingredient? Fresh horseradish. We grate our own horseradish and use it in a lot of our dishes. When it's not super-spicy it's so disappointing.
Is there a food you won't eat? Sad truth: I don't eat fish. I cook it all the time, but I don't eat it.
Is there a special request you really dislike or won't accommodate? So many, though we are generally very, very accommodating. I hate it when people ask for mayonnaise for a brisket sandwich. People ask me if they can get a leaner beef shortrib sometimes. It's like, no. You should know what you're getting. It's a fatty cut of meat. Same with pork belly. Pork belly is not noted as a lean cut.
Is there an ingredient you won't work with? I can't think of one. At least not one that's legal.
What do you hate seeing on menus? Kale. It's ubiquitous.
When customers want to thank you for a superb meal, what do you wish they'd send to the kitchen? Cold drinks for my staff. Specifically ice-cold Kool-Aid. Really. That would make my staff very happy.
What's your local? Waterfront Ale House on Atlantic Avenue. I love those guys.
What's the most underrated restaurant in New York City? Bear is really a sleeper--no one pays enough attention to it. If it was on a main drag in a hot neighborhood, it'd be overrun.
Who's the most underrated culinary figure in New York City? Alan Ashkinaze, the chef at Millesime. He's an incredible chef. He's not even remotely close to being a household name, but he has the chops of anyone else around.
What's next for New York restaurants? Increased interactivity. I see this as an expansion of iPad wine lists. I think things will happen sort of more automatically. Formal dining protocol won't disappear, but it will continue to evolve.
Read part two of our interview with Matt Fisher of Fletcher's Brooklyn Barbecue.
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