A chorus of excitement swells among Andrew Fierova’s friends when they see him remove the eight half-racks of St. Louis style ribs from the smoker in his backyard on a recent Sunday evening.
He used three rubs and four sauces to create different flavor combinations – so many, in fact, he drew a chart to keep them all straight.
“We’re gonna need a lot of napkins,” one person chuckles. “It’s about to get real quiet around here,” quips another.
Most of those gathered in Fierova’s kitchen know him through music – they’ve either studied with him as undergrads at University of South Carolina, play by his side in the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, or sing in the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte.
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At 25, the French horn player is both one of the youngest members of the orchestra and its resident barbecue virtuoso. He’s spent over half of his life playing and studying French horn and even longer learning the art of barbecue from his family in Texas.
He’d be the barbecue king wherever he went, said Ben Geller, Fierova’s friend who plays viola in the orchestra. “He’s super pleasant, but also serious about what he does.… He really doesn’t (go halfway on) anything he takes interest in,” Geller said.
A world of differences
It’s not uncommon that members of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra are devoted to hobbies unrelated to music; they’ve got artisan furniture makers, outdoors enthusiasts, mixologists and foodies. Especially foodies.
Maybe it’s a sensory thing, Geller mused. Musicians must listen intently – could that heightened awareness of their aural sense carry over to taste?
Possibly, but Fierova compartmentalizes them separately: “One I do as a hobby, the other one I do as a profession.... Playing the horn you never, ever, ever get a chance to relax. You work for every single note.” While smoking meat, he said, is more relaxing. “It takes a long time. I like things that take a long time.”
Culturally, Southern barbecue and classical music couldn’t be more different. One, Fierova learned from his parents, aunts and uncles with smoke and mariachi music in the air. The other, he learned from distinguished musicians, playing by himself in windowless practice rooms with a chair, his horn and a music stand.
Fierova’s home is where it all comes together – spicy smells blend with round brass notes. It’s where his horn case and music books rest on the living room floor, it’s where plastic containers of homemade rubs line the kitchen counter, and it’s where his barbecue smoker stands in the backyard.
A family affair
As a kid, Fierova remembers traveling from Spartanburg to his dad’s hometown of Woodsboro, Texas, for family reunions. From 7 or 8 p.m. until midnight, cousins and aunts and uncles – his dad was one of eight children – would gather in front of a small house and tend to the enormous smoker hooked to a pickup truck.
“In my mind, that’s how it began,” Fierova said. “A massive family in a teeny house.”
Barbecue is a long process – starting at 5 a.m. will have you eating around 3 p.m., since it takes about one hour per pound of beef brisket, the favored meat in Texas. And patience is what helped the Fierovas win their first barbecue competition in 2005.
After Fierova’s grandfather passed away, the family decided to enter a barbecue competition to raise money for a high school scholarship in his honor, since he had really been the original barbecue expert. Henry Fierova, Andrew’s uncle, panicked when he found out they couldn’t start cooking until after the meat was inspected at 6 a.m., since the judge’s tasting was midday: “I said, ‘My goodness, we don’t have time to cook!’”
As soon as inspection was over, the Fierovas sprang into action while the other contestants “were looking at us like we had three heads,” said Henry. The family took first prize for their brisket and second prize for their chicken and ribs.
“That’s what started it all; that’s when we got kind of addicted to it,” Henry said. They didn’t always win first place, but they won a lot, he added.
Andrew first helped out a couple of years later at the Blue Ridge Barbecue & Music Festival in Tryon, but the Fierovas were ranked near the bottom. They discovered barbecue is a whole different animal in the Carolinas, where pork is king. Another difference: Sauce is often an afterthought in Texas. In the Carolinas, the difference in sauces is religion, although in competition, judges focus more on smoke and technique than sauce.
Ultimately, Andrew’s aunts and uncles decided to stick to Texas competitions. Lugging their huge smokers up to the Carolinas was impractical, especially since they weren’t winning. But Andrew was intrigued. In college, he used his dad’s large smoker for a couple of fundraisers with his fraternity. Last October, he bought an 18-inch backyard smoker, a Camp Chef Smoke Vault.
Hunger for perfection
Fierova spent four years studying musical performance at the University of South Carolina, then two more years getting a master’s degree from Juilliard. He spent countless hours preparing excerpts of orchestral music for an audition with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. Those auditions are highly competitive, often drawing as many as 100 musicians to compete for one opening.
“Everything’s gotta be perfect, or as close to perfect” as possible, he said. When Fierova won his job in Charlotte, one member of the committee told him that his final round was perfect. “I know that to not be the truth,” he said, “because there were two things – two notes that I wanted back. But, you know, to at least one listener it was perfect. And that’s what you’re striving for.”
Technique is fundamental to both barbecue and music. Hitting every note right and smoking the meat until it’s tender can get you 95 percent of the way there, but whether or not something is “perfect” is up to personal preference. It’s the cook, the taster, the musician, the listener who decides.
He cooks meat at least twice a week in his backyard smoker, he said. “Every time I make something it’s just an experiment. Every single time I try a different rub, sauce, wood, temperature, et cetera ... I would like to eventually start doing some local barbecue competitions once I get a little more experience,” he said.
Good feedback is what drives him, but not necessarily in the form of awards. For Fierova, barbecue has always been about family, camaraderie. He cooks barbecue for friends from the orchestra about once a month while the orchestra’s in season. “It’s somewhat depressing when you’re eating it by yourself,” he said. “I like doing it the most when people are here. There’s a direct correlation between how many people are eating it as to how happy I am about it.”
▪ Camp Chef Smoke Vault. In the tray designated for wood chips, Fierova builds a charcoal fire and places wood chunks on top for a stronger smoky flavor. He also fills the water tray with apple juice to add sweetness to the meat.
▪ Jack Miller’s Bar-B-Que Sauce. This barbecue sauce with a Cajun accent isn’t available in stores in North Carolina but can be bought in individual bottles at www.cajungrocer.com or by the case at www.jackmillers.com.
▪ “Competition BBQ Secrets,” by Bill Anderson.
▪ “ Smokin’ with Myron Mixon,” by Myron Mixon.
Charlotte barbecue joints:
▪ Queen City Q, 704-334-8437, www.queencityq.com.
▪ Midwood Smokehouse, 704-295-4227, www.midwoodsmokehouse.com.
From Andrew Fierova of Charlotte.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 clove garlic, minced (about 1 teaspoon)
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup brown sugar (packed)
2 teaspoons white sugar
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon adobo powder
1 teaspoon granulated onion
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon McCormick Italian Seasoning
Heat oil in skillet over medium-low heat. Add garlic, chili powder and cayenne pepper. Cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Empty into bowl and mix in the remaining ingredients. One hour before smoking, lightly salt ribs and apply the rub.