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Pitmaster Bryan Furman: ‘Black culture is not recognized for its role in the barbecue’

Bryan Furman has received recognition and accolades since joining the barbecue scene in Savannah, Georgia in 2014 with his B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue. He followed that up with another B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue location in Atlanta. Furman has since been busy with projects such as a stint as chef-in-residence at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York and serving barbecue at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. Later this year, he plans to open a new restaurant, Bryan Furman BBQ, in Atlanta.

In this edition of Voices in Food, Furman discusses how the barbecue world needs to do more to recognize unsung contributors to craftsmanship, and how aspiring pitmasters should have passion and knowledge of history.

My dad, who was an electrical engineer, was the one who taught me how to cook ribs, so I’m grateful to him. My grandparents raised pigs and my dad always barbecued. I spent years learning to start fires and cook ribs and chicken with my dad. I always said I wanted to open a barbecue restaurant. I did welding and other jobs and moved to different cities. I had put money into my 401(k), and in 2014 I quit my job and started raising pigs and doing restaurant business. I opened my first restaurant in December 2014.

I think going forward, the conversation around barbecue needs to be about recognition, about the contribution of people who don’t get their due. I don’t think any one culture invented the barbecue or can say they own it, and many cultures have contributed to it. But I will say that black culture is not recognized for its role in barbecue.

“I don’t want to get caught up in the hype of who to honor. I think it’s very important to honor those who are unrecognized.

In too many barbecue places, there has been an old black man in the scullery with a white man who owns the place. I’ve been in situations walking around my restaurants where people ask me if the food is good, without even thinking that I own it. They think maybe I’m the dishwasher. I can be at an event cooking ribs and people will walk past my house because I’m not someone they recognize. Then someone will say, “You have to try Bryan’s ribs. Then people will take the time to learn a little something about me. There are too many times when someone makes you do all the hard work while they sit on their ass – you do the work and they get the recognition. It’s been going on for a long time and it’s being more and more verbalized, but there’s still a lot to do.

I’m excited about programs like Kingsford’s Preserve the Pit, which talks about acknowledging black barbecue culture. I will be one of the mentors for the six scholarships offered by the program. But when you see that there were around 3,000 applicants, you realize that it’s going to take a lot of work to make a big leap in providing that kind of experience and learning needed.

I think what’s happened with barbecue, especially after Aaron Franklin won the James Beard award (2015 Southwest’s Best Chef), is all of a sudden everyone has wanted to jump on the barbecue trend – it was cool to tend to the fire. But many of these people didn’t really understand the work and the meaning behind it. If you look at how many barbecue restaurants open each year, the number is high, but then you have to look at how long they stay open. This work has always been a passion for me. I see too many people come in and tell me they want to do an internship (unpaid internship) with me, and then they think they’re ready to open their own place. When it’s time for them to do the hard work, they fall by the wayside. I’ve hired and fired so many chefs.

“I’ve been in situations walking through my restaurants where people ask me if the food is good, without even thinking that I own it. They think maybe I’m the dishwasher.

Beyond acknowledging our culture and the work involved in barbecuing, I think there is still not adequate acknowledgment of the roots of certain dishes. No state can say that a sauce or dish must be prepared a certain way, but there should be some credence as to where it came from. When I put hash and rice on my menu, you really only found it in South Carolina – but you hardly ever hear anyone talk about it. Now you see hash and rice being served in other states. If you’re going to put this dish on your menu, give us our due.

I didn’t cook beef brisket originally. When I put it on my menu, I named the dish after the woman who taught me how to cook it―it was Miss Brenda’s brisket. I don’t give credit to the state of Texas for my ribs. It was an honor to cook there, but my father taught me. If you pay attention to the Texas style of barbecue, it was traditionally a lot of beef. Now you see chefs cooking whole pork without paying homage to the states it comes from. I don’t see Georgia or Tennessee getting recognition for barbecue that comes out of those states.

When you go to culinary arts schools, they teach you the techniques, but not the flavors that go into something like barbecuing. There really is no school that teaches this – you have to learn by working in a barbecue restaurant. You really have to stay in control of the quality. You can’t expect your money to make sure something gets done right.

I don’t want to get caught up in the hype of who to honor. I think it’s very important to honor the unrecognized. I look at these people I knew from South Carolina like Robert Patillo from Patillo’s Bar-BQ and Ruth and Francis Campbell from Francis Campbell’s Pit Stop – they are the ones who should be recognized.

For the future, I want to start training female pit masters to cook on the barbecue. The estate is very masculine. For me, I think I’m still learning. I never think I’ll be able to master the barbecue — I’ll just work to get better every year.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.



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