File photo by Jeremy M. Lange
Last month at Chapel Hill's TerraVita Food & Drink Festival,
hundreds of people signed up to take scheduled classes with leading chefs and food advocates from across the South.
Joe Kwon was not among them. The charismatic cellist for The Avett Brothers instead took advantage of a break in touring to attend barbecue school at the elbow of his friend, legendary pitmaster Sam Jones
of Skylight Inn in Ayden
and the new Sam Jones Barbecue, which opens Tuesday in Winterville. Jones smoked a huge hog for TerraVita's Hill Fire dinner at Carrboro's Town Commons, which paired him with Raleigh's Ashley Christensen for a showstopper combination of pork and collard greens over heirloom popcorn spoon bread.
Kwon spent the day soaking up wood smoke and drinking beer with a cluster of friends, all gathered around Jones' smoker. He took notes in his tablet and, along with a handful of folks fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, stood in wide-eyed wonder to watch his friend chop and season massive quantities of moist, flavorful pork.
He will apply the lessons he learned next weekend when he cooks a pig for Wild Yonder's Friendship Feast & Campout. (For details on and tickets for the Nov. 21–22 event in Mebane, click here.
) Kwon called from Wisconsin, between shows on the Avetts' tour, to talk about his lifelong love of barbecue and his deep respect for Jones' well-earned acclaim.
INDY: When you built your home in downtown Raleigh, it was important to you to have dedicated space for outdoor entertaining and your smoker, made by Alabama pitmaster Nick Pihakis.
: I've always admired people who had these. I've had this long relationship with North Carolina barbecue from an early age, because of where I grew up in Winston-Salem. I loved going out to eat barbecue because it was so different from the Korean barbecue we ate at home. And today, I love cooking barbecue for friends at my home.
How did you connect with Sam Jones?
In my mind, Sam Jones is the gold standard of barbecue. When I met him, I realized he's married to the sister of someone in my circle from my days with Big Pretty and the Red Rockets [Kwon's band before joining The Avett Brothers]. It was this very chance meeting, but I also know him through Ashley Christensen.
He's the friggin' godfather of barbecue, and we've become good friends. I told him, "I would love to sit with you one day and learn to do this." So that's what we did at TerraVita. We talked and drank beer and I took a lot of notes in my iPad. I've cooked pig before—well, piece— but never a whole hog. It's a very different experience.
Have you had a chance to practice before cooking for the Wild Yonder event?
I did. Five days later, Raleigh Architecture (which designed his house
) hosted an event and asked me to cook a pig. It was a good opportunity for me to try out what I learned. I messed up some, but it was amazing. Now all I want to do is cook pig. It's so calming. There's a great camaraderie sitting around the fire.
How did you mess up?
It was a big pig, at least 160 pounds, maybe more like 180. It barely fit on my cooker. I had a flame up in the last 15 minutes and lost all the skin. It was tragic. I was cursing up a storm. The skin is the best part. It's the crunch in all that juicy meat. That's why I need redemption at Wild Yonder.
What was the biggest surprise about the process?
The thing I've learned is the hardest part is getting the sauce mixture just right. I thought you premixed the sauce, but Sam pours it on after he's done most of the chopping. I was blown away. I thought, "That's the part. That's the secret."
While it was tough to guess ratios, Sam Jones made no secret of his sauce ingredients: apple cider vinegar, Texas Pete's, iodized table salt and pre-ground black pepper—standard items of the Southern pantry.
That's the beauty of how amazing his barbecue is. It's so simple but it's so multi-dimensional. The texture is so amazingly soft and juicy, but at that same time, you've got these crunchy bits of skin and the fat. It's really what sets it apart.
You'll also be preparing Korean-style grilled short ribs to share the flavors of your family's table. What do you think about the wide array of commercial Korean-style barbecue sauces?
Oh, no, never. It's so easy to make yourself that there's just no excuse to not try it. [See recipe below.] My mother made this all the time when we were growing up. It's something you can pull together on a weeknight in 30 minutes, but it's really much better if you give the meat more time to marinate. Give it a quick grill and dinner's ready.
Beef short ribs used to be really cheap. Now, everyone wants to eat short ribs so the price has gone up. It's important to get them cut across the bone so you get three or four pieces per rib. Very few places will sell that. I always go to S-Mart in Cary
. They cut them nice and thin, which is how I like them.
Other than flavor profile, what's the biggest difference between Korean and North Carolina barbecue?
Korean barbecue is really fast. I still love it and make it all the time. But for me, that long process of cooking North Carolina barbecue is a more satisfying experience. It's about sitting there, putting the time in. That's a big part of the soul of it.
Your mother will mark her 70th birthday on Saturday. What's for dinner?
Skylight Inn is catering barbecue for us, and we're getting some sides from Beasley's (Chicken + Honey). I'd love to cook it myself, but I'll get back into town at 2, and the party's at 5. I'll be lucky to get home, take a shower and change clothes, and get there in time to help set up.
Joe Kwon's Galbi: Korean-style BBQ Short Ribs
5 lbs. beef short ribs, cut across the bone into thin pieces
10 tbs. sugar
3/4 cup soy sauce
1/2 onion, grated
2 stalks green onion, diced
8 cloves of garlic, minced
3 tbs. toasted sesame oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Peel garlic and onion; mince the garlic and grate the onion. Transfer half of the garlic and onion to a small mixing bowl or cup, then add soy sauce, 5 tablespoons sugar, sesame oil, green onion. Mix well and set aside.
Arrange spare ribs in a large, deep dish and evenly distribute the remaining sugar, plus salt and pepper, on all the ribs. Then sprinkle on remaining onion and garlic; let the beef sit 15 minutes. Pour the marinade over the beef, coating each piece. Cover and place in refrigerator at least 30 minutes or several hours before grilling.
Remove ribs from marinade, shaking off excess liquid. Grill to a nice medium, about 4-5 minutes per side, and serve with short grain rice and kimchi.