Contrary to popular belief, the main aim of this trip was not to just eat loads of BBQ but to learn about what makes great BBQ. As I've said to many people over the last few weeks, there are diminishing returns when it comes to just learning-by-eating, unless that eating is paired with an insight into how the food has been produced. In this regard, my last few days in North Carolina were perhaps the most rich learning of the whole trip, thanks to a few select individuals.
The first of which was Chris Prieto owner of Prime BBQ, who offer a range of catering services as well as BBQ classes for professionals and competition BBQ'ers. Chris makes regular TV appearances on the food channels and has also just published a fantastic book (I have bought a lot of BBQ books, so trust me on this one). It was great to chew the fat with Chris over what makes great BBQ as he has an extremely good BBQ knowledge and has the perspective of competition BBQ as well as the catering side of things. He's been a high-achieving BBQ competitor since he was about 19, and has a thorough understanding of both Texas style (where he grew up) and North Carolina's two styles. What Chris doesn't know about BBQ probably isn't worth knowing. If BBQ was a famous TV quiz show, then he would most definitely be my number 1 'phone a friend' for when things got tricky.
Chris introduced me to GrillBillies BBQ supply shop owner Joe Pino, who was the second inspiration off my last week. Joe and his wife run the best BBQ shop I have ever been to, which does it a massive disservice as it may well be the only one I have ever been to. It is one off those shops (sorry, stores) where the people who work there seriously know their stuff, and they actually enjoy talking about it, take note British shop-workers. So often these days I am underwelmed with knowledge levels at specialist stores, not this time. Joe and I spent the best part of an hour discussing the perfect competition BBQ technique (fuels, meat trimming, injections, rubs, sauces, slicing, serving) and summarising the entire knowledge of smokers I had picked up over the last few weeks. I came away from the shop $100 poorer but unquantifiably richer in terms of knowledge. Only my baggage limit stopped me buying more.
Having visited some older, more traditional BBQ joins in North Carolina, I was eager to visit more smaller, newer enterprises which seemed to have taught me more over the last few weeks. Speaking to my kind hosts in Raleigh, I caught wind a a small but growing business called Southern Smoke, in Garland NC. This is a small family run venture headed up by Matt Register, a local Garland lad who is putting his very-small hometown on the BBQ map. Matt started off being 'the bbq guy' catering for his mates' parties or events, but as the requests grew in number and size, the couple decided to take the bold step and set up Southern Smoke. They now operate a restaurant 2 days a week and then do catering events the rest of the time. Matt's enthusiasm for quality and locality were contagious, and although I visited him when the restaurant was closed, I sensed that his team and his customers knew they had found a gem of a place to be. The restaurant had a cool garden area with a make-shift stage for live music, and in the best possible sense, it showed all the signs of a back-yard BBQ that had grown up. As fellow United supporters, Matt and I instantly connected and like our favoured team, I am sure the next year or two will be a glorious success for Southern Smoke; I certainly hope so.
It was then time to head north to get back up to NYC for my return flight, but I had enough time for short stops at Washington DC, Wilmington DE and Philadelphia. There was just enough time to swing into Hometown BBQ in Brooklyn for one last taste of the good stuff. It had been a porky 2 weeks, and I was eager to see if I could get a final dose of beef and Hometown did not disappoint. Hometown was the best BBQ food I had ever eaten when I visited in 2014 when on an early research trip, and to that end was a huge inspiration to me. Billy Durney, the pitmaster/owner, is a lifelong BBQ enthusiast and is NOT from one of the BBQ states; just like me then I guess.