Until this fall, chef Molly Baz was working at an upscale Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City. But she decided to give that up to go on a road trip.
Molly wanted to learn everything she could about variations in American barbecue, so she planned a tour of the country's most renowned barbecue regions and invited her father, photographer Doug Baz, along for the ride. The pair documented their travels on their blog, Adventures in BBQ.
Molly tells NPR's Audie Cornish that her love of pork is what inspired her to take the road trip.
"I've always been, I guess you could say, ferociously obsessed with pork," she says. "I find the pig to be an incredible animal in terms of its versatility in the cooking world — and that's the world that I live in."
Doug shares his daughter's love of pork, and while he was never intensely interested in barbecue, he tells Cornish that he didn't hesitate when Molly invited him to come along.
"When your 23-year-old chef daughter asks you to go on a road trip with her, I think it took me maybe three or four seconds to answer, 'Yes, I'm there,' " he says.
Learning From The Pit Masters
What Molly and Doug had in mind wasn't your regular foodie tour. They wanted to learn the art of Southern barbecue from the tradition's venerable — and often overlooked — pit masters.
"A pit master is the man who tends the fire, generally speaking, in the back of the barbecue shack," Molly says. "He will be there from 2 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon shoveling coals into a fire and tending to whole hogs and pork shoulders."
Molly learned how to work the pits from the likes of Keith Allen, owner and pit master of Allen and Son BBQ in Chapel Hill, N.C. The walls of Allen's barbecue pit have been darkened by years and years of smoke, but those years have translated into barbecue mastery for Allen.
"I think the only light in that room was the light of the fire itself," Doug says. "[Allen] would open the exterior doors in order to control the draft, in order to pull a lot of smoke out of the room or to allow it to collect. It's a very smoky environment."
'Texas Blew Our Minds'
Molly and Doug set off on their trip on Oct. 30. Thirty-one barbecue joints later, they don't hesitate when you ask where they had their favorite meals.
"I think that we pretty much hit the jackpot in Texas," Molly says. "Truly, Texas blew our minds. I've never tasted a more delicious piece of unadulterated meat in my life."
Molly says part of what makes Texas barbecue so different is the meat. Where North and South Carolina traditions are pork-centric, Texas is all about the beef: beef brisket, beef sausage, and massive beef ribs.
"The first stop that we made in Lockhart — the barbecue capital of Texas — was at a place called Smitty's," Molly recalls. "We ordered one sausage known as a 'hot ring' and bit into the sausage, which was so juicy inside that as soon as you bit into it, it literally popped and fat and juices from the meats were actually dripping down my arm. And it was so bursting with flavor and with moisture; I've never tasted a sausage like this before."
Ready For Seconds
From Austin to Memphis to Atlanta, the pair covered a good amount of ground, but they also missed some pretty essential stops, like Memphis' Rendezvous — an Audie Cornish favorite — and Kansas City, Mo.
"That's going to have to wait, I suppose, to Part 2," Doug says.
"We do plan on picking this trip up where we left off and hitting up all the spots that we weren't able to make it to," Molly adds. "So, fear not, Kansas City is in the near future."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Our final story this hour is also about travel, but there's no tragedy, just a lot of pork. Last fall, 23-year-old Molly Baz traded in her job as a chef at a Michelin-starred French restaurant for a - three-week road trip. She set out to learn all she could about American barbecue and she brought her father along for the ride, professional photographer Doug Baz.
The two of them documented their travels on a blog called Adventures in BBQ and they both joined us to explain why they took the journey.
MOLLY BAZ: I've always been, I guess you could say, ferociously obsessed with pork. I find the pig to be an incredible animal in terms of its versatility in the cooking world and that's the world that I live in.
CORNISH: And, Doug, what made you want to basically drop everything and go on this little adventure? I mean, I don't know if you even like barbecue.
DOUG BAZ: Oh, I do. I do share her interest in pork and, although I have to say that I think, up until that point, barbecue wasn't something that I was intensely interested in, but when your 23-year-old chef daughter asks you to go on a road trip with her, I think it took me maybe three or four seconds to answer, yes, I'm there.
CORNISH: So you guys decide that not only are you going to go on a little food tour, but this isn't just any foodie tour, right? You planned on learning from the experts, from the pit masters.
Molly, tell us, what is a pit master?
BAZ: So, a pit master is the man who tends the fire, generally speaking, in the back of the barbecue shack. He will be there from 2:00 in the morning 'til 2:00 in the afternoon, shoveling coals into a fire and tending to whole hogs and pork shoulders all night.
CORNISH: And, Doug, Molly got to work some of these pits and I was wondering, since you've got the photographer's eye, if you could describe some of them, what they look like or one that struck you in particular.
BAZ: In North Carolina, we went to Allen and Son's and were invited to come at whatever hour we wanted to, so we arrived at around 6:30 in the morning and Keith Allen's pit is very dark. I think the only light in that room was the light of the fire itself. He would open the exterior doors in order to control the draft in order to pull a lot of smoke out of the room or to allow it to collect. It was a very smoky environment.
CORNISH: Now, people feel pretty strongly about barbecue and I'm wondering, by the end of the trip, what you learned about the different regions and what was your favorite, if you would deign to come down on a particular side.
BAZ: Personally - and I think I speak for myself and my father - I think that we pretty much hit the jackpot in Texas.
BAZ: Without a doubt.
BAZ: Truly, Texas blew our minds. I have never tasted a more delicious piece of unadulterated meat in my life.
CORNISH: And what are some of the regional differences, like what makes Texas barbecue Texas barbecue?
BAZ: Well, because Texas is cattle land, you see the appearance of beef in Texas as opposed to in North Carolina and South Carolina, where it's primarily pork. So, beef brisket, beef sausage, also pork sausage, massive beef ribs. That's the kind of food that you find down there.
And we went to one small town in Texas called Lockhart, which is supposedly the barbecue capital of Texas. And we ordered one sausage known as a hot ring and bit into the sausage, which was so juicy inside that, as soon as you bit into it, it literally popped and fat and juices from the meat were actually dripping down my arm. And it was so bursting with flavor and with moisture, I have never tasted a sausage like this before.
BAZ: And the texture was unusual. It was coarsely ground.
BAZ: Coarsely ground. Yeah.
CORNISH: Now, forgive the pun, but of course I have a bone to pick with you guys. My favorite barbecue place is Rondezvous in Memphis. And I see you did not go to Kansas City, which some would think would render the whole trip moot.
BAZ: Well, that's going to have to wait, I suppose, to part two.
BAZ: We do plan on picking this trip up where we left off and hitting up all the spots that we weren't able to make it to, so fear not, Kansas City is in the near future.
CORNISH: Molly and Doug, thank you so much for talking with us.
BAZ: Thank you.
BAZ: Our pleasure.
CORNISH: That's chef Molly Baz and her father, photographer Doug Baz. They spoke to us from NPR New York. They traveled more than 4,000 miles by car from New York to Texas and back to learn about regional variations in American barbecue. They documented their journey on the blog, Adventures in BBQ. You can find a link to that blog and see photos from their trip on our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.