Today I am going to share an interview I had with Brian Treitman, a CIA trained chef who has started a Southern Style BBQ place, called B.T’s Smokehouse. He has set this mobile BBQ joint up in the most improbable place, in the parking lot of a seasonal campground at the side of a road here in sleepy south central Massachusetts.
When I noticed the sign for his mobile smoker and food stand that said “Southern Style BBQ” my first cynical reaction was, “Sure there are rednecks in Massachusetts but does this one know about southern BBQ and what exactly is “southern-style”” and my next thought was, “Ok, now I need some Southern Style BBQ, no matter which state this person might have in mind!” Remember, I have lived in the south a long time and have been exposed to quasi-grilling in the mid-west, the dry rub beef-a-rama that is Texas, the hot heaven that is New Orleans, and the curious hodgepodge that is Georgia.
I am SO guilty of assuming anything and I am so fantastically thankful I stopped in to check it out.
Turns out, this modest shack at the roadside was conceived and is run by a CIA trained chef who just moved back home from his time working in some great kitchens in Napa Valley and Boston, MA.
Brian Treitman is immediately likable because he lacks all pretense. You walk up wondering what its all about, this crazy idea of a BBQ shack in rural New England and as soon as you meet Brian its absolutely all about the food. Its a great experience.
In a sneaky, subversive way that I completely approve of, the smoker sits on the back of this custom made smoker-mobile shack thing, pumping out divine BBQ pheromones.
If you stop and get out of your car, you are drawn in like June bugs to a porch light, buying BBQ is a forgone conclusion.
Its primeval, its instinctual, its almost painful if you can’t eat the BBQ right there.
Let me tell you, spending time there doing a photo shoot and chatting without stuffing my mouth full of juicy smoky pork butt, chicken, and beef brisket hurt me bad.
Needless to say, we had a feast of it when I brought my haul home after the shoot. We ate so much, well, I could smell it’s woodsy, smoky siren lurking about the kitchen for days afterward. We had some extra sauce so we did smell it days afterward as we used it to cook some other things we had at home.
What follows is our interview, conducted both in person and by email. I can not thank Brian enough for his patience in taking time away from his busy day and his expecting wife, who is just too nice to not get to know better some time soon!
I hope you get a sense for how neat these two people are and the hard work it has taken to make this place a reality. If you can make it out to south central MA or if you are coming up here for the Brimfield Antique Show (where he sets up BBQ chiefdom too), DO come on over and visit his smoker-mobile.
You will NOT be disappointed.
In this interview you will learn:
- How Brian came to be a BBQ dude in a smoker-mobile in the middle of New England
- His background
- That he worked for Ming Tsai
- What its like to work for Ming Tsai
- A vignette of how 9/11 skewed the world of Ming Tsai, Blue Ginger, and the Food Network
- What kinds of BBQ Brian does
- His vision for the smoky future
Could you tell me about some of the great restaurants that you have cooked at?
My first cooking job was at Bertucci’s in North Andover, MA. This is where I got my first taste of cooking with wood. I was a pizza and pasta cook there in high school. Next I went to Olympia, WA, to go to college at The Evergreen State College where I got a degree in Evolutionary Science. I also ran the restaurant there that serviced the housing community. I went to Evergreen to get an education. I knew I wanted to cook, but I wanted an education first. From Evergreen I moved to Florida where I was a sous-chef at a high-end country club. It was my first taste of fine dining. My responsibilities there ranged from breakfast cook to banquets to running the evening dining room kitchen. There were weeks where I would get there at 5:30 in the morning to set up breakfast cook breakfast and lunch, then run upstairs to prep dinner banquets, then go back downstairs to put out dinner service for 100 people, taking a small break in between to put out a banquet for 250 people back upstairs. After a year of doing this, working under three different executive chefs, I decided to go to culinary school so that I didn’t get stuck in country club fare.
I applied to the CIA in Hyde Park and started there in October of 2000. I loved it there. I went to class from 5 am till 4 pm, and then worked at the on-campus bar during the night my first year and Hobbnobin Pub across the street my second year, running their kitchen. For my externship I went to Wellsley, MA, and worked at Blue Ginger with Ming Tsai. The Executive sous chef at the time was Tom Berry. It was a great experience. I spent most of my day doing prep, and then spent an the last couple hours of my day on the line helping where I could.
After culinary school I went to work in Napa Valley for Jan Birnbaum at his restaurant Catahoula. Jan was a favorite chef of mine that I had met at his other restaurant, Sazerac, in Seattle. Jan had spent his formative years working with Paul Prudhomme in New Orleans. Jan quickly took me under his wing and become a strong mentor for me. His food, high end comfort food, was right up my alley. There we took southern classic cuisine and put a fine dining spin on it. His food was all about love. From signature dishes of Pork porterhouse with pickled cabbage red eye gravy and soft sexy grits to the ever popular crispy catfish with Mardi Gras slaw and a spicy lemon butter sauce, the flavors never stopped. I was the sous chef at Catahoula working under chef de cuisine Chris Aken.
