Height of Pit Cuisine
What do you get when you put a French-trained chef from New York City in charge of the barbecue pit on a Wild West ranch? Some of the best baby back ribs and pulled pork the locals have ever tasted.
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 provisions—practically his whole pantry, he says—and 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."
"Listen, there's a foundation to every cuisine, okay?" he says, in his playfully combative conversational style. "But I take certain basics and expand upon them to my taste." To create his pit at Heath Ranch, Perry Lang studied different possibilities online before finally settling on the simplest: an open hole large enough to walk around in, akin to an enormous grill. "The floor was coals and wood, except for a path," Perry Lang explains. "I did a grill in the middle and on one end a tepee of iron stakes to hang my cast-iron pots on." (The recipes that accompany this story have been adapted for a regular grill or smoker.)
Perry Lang's baby back ribs have an amazing depth of flavor: After hours of soaking in a garlicky marinade, the ribs are sprinkled with a dry rub, then barbecued slowly until the meat is flavorful and tender. For his ultrajuicy barbecued chicken, he sets a whole bird on an open beer can so that it sits up on the grate; the vertical position keeps the bird tender, he says, because the juices flow down over the breast so it doesn't dry out. Perry Lang claims that his pork shoulder, glazed periodically on the grill with a sweet and tangy mop spray, is virtually impossible to overcook, because the meat bastes itself. He pulls it apart into luscious strands and layers it on buns with crunchy, cayenne-spiked cole slaw. His tangy baked-bean casserole, Perry Lang says, is "a hybrid: haute meets down-home." He carefully lines the sides of a cast-iron Dutch oven with strips of bacon, then pours in the beans and folds the bacon on top. As the beans cook, the bacon flavors them and becomes a crunchy shell.
Perry Lang is working hard to spread the barbecue word in New York City. He now sends out nine lunch carts that serve pulled-pork sandwiches and chili filled with hand-cut beef (beans are optional). His mentor, Daniel Boulud of Manhattan's Daniel, is a convert and even hired Perry Lang to cater his staff Christmas party. "Adam has given a certain refinement to barbecue: the balance with the sweet and the sours and the smokiness—I mean, it's very good," Boulud says. "He and I even thought of barbecuing foie gras!"
The praise at the ranch was similarly effusive. After spending a day in and out of the pit, Perry Lang rewarded Heath and his patient family and friends with the results. "It was amazing how he cooked some of that," says Pamalla Raish, the wife of a cattleman who works on the ranch. "I ate things I never ate before. I had never tasted ribs like that. But it was really good. I remember I could have ate more."
Kevin Conley, a writer at the New Yorker and the author of Stud: Adventures in Breeding, about the high-stakes world of Thoroughbred horses, is working on a book about stuntmen.