Food Matters: Smoke Signals
April 13, 2017
“Grilling is the best way to cook at home,” Nolan says. Unlike smoking, which requires a long, slow burn at 200-degrees or so, “It’s quick.”
The most important part, though, is restraint.
“Leave it alone!” Nolan advises. “The more you move it, you pinch the muscle and all the juices come one. Just brine it, rub it, set it, and don’t move it. I only flip it once.”
Then, after removing meat from the grill, walk away for 20-30 minutes. “Resting is ultra-important,” Nolan says. “All the flavors are in there!”
IT'S A FIERY TIME to be a smoked-meat fiend in Aspen. Just ask Viceroy Snowmass chef Will Nolan, who clinched the "Denver Prince of Porc" title at Cochon555 Heritage BBQ in March.
"We do a lot of barbecue here — I got my smoker out front of Ricard," Nolan told me shortly after the win. "During springtime we fire up the smoker and smoke some stuff up when it's warm outside, everything from brisket to ribs to Andouille (sausage)…po' boys on the patio every now and again. We make smoked duck pastrami, smoked red snapper brandade at the Viceroy. I can't get away from it. I love it so much."
The Denver battle — a pig-centric free-for-all celebrating whole-hog utilization and the family farmers who raise them — was just one stop on the ninth-annual Cochon555, a 20-city US tour that culminates with Grand Cochon, this year held in Chicago on October 1. (Not to worry: Heritage Fire will return to Snowmass during the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen as usual, on June 17.)
"It's all about using fire," says Nolan, who prepared six pork-packed plates from a 200-pound pig raised by Mountain Primal Meat Co., in Carbondale. "Everything from char siu to cochon de lait (suckling pig) to Louisiana smoking style to straight smoking to open-grill cooking," he said.
Nolan wowed the crowd with a black sesame bao-bun bánh mì stuffed with pork liver pâté, that char siu pork, and pork-fat aioli and his "Louisiana Sausage Party," featuring beer-infused boudin blanc charred over an open fire and smoked Andouille dipped in hush puppy batter, fried, and served over celery root remoulade. Cornflake-crusted smoked pork cheek plus a sweet potato waffle with Tilamook pimento cheese and homemade bacon lardons fashioned Nolan's riff on chicken and waffles. A sweet finish: "Pork du Crème" (chocolate blood pudding) and bacon-fat "Oreaux," stuffed with candied bacon and pork-fat caramel. "We used everything except for the oink," he quipped.
Just as cooking animals over fire is a practice as old as human history, barbecue comes naturally to Nolan. He learned the craft as a New Orleans teenager, toiling away at Tipton County Tennessee Pit Barbecue. "Junior and senior year in high school, I was the young pitmaster in the back with the black gloves on," he says. "I loaded all the wood, rubbed the meat, smoked the meat, and waited until it was done."
Primal cookery remains his favorite method, Nolan says, and grilling is "the best way to cook at home" (see "Grill Talk," opposite page).
Aspen chef Chris Lanter concurs. He traded fine French cuisine at Cache Cache for fire-roasted meats when he reunited with former college roommate (and erstwhile Cache Cache sous chef) Aaron "Fiery Ron" Siegel to bring Home Team BBQ, an outpost of three Charleston, S.C., restaurants, to the base of Buttermilk Mountain. Business has been booming since the spot opened in December — so intensely at first that it took a while for the crew to catch up to Aspen appetites for St. Louis-style ribs.
"We have ribs coming out of smokers every three hours or so — 50 racks a day," Home Team founder Taylor Garrigan told me then. "People buy four or five racks at a time — more than at any other location." (Pulled pork, apparently, is the go-to order in South Carolina.)
The slow-and-low process begins with brining and a rest overnight. "We start rubbing ribs at 5:30 a.m.," Garrigan said. "It's a dry rub, (to) create that nice sandpapery crust on top. Then they're smoked four to six hours. When you run out you need 10 hours before you can get the next ones ready. It takes about 20-30 minutes to clean one brisket, brine two hours, cook 16-20 hours. We plan, but inevitably when we're super busy we run out of stuff."
