Yesterday we talked with Blue Smoke executive chef Kenny Callaghan about his favorite barbecue spots; the difference between barbecue in Kansas City, Memphis, and Texas; and how not to overcook your ribs. Today, Kenny talks about his chicken wings, the new Blue Smoke location in Battery Park City, and the insane success of the Big Apple BBQ Block Party.
What should a good backyard grillmaster look for in his or her meat while at the butcher?
The best meat for barbecue has a good amount of marbleization and fat content. You don’t want to smoke something like venison loin; it’s just way too lean of a meat. If you’re at the butcher shop and you’re looking at two racks of St. Louis ribs, you want to grab the one that has more marbleization and fat because you’re cooking at a low temperature for such a long period time that you need that fat to kind of baste the meat as it’s cooking.
Blue Smoke is also known for its chicken wings. What’s the secret to making really tasty wings?
A lot of people do straight-up Buffalo wings and I didn’t want to do that, so I started smoking them. First I brine them in an apple-cider brine, which gives them a nice sweetness and saltiness. From there, I let them sit in a dry rub for several hours. Then I put them in a smoker for about 2½ hours. After that, I fry them up and serve them with my chipotle-honey barbecue sauce and blue cheese dressing, which is made with real Maytag blue cheese. It’s a really good homemade dressing.
Everything we do here is homemade; I never open any cans. Most barbecue joints around the country are opening up No. 10 cans of beans and just adding sugar or bacon or whatever. Here, we’re soaking all of our beans. We’re baking eight different kinds of bread every day. So we do things a little differently here than other places.
Are you planning to open any new barbecue restaurants?
In December, we are going to open another Blue Smoke in Battery Park City.
I think it’s an area that’s underserved. The new Freedom Towers are going up right across the street, there are a whole lot of new residential buildings in the area, and there’s not really a ton of restaurants down there. We found a good spot in the Goldman Sachs building. It’s similar in size to the current Blue Smoke, maybe a little smaller. There isn’t going to be a Jazz Standard in the new restaurant, so it’s only going to be one level, maybe 22 bar seats and 140 seats in the dining room and outdoor patio. It’s going to be a decently sized space. We still haven’t determined the menu; we’re definitely going to have our main barbecue highlights, but we’re also going to try to mix it up a little bit.
How did you end up starting the Big Apple BBQ Block Party?
When Danny Meyer and I opened Blue Smoke back in 2002, it became apparent that people who moved to New York from North Carolina didn’t understand Texas barbecue, people who moved here from Memphis didn’t understand Kansas City barbecue, and so on. So we came up with the idea to bring different regional styles together and educate New Yorkers about them. Before Blue Smoke, that concept confused people, because nobody had really brought all of those different styles of barbecue together in one restaurant.
It’s great because we bring in the best of the best pitmasters from all over. I have no problem saying that every year the best barbecue in the country is being cooked on Madison Avenue at the Big Apple BBQ Block Party. It gives New Yorkers the chance to try four or five different styles of barbecue and see if it’s for them. It’s been a huge success.
During the first event it rained for 11 hours and we still had 5,000 people a day. I remember thinking as it started to rain after the very first hour it was open in front of Blue Smoke, “Oh no, we’re going to take a bath here.” The New Yorkers just put up their hoods and took out their umbrellas and just waited there in line in the rain and that’s when I knew we had something special. Now we’ve moved over to Madison Square Park and the last few events we’ve had 125,000 people come each year. Crain’s recognized us as the sixth biggest food event in the country. In the beginning, I had to convince people to come and cook at the Big Apple BBQ Block Party. Now the phone is ringing off the hook with people trying to get in.
Do you spend a lot of time talking with other pitmasters?
The barbecue community is pretty tight. I go to Memphis in May every year; I try to take at least one or two trips to other different great barbecue cities every year. It’s important to stay in touch with what is happening out there.