When Catahoula closed in 2003, Chris and I were asked to become part of a new restaurant in the same space called Stomp, like crushing grapes. The owner Robert Simon had another restaurant in Pasadena, CA, called Bistro 45. Chris and I got the opportunity to run the restaurant, both front and back of the house. We had full menu control and Chris got to show off his food. We did things like lamb chops with a black pepper waffle cone filled with fresh spring vegetables and a port fig sauce or scallops with an apricot crepe lasagna and apricot reduction.
Before I left we were starting to do some very cool food based on the types of things that are doing at El Bulli in Spain and Clio in Boston, MA. We had a 25 course tasting menu that began with a golden egg, a quail egg wrapped in a caramelized inverted sugar shell, and ending with blue cheese cotton candy accompanied by honey comb crisps.
After getting married in October 2006, with Chris as my best man, I moved to Brimfield, MA, and got a job in Boston at Spire Restaurant as interim [[Chef]]. My job there was to hold down the fort for six months until the restaurant could be re-concepted with Ken Oringer from Clio as the Chef. It is now called “KO Prime“. While there, I got to help run it, with the help of two other sous chefs; a very popular upscale fine dining restaurant. By the end of Spire, I had helped reshape the kitchen staff and policies and also updated most of the menu. I was asked to stay on with Chef Ken and Chef de Cuisine Jamie Bissonette, from Eastern Standard, but declined to open my smokehouse and be closer to my wife Marni and soon-to-be daughter Lilli.
What was it like working for Ming Tsai?
At first working for Ming was a little intimidating. He would walk in, give a little nod, and rush off to the next thing he had to do. It didn’t last long though. Pretty soon after I started, so did football season. We would all meet up at a field in Wellsley,MA, and play two hand touch and then Chef would take us out for wings and beer. When I started, I was deemed the “Kitchen Bitch”. The sous chefs would change the menus and come up with these lists for me that felt like I would never get through them in a week, let alone every day. I plugged away at them everyday, never really seeing sunlight until they were done. I remember I cut my hand one day on the slicer and needed to see the doctor. The exec sous chef took over my list that day and found a whole new respect for me. He only got through about a quarter of it. When I left, they actually brought in two externs to cover what I had done solo.
It was good working for Ming. I got to work with him one-on-one a handful of times, either putting out a benefit dinner (just the two of us from the prep kitchen), to working on a test recipe he would hand me for his bottled products.
I was working for him during 9/11 when he had gotten stuck in Fiji, where he had been filming one of his food network shows. I remember listening to him on the speaker phone and the concern in his voice for us as he told us how and what he wanted to do with the restaurant on the days following the attack.
That was the week he quit the food network.
It took Ming two weeks to be able to get home from Fiji, finally flying into Canada and renting a car to drive back to Boston. The week he got back, he was supposed to go to New York to film East meets West for two weeks. He told them he needed to be with his family and restaurant and that these were more important. In the end, he had to leave the Food Network to be able to stay with his family.
I have a lot of respect for his values and the way he does business. If he couldn’t be at the restaurant every night he would call or his wife would stop by. His staff has been with him almost since the beginning. There is very little turnover there, with the exception of the line cooks who move on to learn more somewhere else.
How is it that you decided to move from the fine dining restaurant world to the sole proprietorship of your BBQ business? (how did you get the idea? Were you always into BBQ?)
I have been cooking fine dining in different restaurants for different chefs for the past 12 years. I enjoy this kind of food on occasion, when I go out to eat. Most of the time, I want something that isn’t going to satisfy just my eyes and mouth, I want something that will satisfy my soul.
I want there to be love in the food.
I try to cook my BBQ the way you think BBQ should taste. When you think about a pork rib, in your mind it is tender, succulent, ready to fall off the bone with a little smoke and glazed with a flavorful, spiced, sweet sauce. You want to lick your fingers – no need for a napkin. You want to dip the bone into the drippings that are left and then suck it dry. That’s the way I try to cook. I have always been the guy at gatherings that slowly walks over to the person manning the grill and works his way into taking over. No matter where I have cooked, I have always been the guy at the backyard party manning the grill. But BBQ isn’t the same as grilling.
BBQ takes time.
It is a process. Smoke is involved and wood is involved. BBQ, unlike grilling, happens by way of indirect heat at temperatures of 140F to 225F.
I got started doing real BBQ a couple of years ago when I was living in Napa Valley. I bought a little Charbroil Smoker at Home Depot and started to experiment for my roommates and friends. When I first moved back to Brimfield, my parents and their friends put the idea in my head to do something at the Brimfield Antique Show. Over then next couple months, I started to formulate ideas of how I would bring it all together. I started searching the internet for concession trailers and smokers. I found some stuff that I liked and then started to look into how I would ever afford to buy a trailer and smoker that cost upwards of $35,000.
In discussing this with family and friends, I started to get offers of what can I do to help. I also know this guy who welds. Pretty soon, I was ordering trailer parts and pieces of steel. My first order arrived as a set of axles and tires in February and I slowly watched as it started to come together. Every morning, as I drove off to Boston to go to work, I would look at the progress that was being made.