As anyone who's suffered through an order of emaciated pork ribs — imported, frozen, from Denmark — at the Hickory House might understand: Aspen has been starved for authentic Southern barbecue using fresh ingredients for quite some time. Which is also why Slow Groovin' Snowmass, sister to the Marble, Colo., destination of the same name, has been consistently busy since it opened in December.
Live-fire cookery is key for Flip Wise, executive chef of the new Free Range Kitchen & Wine Bar in Basalt. There he mans one of few wood-burning grills in the area.
"You smell it when you walk into the dining room," Wise says. "It's very soulful."
Every week, Wise receives a pallet of apple and peach wood from Paonia and, sometimes, local oak. Much of his menu showcases the grill — meats, produce, even a charred Indian roti flatbread with ras el hanout-spiced green lentils and apple chutney. He also uses an outdoor smoker, "as a tool to enhance flavor," he says. "We did a beet juice-smoked Maldon sea salt to put on the farm egg that comes on the Range Salad. It's not just a cool gimmick — the olfactory aftertaste (is) sweet, rooty, mineraly. It's so good." And purple!
In fact, it was Wise's barbecue mastery that led Free Range owners Steve and Robin Humble to track him down. "I was doing a smoker and grill on my trailer, for Open Fire Catering," he says of the project he launched in earnest after leaving Meat & Cheese in Aspen, where he was head butcher. "I must have done 10 events at the (Roaring Fork Beer Company) brewery this past summer," he says. Carbondale, it seemed, could not get enough.
A sure sign that barbecue is taking over Aspen, however, can be found at the unlikeliest of venues: L'Hostaria. Recently I attended an intimate dinner with Italian winemaker Enzo Boglietti, here visiting longtime friend and L'Hostaria owner Tiziano Gortan. First course: a platter of salmon, filleted, smoked, and sliced into long, inch-wide chunks. Turns out this was the work of sommelier Carlos Valenzuela, who drove down to Austin, Texas, last November to acquire a massive smoker grill from a Hill Country artisan welder.
"It's a new hobby I dove into," Valenzuela told us during the meal, which also consisted of Valenzuela's smoked lamb, shredded and cooked with red wine by chef Ruben Bonomi to top fresh parsley-rosemary linguine, followed by fat slices of smoked beef brisket served with griddled squares of savory polenta and grilled vegetables.
"That kind of cooking has always interested me," Valenzuela says. "It's like Mexican food, which takes hours and hours to prepare."
As the California-born son of Mexican immigrants, Valenzuela grew up around the campfire, literally. "My dad, a butcher, always had a pit," he says. "Every other weekend we had a barbecue in our backyard. (Now) every time we visit family back in Sinaloa they kill a pig or goat to cook barbacoa: You wrap it in banana or maguey leaves and bury it underground."
Just fire, time, and patience is all it takes, says Valenzuela, bitten by the barbecue bug last year after chef Nolan lent him a "gnarly rig" smoker so that he could cook a massive black bear that L'Hostaria manager Fabrizio Brovelli hunted near East Maroon creek.
"Then I was on a mission," Valenzuela says. "It sparked something in my brain. Just like wine, I [had] to dive into it." He studied Austin pitmaster Aaron Franklin's barbecue bible, then teamed up with John Maas of Mountain Primal to prepare a whole hog for L'Hostaria's employee party last spring using Palisade peach and maple wood. More experiments, also using oak, are forthcoming.
Having cemented L'Hostaria as a locals' haunt for two decades now, it's safe to say that Gortan won't shift the menu's focus from Italian to barbecue any time soon. Still, Valenzuela — who hopes to post up at the Basalt Sunday Market this summer — continues to share creations as the mood strikes. Coming right up: smoked salmon and pork spare ribs during a JAS Aspen fundraiser at L'Hostaria on Saturday, April 29.