Big Aspen BBQ Block Party comes to town
ASPEN – Barbecue is big in New York City – big enough to take over a Texas-size chunk of prime Manhattan real estate for one June weekend each year, and fill it with 125,000 meat-and-sides lovers. Big enough that the Big Apple BBQ Block Party – which shuts down an eight-square-block piece of the Flatiron neighborhood and last year featured 18 pitmasters – has become a required stop on the foodie circuit. Big enough that the Big Apple BBQ concept is ready for export, with the first road trial hitting Aspen in the form of the Big Aspen BBQ Block Party, set for Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 28-29.But when Kenny Callaghan heard the first whispers about barbecue in the big city, he thought it was small potatoes. Barbecue was a food and tradition for other places: Memphis, the Carolinas, Kansas City, Texas. And the world of ribs and brisket, sauce and sides, was for pitmasters, not a chef like Callaghan.A New York native, Callaghan had trained in proper French cuisine at Rhode Island’s Johnson & Wales University, and had gone on to high-crust jobs at the Helmsley Palace Hotel and the Russian Tea Room. At the Union Square Cafe, where he eventually became the executive sous chef, the atmosphere was more casual, but it was worlds away from rib-joint casual, and the award-winning menu, a fusion of American and Italian influences, was in line with Callaghan’s upscale upbringing. But when Union Square owner Danny Meyer – a grandson of part-time Aspen residents and philanthropists Joan and the late Irving Harris, and a regular at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen – floated the idea of a barbecue spot, Callaghan had to pay attention. Meyer’s reputation as a restaurateur, and his instincts in the dining business, were unassailable, and Meyer was offering Callaghan not just another kitchen job, but also a business opportunity.”I was concerned about it. There was a hesitation. Clearly I had formed my whole career on fine dining and was doing well with it,” the 43-year-old Callaghan said one morning this week in the lounge of the Little Nell hotel, which is headquarters for the Big Aspen BBQ Block Party. “But I looked at the track record of Danny – Union Square since 1985, Gramercy Tavern, Tabla – and said, ‘OK, I can’t turn down the opportunity. This is more casual, but I can make it my own, give it my own fingerprint.'”Before making it his own, he had to find out what others in the field were doing. So Callaghan trekked to North and South Carolina, the Texas Hill Country, St. Louis and Kansas City, seeking to learn from the best. Callaghan found it wasn’t exactly a foreign world: “Cooking meat is cooking meat. The scientific aspect of how meat breaks down, how you make the best of it, came naturally to me,” he said. Still, for a finishing course, he did a month-long apprenticeship at the elbow of Mike Mills, spending time with the legendary pitmaster at his restaurants in Murphysboro, Ill., and Las Vegas. “I called my New York purveyor and had him ship out everything that roamed the Earth. I got my hands in there, getting dirty, figuring out how to do it,” said Callaghan, who will serve Kansas City pork spareribs this weekend.(Mills, a three-time Grand Champion at Memphis in May – “the Super Bowl of barbecue competitions,” according to Callaghan – is among the chefs scheduled to appear in Aspen, and will serve baby back ribs. Also on the menu: Ed Mitchell from North Carolina (serving whole hog); Mike Rodriguez from Texas (beef brisket and sausage); Drew Robinson from Alabama (smoked pork shoulder tacos); and two prominent locals, Ryan Hardy of Montagna (Italian BBQ porchetta sandwich) and Jim Butchart of Sam’s Smokehouse (smoked beef brisket sandwich).)••••Almost instantly upon opening, in 2001, Blue Smoke caught fire with New York diners. “It was like people were crying out, ‘Thank God for opening this restaurant,'” said Callaghan, who, despite his background, looks the part of a pitmaster.Just as surprising was the reception from the upper reaches of the foodie food chain. Callaghan found himself invited to many of the top-shelf industry events, and earning praise from top chefs. Numerous barbecue spots opened in the wake of Blue Smoke; Manhattan began to resemble Kansas City as the noted upstate chain Dinosaur BBQ opened in Harlem, and Hill Country opened a few blocks from Blue Smoke. Barbecue continues to be big news in the dining world: When Miami restaurateur Michael Schwartz, of the acclaimed Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, made an offhanded comment about barbecue recently, food bloggers went wild with will-he-or-won’t-he updates.”It wasn’t like people were looking down upon me,” Callaghan said. “I think Danny caught barbecue just as it was about to crest. Food & Wine, Gourmet, Bon Appetit when they existed – they all have summer issues devoted to barbecue.”Callaghan believes his innovation has been to nudge old-fashioned barbecue a touch in the direction of fine cooking. Blue Smoke serves fresh, regionally grown vegetables; their barbecued chicken is organic; along with beef brisket and pulled pork, they offer a salad of heirloom tomatoes and Vidalia onion, and seared sea scallops in a charred leek vinaigrette.”Usually it’s ribs, cole slaw, potatoes, and some kind of bad dessert – or seven kinds of bad desserts – and they call it barbecue,” he said. “But we spin our own ice cream, bake eight different kinds of bread, make everything from scratch.” Blue Smoke also shares quarters with a jazz club, Jazz Standard.****Soon after opening Blue Smoke, Callaghan and Meyer realized they could take their education of New Yorkers’ palates a step further. In the country’s barbecue hot spots, there is a pronounced, prideful sense of regionalism: beef brisket in Texas; sweet, tomato-based sauce in Kansas City. These distinctions were mostly lost on New Yorkers.”If you’re a hardcore Republican, you don’t vote Democrat. And if you’re from North Carolina, you don’t understand Memphis barbecue,” said Callaghan, whose Blue Smoke menu features one dish from each region, but who has a preference for Carolina’s vinegar-based sauces. “People only know the barbecue that comes from where they came from.”The solution was the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, in Madison Square Park, two blocks from Blue Smoke. In its first year, 2003, Callaghan was greeted by a heavy rainstorm, and he made plans for what to do with the truckloads of leftover meat. But some 5,000 people showed up each day, figuring getting soaked was a small price to pay for a chance to sample smoked pork and beef served up by Callaghan and five fellow pitmasters.”I thought I’d be holding thousands of pounds of meat,” he said. “But New Yorkers will just pull up their hoods and grab a plate. At that point, I said, ‘Whoa, we are onto something.'”That something spreads into Aspen, thanks to the relationship between Danny Meyer and Little Nell general manager John Speers, who helped open Tabla, Meyer’s Indian-food restaurant in New York.The Big Aspen Barbecue Block Party also features live blues. Set to perform on Saturday are locals Big Daddy Lee & the King Bees; Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers; and the Otis Taylor Band. Playing Sunday are Tempa and the Tantrums; Bettye LaVette; and Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials. Admission to the event, including the music on Gondola Plaza, is free. Plates of barbecue are $8 email@example.com
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