As things started to change at the restaurant and when I found out my wife was pregnant, my priorities also started to change. I felt I had a decent resume and didn’t want to go back to being just another sous chef. It was time for me to run the show. With the trailer almost ready and the transition at the restaurant happening at just the right time, it was easy for me to walk away and start out on my own. Not really on my own, I have a lot of support from my wife parents and family friends who really made it all possible.
Building the trailer was really an amazing thing. Looking back on it, it had all the parts of a really good movie… It all started with my dad, who is a general contractor and who was supposed to help me do most of the actual building and finish work, but he fell on a job and shattered his shoulder. A metal plate and seven pins kinda put the nix on any major building help from him although he was great moral support. After that happened it was kinda like watching a movie where a town comes together to make something happen. The last couple days were really tough. It was four days before the first Brimfield Antique Show
I had been out of work for two weeks with no income and the trailer was just a shell no inside walls, no plumbing, no floor, and minimal wiring done.
All of a sudden extra people just started showing up to lend a hand. The main person that had really been a huge help who I most everything to, Mitch Fraizier, lost his brother to cancer the morning of the day we were going to finish the trailer. That was when I really felt everyone pitch in. I couldn’t be there to help finish building because I had to cook, but about ten people, including Mitch, spent most of their day pitching in. It was rough, but after the first night of cooking, we had a little party at the trailer with ribs and bourbon to celebrate getting it done.
How and where did you learn about “southern style” BBQ? (did you go on a que-vision-quest? Find a que-guru? Grow up with a que-dad/mom?)
Mostly I learned about BBQ by reading books, tasting food as we moved around the country, and watching competitions on TV. I have always had a decent palate and used to do all the marinades and sauces for grilling and BBQ growing up. I have plans, when time permits, to travel and explore the South, searching out the finest BBQ joints around.
Could you describe the different types of BBQ you offer? (sorts of brine, rub, aging, period of soaking, period of marination, period of smoking – don’t give any secrets away, just generalities)
I mostly do a dry style of BBQ. I start by rubbing the meat with a dry rub that I had custom blended. Then, the meat gets placed in the smoker and sits there without being moved for up to 14 hrs. The chickens go for 3 hrs, ribs for six, pork butt – for pulled pork – is 8-10 hrs, and the beef brisket is 12-14 hrs. The pork ribs are the only thing I do moist. When they come out of the smoker they go into a flavorful liquid I make and simmer until you come buy to eat them. The other meats don’t see anything wet, besides their own juices and love, until I sauce them when you order them.
It started a little slow the first two weeks. I was a little nervous that maybe I might have to go get a real job before long, but it has steadily gotten better over the last 5 weeks. Each week is better than the last and things look good. I have a lot of repeat business and people are starting to talk about me, sending their friends to come see me from neighboring towns.
Do you have many competitors in this area?
Not really. I think the closest BBQ place to me is 20-30 miles away. The cool thing about BBQ is that lovers of it will drive to get it. There was a little tragedy in the BBQ world recently when Holy Smokes in West Hatfield burned down. It was a BBQ joint that had been built in an old church.
What made you choose this area specifically?
I moved here to be closer to my family. My parents moved to Brimfield, MA, about 8 years ago and I haven’t lived near them since high school. California also got very expensive. Since being here and getting all the help and encouragement I have from those around me, I know I made a great choice.
Do you have plans to remain in this location long? (as in winter, etc)
Eventually I would like to find a more permanent location. Somewhere where I don’t have to worry about when my water supply will freeze in the hose that brings it into my trailer. But for now, I have a good relationship with Lester, the owner of Village Green Campground, and I plan on taking a little time off this winter to enjoy my new baby, who is due to arrive Thanksgiving Day. I am hoping to still do some catering this winter to keep myself busy and If I can keep my water supply from freezing, you’ll find me around.
Do you do any unusual BBQ items? (BBQ salt, BBQ fish, BBQ gator, BBQ quail, BBQ opossum, what ever it might be? If not, would you do them on request?
We did a moose this past winter. It was gooood. I’ll cook just about anything. I cured and smoked a salmon this past week and may start running it as a special every now and then. For the most part, I am still getting my feet wet at this and want to make sure I am doing it right before I start to venture, but if someone asks I am game. We do have some ducks roaming around the campground.
Do you cater?
I do. I have some requests to roast some pigs and a couple of parties of chicken and ribs coming up. I am working on building another more portable smoker that would make catering a little easier. But I am available for any even you may have. With the fine dining background I can also do fine dining plated events. As I say in my brochure, “Pretty much anything your heart desires. Just ask and I will do all I can to make it right.”
Do you ship items? If so, which ones?
For right now, just my spice rub. I am going to work on getting my sauce in a bottle when I slow down going into the winter. There are a lot of regulations about shipping prepared foods that make it hard for me to do much else at the moment. We’ll see what happens down the road if and when I get a permanent home. I am also having hats, shirts, and sweatshirts made up with my logo that I will be selling and would be happy to ship.