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Pit Master Tim Byres
Pit master Tim Byres.
Photo © Marcus Nilsson

The sharp, sweet aroma of smoldering hardwood greets visitors at the door of Smoke, chef Tim Byres’s flagship restaurant in West Dallas. It filters into the dining room from the massive, smoking pit out back. It twines its way from the wood-stoked grill that’s kept fired up for three meals a day, 364 days a year.

Those campfire scents of hickory, pecan and oak press some ancient button of well-being in the hominid brain. Which may help explain why Byres seems so alive and engaged here. Lean and intense, with piercing pale blue eyes, he has gone in four short years from a high-stakes job as executive chef at Stephan Pyles, Dallas’s most lauded restaurant, to a career as a Texas pit master. His calling is, as he puts it with wry economy, the manipulation of firewood, charcoal and ash.

Last year, Byres was named Food & Wine’s The People’s Best New Chef, winning a nationwide competition. Soon after, he opened a second restaurant, Chicken Scratch, along with a bar, The Foundry, right down Fort Worth Avenue from Smoke. Chicken Scratch is a raffish compound where fried and pecan-wood-rotisseried chicken rule the menu and live bands play on a proscenium stage sculpted out of salvaged cargo pallets, like something out of Mad Max. He has just published Smoke: New Firewood Cooking, in which he demystifies things that people might think they can’t do for themselves, like building their own small smokehouse, or digging a pit to cook lamb barbacoa, or making an oyster roaster from barrel drums covered with chicken wire.

The road that led Byres in this unlikely direction took him due east, through Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta. He describes his journey as a chef’s version of the bildungsroman, a quest of personal discovery steered by a beat-up Lonely Planet guide to Delta blues and barbecue, and by a sense that he had come to “a cracking point” in his life.

He had opened and closed two serious restaurants, Standard and Standard 2706, by the time he landed at Stephan Pyles. He also had high-flying stints cooking for the American embassy in Belgium and at the storied Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek behind him. But a divorce, long working hours and a demanding travel schedule for events left him worrying that he wasn’t spending enough time with his two young sons.

“I was burned out by restaurants,” he says now, “getting caught up in the competitiveness of the fine-dining business.” For a brief spell, he considered making organic soaps he could sell at farmers’ markets with his sons. Or maybe becoming a food stylist. He even flew to Boston for a food-styling conference. While there, he got a call from Dallas restaurateur Chris Jeffers, who said he wanted to open a barbecue restaurant. Something about that resonated with Byres.

He returned to Dallas and gave notice at Stephan Pyles. The day after his final service there, on July 4, 2009, Byres and his then-girlfriend, Mo (now his wife), left town for the Delta with fireworks going off in their rear view mirror. They had no big itinerary, but in a very Southern way, one stop led to another through a web of personal connections.

In Greenwood, Mississippi, Byres was taken with the cooking of Taylor Bowen Ricketts at her Delta Bistro, and he was especially inspired by her kitchen garden out back. Ricketts pointed him toward Oxford and writer John T. Edge, who directs the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. Edge put Byres in touch with legendary North Carolina whole-hog pit master Ed Mitchell, who took him on a slaughterhouse tour and filled him full of pig lore. “He traced the differences in barbecue to the way the animals were raised and slaughtered,” Byres recalls.

In this way, as Byres collected garden ideas here and butchering ideas there, the concept for Smoke took shape in his mind as he made his way through much of the South and Texas for the next two months. Wherever he went, he talked to the locals, asked them about their favorite taste memories, ate where they ate. He thought about how cooks in impoverished rural areas acquire ingredients. “Even little diners used farm-fresh eggs and pork, not because it was a trendy sustainability thing, but because it was a circle of commerce that had always gone on,” he says. He realized that not only did he want to get back to the kitchen, he felt increasingly excited about cooking everything from scratch.

Meanwhile, Jeffers had found a promising if improbable location in the coffee shop at the foot of a rehabbed Art Moderne motor court hotel, The Belmont, in then-unfashionable West Dallas. He and Byres signed on to run the hotel’s restaurant and committed to serving three meals a day, providing room service and operating the hotel’s bar, with its enclosed terrace and sweeping views of the Dallas skyline.

“I knew we would need a garden, a barbecue pit, a wood-burning grill and an Appalachian-style smokehouse,” says Byres. He made the latter out of an old Franklin stove he found for $250, installing it in a cement-block enclosure on the back terrace. He resolved to produce as much as possible from scratch: pickles, jams, sauces, breads, sausage, ham, bacon. “That’s the culture of our kitchen,” Byres explains. “It’s about the level of understanding of what you’re doing. If you just buy a ham, you won’t know how to produce and cure a ham, which is a three-week process.”

When Smoke opened in September of 2009, Byres remembers, “Some customers came in expecting a classic barbecue joint. They didn’t get us.” Of course, the particular brilliance of what Byres has accomplished at Smoke is to change up the relatively static barbecue genre while retaining its smoky, charry, meaty soul.

For the recipes he shares here, Byres translates some of his best flavor tricks to the grill. He seasons strip steaks with Smoke’s signature coffee-chile rub to heighten the meat’s flavors. (“Use this rub, and you can even fake a meat flavor using mushrooms,” he brags.) He marinates chicken drumsticks in a bold mix of brown sugar, mustard, jalapeño and fragrant coriander, then grills them and gives them a quick smoke with wood chips.

Byres brings the garden into the equation by juxtaposing aggressive char and smoke flavors against bright bursts of flavor from vegetables and greens—pickled, in salad form or turned into a fresh sauce. Shrimp tacos get a lift from a tomatillo salsa. (Byres adores tomatillos for their tanginess.) On top: shredded cabbage, plus an invigorating little salad of celery tossed in fresh lime juice.

A timeless sense of the kitchen garden informs much of Byres’s food these days, and he is eager to show off the raised beds he and his crew have installed behind the Chicken Scratch compound. He points, grinning, to the rakish collection of vintage sofas repurposed as open-air seating, and he proudly pumps the soda levers where real-sugar fruit flavors are named for his and his partners’ kids. That rustic shucking table in the corner—he made it himself.

Byres is apt to tell anyone trying to nail down his style that it’s “bloom-where-you-are-planted cooking,” a blend of Southern and Texas forms with strong influences from Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. Stalking his cheerfully ramshackle new Chicken Scratch domain in his pearl-snap shirt, he seems to have planted himself in precisely the right place.

Alison Cook is the restaurant critic for the Houston Chronicle. She has won three James Beard awards.

Tim Byres Recommends Wines for Grilling

Tim Byres Recommends Wines for Grilling
Photo © Marcus Nilsson

Grilled Fish With a Squeeze of Lemon

Zesty, tangy white wines, like Albariño from Spain and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, are ideal with simply grilled fish. Think of them as an extra lemon squeeze.

Barbecued Chicken

Most people only think to drink white wine with poultry, but when a bold barbecue sauce and smoky grilled flavors are added to chicken, it will masterfully stand up to medium-bodied reds like Pinot Noir and Côtes du Rhône.

Classic Burger

For a basic burger, pour a fruit-forward, medium-bodied red wine, like Grenache. Cheeseburgers taste better with a more tannic wine, like Syrah, to cut through the extra richness.

Charred Steak

Match substantial, smoky grilled beef with a wine of equal intensity, like a California Cabernet or a Tuscan red.

Video: Star Chef Grilling Tips

Published June 2013
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