Lifelong North Carolina resident Matt Barry grew up in Charlotte attending family barbecues, laying the foundation for the professional he has become. Today, Barry is the executive chef and pitmaster at Midwood Smokehouse.
“There was this one time that we met up with a friend of his and smoked an alligator for a New Orleans Saints and Panthers tailgate,” friend and fellow pitmaster Michael Wagner said. “All day, we smoked this alligator. At the end, people were like oh my God, these guys just pulled out an alligator. Matt was tossing pieces of alligator to the crowd, and everyone loved it.”
Wagner describes Barry as being passionate, determined and talented. He also describes Barry’s response when temperatures rise in the kitchen.
“Matt handles tough situations confidently,” Wagner said. “We’ve shared so many kitchen moments, and I’ve only seen him get frazzled a few times. But even then, he’s very in control. In the kitchen it’s hot, and we’re all tired. He’s always the one that is trying to get us all through.”
Early mornings are the norm for Barry. He might leave the house at 4:15-4:30 a.m. Throughout the day, Barry works with his staff to create new flavors from traditional concepts.
He prefers spicy over sweet and dry rub over wet sauce. But he doesn’t stop there. Wagner said they are teaming up with other barbecue restaurants to elevate the perception of the Southern staple and to make Charlotte a “barbecue city.”
Barbecue is a lifestyle, and he loves it. Barry answered five questions about his success and expertise in smoking barbecue. The answers have been edited for length and clarity.
(1) What does barbecue mean for the South?
To the South, it’s like a cultural identity. People from all over associate barbecue with the South. One thing that’s interesting is that modern barbecue is an American culinary concept. It was invented here.
Barbecue is now and has always been a communal dish. In history, you gotta look back to the 1800s and even before then if you were going to cook a whole pig. You didn’t have refrigerators, so you didn’t want leftovers. So if you were going to do something like that, it was a big deal and you would invite your neighbors and everybody would come. It was a big community event. It was meant to be shared. Now, we have a way to refrigerate meat. But back then, they didn’t have that option.
(2) How has traveling affected your pitmaster skills?
In the food industry, you are trying to learn something everywhere you go. I think what I’ve learned most through the travels was to be open-minded. I grew up in North Carolina only eating pork, and you cook pork a certain way. And then you see people doing stuff like brisket. You see them cooking on different kinds of pits, like the offset smokers that they use in Texas.
All these things have value. I think there’s technically not a wrong way to do barbecue, there’s just different ways. And it makes you better if you take the best things from different people and put them together into one. You can make yourself a better pitmaster.
(3) What three traits that make a great pitmaster?
You need to be passionate, stubborn and patient.
If you don’t have passion, you won’t be a very good pitmaster. Some people just go through the motions in a restaurant, but you can’t do that with barbecue.
I don’t care what it is, if it’s chicken, wings, if it’s pork butt, if it’s brisket — if the first time you cook it, if it doesn’t come out the way you wanted to, you gotta cook it again. And the second or third time you cook it, if it doesn’t come out right, cook it again. You can’t just move on to something else. You have to be stubborn about it.
I had this issue with beef ribs for a long time. I love beef ribs, and I kept cooking them, and I just couldn’t get it right. I kept thinking, “Come on man, you can figure this out.” I probably cooked 15 or 20 slabs of beef ribs over the course of about 6 to 8 months before I finally got it right. It finally clicked for me.
Things take a long time to cook. People may want it to be ready. But if it’s not ready, it’s just not ready. A beef brisket usually takes between 12-14 hours to cook. I’ve cooked beef brisket that’s taken 18 hours before. This is a marathon, not a sprint. You gotta be willing to put in the hours. There are no shortcuts in barbecue, that’s for sure. My advice to anyone who wants to become a pitmaster is be patient.
(4) How has Midwood stayed alive in a neighborhood that’s always changing?
Well, I like to think we’ve changed, too. We started out with pork, ribs and brisket. Now we’ve got burgers, burnt ends and fried chicken sandwiches.
I think the restaurant has evolved as the neighborhood has evolved. We started out just one little bar with a couple booths, and then we had a patio added. Then as we got busier, as the neighborhood grew, and we added another side on.
(5) What’s difficult about being a pitmaster?
One of the difficult parts is trying to project how business will be and then cook accordingly. People don’t realize that. If we run out of food at a certain point, people wonder how could we run out. In the restaurant, we are taking our best guess of how business will be, but we never really know for sure.
Sometimes we run out of ribs by 8 p.m. on a Saturday, and sometimes people are like, “How can you run out of ribs? You’re a barbecue restaurant!” Well, they take six hours to cook. So we loaded all the ribs in at noon, and they came out around 6 p.m., and then we sold them all. So that’s the logistical difficulty.
It’s a balance. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose.