Adam Perry Lang doesn't get out to real barbecue country that often; usually he's busy in Manhattan smoking 1,500 pounds of pork and beef a day at Daisy May's BBQ USA, the take-out and delivery joint he opened in 2003. But last summer the 35-year-old chef snuck away for almost a week to a wide-open stretch belonging to a friend of a friend: Heath Ranch, a 2,500-acre working cattle ranch and hunting preserve at the base of the San Juan Mountains in western Colorado. Perry Lang brought his own provisionspractically his whole pantry, he saysand dug his own barbecue pit for the first time with a little help from the ranch's neighbors and their backhoe. When he finished digging, Perry Lang received his first inkling of the intense local interest in his cooking. "A little old bear come into the yard and got a shaker of seasoning," says Howard Heath, the 80-year-old owner of the ranch. "And Adam was a little spooky for a while after." Perry Lang took a look at the huge tooth marks on his container of dry-rub mix and guessed that the bear liked the smell of the sweet paprika and brown sugar but got turned off by the taste of the chili powder.
Perry Lang didn't start out cooking for cowboys. The French-trained chef, who was raised on the North Shore of Long Island, spent about a decade working in restaurants like Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris and Le Cirque and Daniel in Manhattan. Then, in the late 1990s, he took a break from such high-pressure jobs and left New York to be a private chef on a ranch outside Santa Fe. Out on the range, Perry Lang turned this time-out into a session of culinary R&D: He planted a huge garden with "over 90 different herbs and every kind of imaginable tomato" and he took advantage of this period to try "outrageous things, without the constraints of a chef who's very focused on profit margins." During his downtime, he made barbecue with the ranch hands and absorbed the essential techniques: Cook it low and slow, and leave it alone.
Perry Lang was a quick learner, and one of the cowboys told him he could open a really great restaurant. "My impulse was 'No, no, no! I don't want to do that,'" he says. But soon he changed his mind and threw himself into studying American regional cuisine the way he once had French cooking. He spent more than a year doing "massive amounts of research," traveling to restaurants around the country, accepting every possible invitation to backyard cookouts, hunting for recipes on the Internet, even working as a judge at the annual American Royal Barbecue competition in Kansas City. And the man who trained his palate at four-star restaurants started to figure out "what made some things dynamite and other things not so dynamite."