John Lewis walked slowly. He dropped a bench on his foot earlier in the week, and he had a medical boot Velcroed tightly around his ankle and halfway up his calf. But that’s not what slowed him down. The Texas native is just not in a rush. He can’t be. He makes barbecue for a living.
In 2009, he helped Aaron Franklin open Austin’s Franklin Barbecue, which rocketed the young chef to smoking fame. But outside of hardcore ‘cue circles, Lewis himself hasn’t quite achieved the same national recognition as Franklin even though he’s one of the country's best pitmasters. A few years ago, Lewis signed on as pitmaster at Austin’s La Barbecue. He smoked his brisket there for 15 hours before leaving earlier this year. Since June, he does the same at Lewis Barbecue, 1,250 miles east on North Nassau St in Charleston, South Carolina.
Lewis has barbecue in his blood. His great, great, great grandfather operated a butcher shop in New Mexico in the early 1900s. He smoked meat there, and he traded it with the Mescalero Apache tribe that lived on a nearby reservation. One hundred years later, Lewis brought the family tradition to Charleston. He first cooked there with Rodney Scott, unanimously -- and rightly -- considered the champion of South Carolina’s whole-hog barbecue in a sleepy town called Hemingway (population 450). Scott did pork. Lewis did beef. “After that, I decided I wanted to live here,” Lewis tells me, surrounded by four 16ft smokers under a tin roof favoring one leg.
This was March, and Lewis Barbecue was just a plywood frame and cement walls raised from a dirt lot with poured concrete. Lewis walked me to his smokehouse, past dumpsters and stacks of wood. He turned a key into the underside of a Master Lock and let the weight of the door swing it open. I followed him in the smokehouse, light coming only from the soft yellow glow of a few exposed bulbs.
“Brisket is a bitch to cook,” Lewis says. “It’s the toughest part on the cow. There’s not much fat but there’s a lot of connective tissue to break down. It’s twice as big on one side than the other and it’s tricky to get it to cook evenly.” Lewis unraveled this discovery over time, a construct he perceives differently than the rest of us. He tells me about brisket and the challenges of cooking it as his feet move slowly over dirt and one hand glides, also slowly, along the length of a long, midnight black, zeppelin-shaped steel smoker made from a repurposed 1,000-gallon propane tank. Lewis built it himself.
Lewis’ pit design was born from his desire for the perfect brisket. Pitmasters nationwide share in this pursuit of perfection, but most use store-bought commercial smokers in their quest. Few have smokers custom built, and fewer still build them themselves. What Lewis wanted to make, and now makes, is beef that’s been cooked to well done and miles beyond, until its salty fat slowly renders and gets trapped within the meat’s fibers beneath a thick bark. That bark starts as French’s yellow mustard thinned out with pickle juice and dosed with heavy handfuls of cracked black pepper, and it forms after smoking for the better part of a day.
“I’m interested in the end product,” Lewis says. “That’s why I started building pits.” Lewis started building pits in 2006, not in El Paso (where he was born), or Austin (where he moved when he was 18), but in Denver, where he lived and worked as a pastry chef for three years. “There’s no barbecue in Denver,” Lewis said. So he made a vertical smoker in his backyard out of two metal garbage cans using a drill, nuts and bolts, and tin snips. He hung some ribs, fired up the silver smoker, and started his ten-year quest for the perfect barbecue.
Vertical smokers are great for ribs and sausages. The long, narrow foods fit the smoker’s upright orientation, and it sufficed for the short time Lewis spent away from home. When he moved back to Texas, where brisket is king, he started building bigger, square-shaped boxes that could accommodate the unwieldy cut of meat. “I was constantly looking for containers,” he said. “Anything made of steel that was fireproof.” This led him down a black hole, where he was continually making smoke boxes and modifying them -- spending all his time and money on this singular quest. “I knew what I wanted to make and I knew there was nothing out there that would produce that.” The last attempt was with an old, giant restaurant oven. After months of tweaks and tests, it didn’t give him the brisket he wanted. He broke. He needed an idea.
“You see propane tanks everywhere in Texas,” Lewis says. “Because gas lines don’t run out to the country or in trailer parks. After the tanks are decommissioned in these areas, they’re left outside to rust.” Lewis bought a 250-gallon propane tank on Craigslist the day after that old restaurant oven failed him. “That was it,” he said, remembering the first brisket he made in it.
Lewis was hooked, but knew he could do better. He hunkered down studying convection cooking, and both thermal and fluid dynamics. He needed to figure out ways to cook with indirect heat, creating consistent, even temperatures through convection -- as opposed to direct, radiant heat, which creates fluctuating heat and uneven cooking. This is common in the barbecue game. But most off-set smokers are vertical -- like the garbage cans, but bigger -- and they have rotating conveyors inside. You have to move around brisket to make sure it doesn’t singe in hot spots. Lewis figured out the exact thickness and material to insulate the walls to keep the heat in too. And because the long, round tanks and smooth edges on Lewis’ smokers are the perfect shape to keep heat and smoke circling consistently through, there’s no need to get up and move product around. Smoke stacks are rolled to a specific diameter. When I asked Lewis what that diameter was, he demurred. These specs are top secret.
When the pits are fired up, a grey plume swirls from the smokestack like a tornado. “The heat is seeking out a cooler spot,” Lewis says. “Because it wants to equalize itself.” When he had the design he wanted, he lit up the smoker for the first time the same day he put the smokestack on. “We weren’t cooking anything,” he says, “I just wanted to see what it could do.” Lewis had it on the driveway on the side of his house in Austin. He put a chair down 10ft away from it, opened a beer, and lit a cigarette. “There was a door open on the smoker,” Lewis tells me, “and the convection sucked my cigarette smoke into the smoker.”
I tasted Lewis’ brisket for the first time in a parking lot later that night. It was dark and the concrete was lit by the cold, silver glow cast from a streetlight near the same bench Lewis had dropped on his foot days before. The brisket was heavy in my hand -- sliced thick; thicker than any I’ve seen. A green Hatch chile sauce was served on the side in a small ramekin. It’s mustard-based, intentionally, in the South Carolina barbecue fashion. I tasted the two together and felt my eyes get wide. I asked about the salsa recipe. But that too is top secret.
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