Food & Wine Best New Chefs 2021: Matt Horn
In the crackling flames of the fire he had just lit in his grandmother's backyard, Matt Horn found his life's calling. "The smoke is in your face, you're hearing the wood cracking, you're seeing the embers, you're seeing the coals being formed," he explains. "It was transformative for me. I zoned out. Nothing else around me mattered." That was it—he was hooked, and there was no going back. Horn knew at that moment that he would spend the rest of his life pursuing the mastery of barbecue.
What had led Horn to light that fire in the first place was simply chasing gut instinct. The California native was working as a regional manager at various sporting goods chains in his early twenties. He was living on fast food and found himself frustrated. "One day I was just like, 'Why don't I cook myself a meal?'" Horn made himself a simple dinner of boxed pasta and jarred tomato sauce, finding a sense of calm as he watched the noodles dance in the boiling water. The experience kicked off an obsession with the culinary world. And he couldn't stop thinking about barbecue. "I asked myself, 'If I could eat something every day, be around something, what would it be?' And the thing that was deposited on me, into my heart, was barbecue," says Horn. "I think it's the primal instinct of being around fire and cooking."
Horn has a tendency to approach life decisions with an all-or-nothing mentality. "If I am going to go into anything, I need to completely submerge myself into it," says Horn. "I made a commitment in my mind, I made a commitment to myself that I was going to be a devout student of barbecue." His apartment complex in Inglewood, California, wouldn't allow him to set up a fire, so he drove three and a half hours north to his grandmother's house in Fresno, where she still had his grandfather's setup—once used for family gatherings, but dormant for over a decade—intact. Horn got to work, experimenting with various woods, cooking times, and temperatures, methodically tracking his findings. He slept outside so he could monitor the fire. He chose to teach himself instead of working for someone because he wanted to develop his own style: "I didn't want to learn anyone else's method," he says. (Even to this day, Horn has never worked at a restaurant except for his own.)
Shortly after this, Horn, along with his wife, Nina, and their infant son, moved in with his in-laws in Tracy, California. A week after his first visit to the local farmers market, he decided to start selling his barbecue there. He had just eight customers on the first day, and Horn never made more than $250 in a day, he says, but he was still over the moon. "It was an opportunity for me to put my product out there, to get feedback from people that weren't family—and people loved it."
Horn set his sights on doing pop-ups. During his first, in a bar alleyway in Tracy, on a 110-degree day, he spent the day sweating in his black tent for five hours without selling one plate of food. Out of embarrassment and not wanting to waste the meat, he gave the food away to the homeless. Horn found himself on the couch at home, questioning his entire path. Many of his friends and family thought his obsession with barbecue was a joke. Horn thought to himself, "Maybe I was wasting my time." But later that night he dreamed of a "black building, and from the front door, I saw people lined up down the block." It was a dream of what would become Horn Barbecue—complete with lines down the block.
Horn jolted awake, recommitted to his vision. He reached out to 40 different businesses in the Bay Area to see if they could host a pop-up, eventually landing a permanent space in Oakland that today is a brick-and-mortar restaurant were he now cooks out of a 1,000-gallon offset smoker—a far cry from a firepit in his grandmother's backyard. Customers wait for hours for a taste of his brisket, the meat cooked low and slow for anywhere between 16 to 18 hours and sliced to order. It's a transcendent mouthful: the bark is properly charred, the meat moist, and the fat so wobbly it gently coats your tongue.
The brisket may be the star of the menu, but there's also the house-made hot links, plump and bursting with spicy meat, and the smoked turkey breast, flavorful and tender, even without the use of a brine. It's worth saving room for the cheesy potato casserole. In an ode to his grandmother, Horn bakes little dominos of potatoes with cream of chicken soup, sour cream, butter, and cheddar cheese. For dessert, Nina makes trays of creamy banana pudding. It's the perfect foil for taste buds that have just gone several rounds with smoke, fire, and salt.
Horn's barbecue is difficult to put into the usual boxes of regionality; he sees his role as part artist and part storyteller. "When I cook barbecue, I look at it, and I'm like, 'How can I turn this raw piece of meat into something that's a work of art?' That's how I look at the barbecue that I do. But also, I want it to tell a story," explains Horn. He wants to pay homage to the Black pitmasters, both well-known and forgotten, upon whose shoulders he stands.
The brick-and-mortar location of Horn Barbecue is only a year old, but Horn is just getting started. He is about to open Kowbird, a Southern-style fried chicken restaurant. Also set to open this year: a burger concept called Matty's Old Fashioned and a trailer that will serve both tacos and smoked meat. "I don't like doing anything halfway. I'm very weird about time," says Horn. "I feel like time is life's most precious commodity, and I don't like to waste it at all."
Photos by Aubrie Pick