Shared from the 5/3/2015 Living Intown Magazine eEdition

culinary comeback

Where there’s smoke...

...there are rich traditions, time-honored techniques and a savory taste that’s sparking an Atlanta resurgence

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Atlanta chef Todd Richards and his dad, Willis Richards Jr., remember their first barbecue “rig.”

A 16-gallon oil drum had been outfitted with wheels, a handle and a little chimney. One day during the ’70s, the senior Richards drove past a garage in their hometown of Chicago and noticed the smoker for sale. He thought it was just the thing for their summertime barbecues.

Whenever somebody’s birthday would come around, he’d get up at 4 a.m., fire up the smoker and cook enough food for the whole neighborhood — sometimes up to 100 people. Ribs, chicken, sausage: “If it was meat, it went on the grill,” says Richards, now 78. One time, a neighbor locked herself in their TV room and refused to come out until she had polished off an entire slab of his smoked ribs.

Today, as executive chef at The Pig and the Pearl, his son, Todd Richards, cooks on a radically different rig: two high-tech, stainless-steel, commercial-grade smokers outside his urban smokehouse and raw bar at Atlantic Station. He’s expanded his smoked-foods repertoire to include salmon, trout, duck, lamb, wings, pork belly, beef belly, brisket, sweet potatoes and onions. He even smokes the butter for his cookies. But he attributes his passion, his techniques, even the bottles of sauces on his restaurant tables, to his father.

Though he never attended culinary school, Richards — who has worked as a butcher at Kroger and a chef at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead — says he got a master class in the art of smoking in his parents’ backyard. “I was in school all that time learning how to cook next to Dad,” he says.

Now Richards is at the forefront of a food-and-drink trend that is embracing

— and elevating — all things smoked.

Stoked by tradition, technology and reality TV, backyard cooks and contemporary chefs alike have upped their game — on varying scales of time, space and economy. These smoking aficionados are more likely to be purists than foodie snobs. They’re lured by time-honored techniques, the communal nature of fireside cookery, the joy of feeding a crowd, and the haunting complexities of flavor, aroma and appearance that only smoke can impart.

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Above, Todd Richards (left), chef of The Pig and the Pearl, gets tips from his father and mentor, Willis Richards Jr.

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Below, Todd Richards perfects the smoked meats on the menu of The Pig and the Pearl at Atlantic Station.

Smoke and mirrors

So what’s the difference between smoking and barbecuing?

It’s hours vs. minutes. It’s the sweet smell of oak, hickory and pecan wood vs. the bitter taste of charcoal and the noxious fumes of lighter fluid. It’s what separates the masses of Fourth of July burger flippers from the passionate few who become caterers, food-truck operators, restaurateurs and high-stakes competitors. By all accounts, once they get that heady scent in their nostrils, it’s what they live and breathe.

Until the advent of refrigeration, smoke was used to preserve everything from sausage and ham to oysters and salmon. By the time I was born, in 1960, my South Georgia grandparents’ smokehouse was a dilapidated farm relic, and charcoal was king. The craft of slow-smoking meat at low temperature had been replaced by high-temperature grilling and roasting.

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Top, The Pig and the Pearl smokes chicken, wings, spare ribs, brisket, trout, and more

So-called barbecue was often little more than chopped meat doused with sauce and maybe a few drops of

— blasphemy! — artificial smoke. You had to drive deep into the country to find pit masters who smoked hogs the old-fashioned way, low and slow. Like most folks, we stuck to steaks, burgers and hot dogs.

But the times, and the techniques, have changed.

For every high-end kitchen with state-of-the-art smokers, there’s a little guy out there just killing it with a hand-held smoking gun. For food-and-drink professionals cramped by space and budget, these smokers — which look a little like an assassin’s Glock 19

— are the new rig of choice.

“We like to use smoke as an ingredient in and of itself,” says Zachary Meloy, the chef at Better Half in Home Park. “We don’t have a big smoker where we can impart flavor over hours and hours and hours.”

But that doesn’t mean Meloy has to stifle his creativity.

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Above, the restaurant even uses smoke in chocolate chip cookies (left) as well as onions (right).

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The chef has been known to appear at the table with a mysterious smoke-filled dish, tightly wrapped in plastic, and announce what he’s about to serve. Then, like a magician, he pulls the plastic off, “and there’s this kind of poof of smoke, almost an abracadabra moment,” Meloy says. “People get this whiff of cherry-wood smoke, and then there in front of them is one little bite of this smoked chile-and-cherry gel on a little black cocoa cookie.”

He also uses his smoking gun to puff apple-wood smoke into apple, bourbon, ginger and sorghum cocktails, and make a Lynchburg Lemonade riff using rum and hickory smoke.

I learned just how deeply immersed Meloy was in the art of smoking when he emailed me a photo of his smoking gun attached by a rubber hose to a covered plastic bin. He was making smoked banana ice cream.

Better than backyard

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Darren Hughes raises the lid of his 16-foot Vegan Slayer BBQ rig, which includes a 5-foot-wide rotisserie smoker, a 5-foot-wide reverse-flow smoker and a deep fryer.

