This Austin Newcomer Infuses Classic Texas BBQ with African-American Culinary History
Pitmaster Damien Brockway pulls from the past to propel Austin BBQ forward.
It could be easily argued that barbecue is the very backbone of Texan cuisine. From the straight-forward dry rubs of Central Texas to the Mexican-influenced style down south and the simple, undisputed fact that brisket reigns supreme in the Lone Star State, we’re talking about a region whose history and culture is so intertwined with cattle, that its unofficial emblem is a longhorn.
For Austin’s Damien Brockway, the connection between the state’s culinary roots and his own identity have taken on an entirely new meaning, one that serves as the concept fueling his smash-hit food truck, Distant Relatives. As chef, pitmaster, and owner, Brockway pays homage to the region’s barbecue traditions while simultaneously showcasing modern African American flavors culled from the far-flung African diaspora. In his own words, “we’re picking out particular contributions from different areas and putting them together into what we think is something very cohesive, presentable, and delicious.”
Brockway, who opened Distant Relatives in early 2021, has spent a lifetime developing a slew of thought-provoking and hunger-inducing ideas. Trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, his career has landed him in the kitchens of some of the finest dining establishments in the country including Boston’s now-shuttered Clio, the venerable One Market in San Francisco, and Austin’s Uchi. But when it came time to venture out on his own, Brockway swapped classical French technique for a more intimate and inspired deep dive into the history of his ancestors, both recent and hundreds of years in the past.
After following his family line back to the modern day countries that make up West Africa—namely Cameroon, Mali, and Nigeria—Brockway immersed himself in the spices and flavors of that region and connected the dots to the traditions passed down by generations of enslaved people who arrived by force on American shores. “Essentially what we’re doing is teasing out those profiles then tracing them back over the ocean to where they came from,” he explains. “All the while, we’re looking at ‘How do our living relatives, our distant relatives over there, use those spices?’”
At Distant Relatives, all these threads come together seamlessly in mouthful after tasty, soulful mouthful. Brockway’s beef brisket is smoked slow-and-low in true Texas fashion while a slather of coriander-scented mop sauce and a dollop of tangy chow-chow provide a unique and compelling complexity. This vinegar-laced take, according to Brockway, “is ubiquitous for the style of cooking and adds balanced acidity to heavily seasoned, heavily smoked fat.”
The sides also add something new to the conversation. Selections such as the chile-spiked, black-eyed pea-laden Nebbe salad, green mango slaw, and spicy smoked peanuts highlight ingredients found in West African and African American cooking, all prepared with a contemporary cheffy touch.
“It’s blending these very, very old techniques and flavors, and then layering the flavor using modern techniques,” Brockway notes. “We’re not following any one particular tradition—we’re taking specific layers of all the traditions.”
This approach results in food that feels nostalgically familiar yet completely new. “You may be like ‘Oh, I’ve seen this,’ or ‘I know what it is and I’ve had it before,’ but then when you eat it you’re like, ‘No, this is something else—this is something very different,’” adds the pitmaster.
Fast forward a few hundred years and another important familial element comes to the fore: The family gatherings Brockway treasured throughout his childhood in northwest Connecticut. “That’s another one of the big pillars,” he says. “Everything's made to be eaten all together, almost like you’re at a cookout. Growing up, it was like each relative would make the best of one particular thing so you’re getting a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It’s all handmade, it took a lot of time, and it was something really special.”
When testing out dishes for Distant Relatives, Brockway often invited friends over to his backyard for a cookout paired with some vital feedback. And with a consistent cloud of smoke billowing over his roof “for 18 hours a day for three months,” he admits his neighbors were good sports—although they also got an invite to join in on the meal. And the communal aspect translates to the space itself, as well. Large picnic tables with shady umbrellas surrounding the truck invite you to bring family, friends, and everyone in between to share in the feast (if nothing else, it’s an excuse to order one of everything without any guilt).
Mouth-watering brisket aside, Brockway’s intention has always been centered around encouraging others to celebrate the cuisines of their roots. Citing how influential Chef Hoover Alexander (of Austin institution Hoover's Cooking) was in the project’s development, Brockway hopes to motivate other chefs to take a similar interest in their flavor histories: “That’s exciting to me—folks with entrepreneurial spirits cooking traditional foods that they identify with, I think that’s great.”
Distant Relatives is a way for Brockway to honor his family lineage while also giving a lasting legacy to those whose history has so often been forgotten, ignored, and destroyed. As he puts it, “We’re creative, we’re proud, we’re inspired, we’re here—and we’re doing new things.”
Distant Relatives is open for counter service at 3508 E 7th Street in Austin Wednesday through Friday from 11 am to 7 pm and weekends from 11 am to 8 pm.