Some guys collect classic cars. Others, like competitive pit master Jonathan Calhoun, collect smokers. “I like to get them on Craigslist and rescue them,” he jokes of the gravi- » ty-feed Viking smoker that sits to one side of his Sandy Springs deck, which he jokingly describes as the “world headquarters” of his team, Roast Beast BBQ. A tax attorney by day, Calhoun is a serious student of smoked meats seemingly every other waking moment, and he has the toys to prove it. Besides the Viking, he has amassed four bullet-shaped Weber Smokey Mountains, a traditional offset stick burner and a Kamado-style ceramic egg. And those are just the smokers — he also owns five grills.

The LaGrange native grew up loving good barbecue, but at his previous home, a condo, grills weren’t allowed. When he and wife, Tiffany Calhoun, moved into their current residence in 2010, he discovered the TLC reality show “BBQ Pitmasters,” featuring Georgia’s Myron Mixon (aka the winningest man in barbecue). “That got the hook into me,” Calhoun says.

But it wasn’t enough just to smoke food at home. Calhoun wanted to prove he could take the heat. Today the Calhouns participate in Kansas City Barbecue Society cook-offs, both as contestants and judges — and not as amateurs. When he first considered KCBS’s two categories, backyard and professional, Calhoun remembers thinking: “I don’t really want to do backyard. I want to see how my food stacks up against the people who pull up in $20,000 trailers and $10,000 smokers.”

The Calhouns’ first competition, in 2013, was “humbling,” Calhoun says. But in the two years they’ve been competing, they have upped their game considerably. They entered six cook-offs in 2014, finishing twice in the overall top 10.

It’s not an inexpensive hobby. Entry fees range from $250 to $300. “If we are doing a contest, we are doing a 17-pound brisket, two pork butts, six racks of ribs and 20 pieces of chicken,” he explains. By the time you figure in the cost of meat and the gasoline it takes to haul a rig, you’re looking at $800 to $1,000 per contest.

Calhoun says he has zero interest in catering, running a restaurant or marketing a line of rubs or sauces. But he would like to be a consistently solid competior. Judging from the superb texture and flavor of his ribs and brisket he pulled off the smoker the day I visited, he could be a contender.

Holy smoke

Talk to any smoked-foods aficionado and they’ll tell you that it’s a social endeavor. Because the meat cooks slowly, you have time to burn, to chew the fat with friends and family. “The joy in cooking is the love of cooking,” says Willis Richards Jr. “If you don’t love it, you are going to do it in a hurry. You are going to mess it up.... If you cook something in a hurry, it’s not going to taste right. That goes for all your meats and everything.”

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Above, guests at Clairmont Hills Baptist Church fill their plates.

For Darren Hughes, a loquacious Southern Baptist minister who caters church and community events under the name of Vegan Slayer BBQ, barbecue is a natural conversation starter and people magnet. And his rig — a 16-foot outfit with a 5-foot-wide rotisserie smoker, a 5-foot-wide reverse-flow smoker and a deep fryer — is a re- » al head turner. He dreams to one day set up shop at a food-truck park.

On a Sunday afternoon in March, Hughes and three of his buddies are smoking ribs, chicken, pork and beef sausage in the parking lot of Clairmont Hills Baptist Church. They are members of a newly formed Baptist congregation called 1027 Church, which has been sharing space with Clairmont Hills Baptist. This is the meet-and-greet for the two churches and will feed about 90 people before the night is over.

“Our goal is to meet people in the community,” Hughes says. “Food is just a great equalizer. It doesn’t matter where you are. It doesn’t matter what demographic you are in.”

While the meat smokes, the Vegan Slayer crew reflects on their craft.

“Smoking is social,” says Alan Richardson, one of Hughes’ cooking buddies. “Grilling is cooking. I mean seriously. If you are going to throw some meat on, you are going to have time to maybe have a beer, throw something back, sit around. We spend a whole lot of time sitting in chairs with our feet up, running our mouths. There is a really big fun social aspect to smoking that’s not there with barbecue or grilling.”

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Below, Hughes’ Vegan Slayer provided a bounty of smoked meats.

By about 6:30, the group has gathered in the upstairs social hall, but before they can take a bite of the lip-smacking spread of smoked meats, macaroni and cheese, baked beans and fried pickles, Hughes offers a blessing.

A big man with a full beard, he recently had a kidney transplant, and this is his first big post-op barbecue. His wife, Sarah, and their three children are there. Hughes looks happy and fulfilled.

“Lord, what I love about food,” he prays, “is that you didn’t make it mundane. You made it fun! ... Oh, Lord, I just thank you for the little things, like barbecue.” ›

Chicken rotates in the pit of Darren Hughes’ smoker, “The Vegan Slayer,” in the parking lot of Clairmont Hills Baptist Church. insider TIP » This year’s Atlanta Bar-B-Q Festival will be held Aug. 14-15 at Atlantic Station. atlbbqfest.com insider TIP » Vegan Slayer BBQ posts on Twitter as @veganslayerbbq and can be found on Facebook as Vegan Slayer BBQ.

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