This Minnesota Chef Thinks He's Figured Out the Secret to Perfect Barbecue
Imagine good barbecue, and you’re likely to picture an outdoor pit in the Carolinas, or a slab of beef slathered in tangy-sweet sauce, served alongside a side of potato salad, in Texas. Minnesota, though—despite being the city where the chain Famous Dave’s Barbecue is headquartered—is probably not the first place that leaps to mind. Thomas Boemer, chef and co-owner of Revival, a southern restaurant that opened last December in St. Paul, thinks he can change that perception. This is the second Revival location and the place where Boemer decided to add barbecue to the menu.
At the age of five, Boemer and his family relocated to Lexington, North Carolina, known to locals as the ‘"Barbecue Capital of the World." He grew up eating pork shoulder, dressed in a sauce known as “dip,” a vinegar-based topping which sometimes contains tomato—a point of contention, Boemer adds. He’s now reinventing the delicacy with his own fine dining twist.
“When you talk about [barbecue] identity, what makes each region different—in Carolina, it’s all pork, in Texas, it’s all beef. What I would consider Minnesota barbecue or northern barbecue is pork spare ribs,” Boemer explains.
At Revival, the chef and his team have a very special method of preparing their spare ribs. First, “we rub them with a savory rub,” a departure from the type of seasoning you would find in the Carolinas, which is usually made with some combination of black pepper and a little bit of brown sugar. Boemer’s seasoning has notes of celery, onion and garlic. Then, the ribs are smoked for five or six hours. After that, the meat is placed in a “vat of melted butter,” where “it just sits,” before being hit with the seasoning again.
“It’s definitely not typical barbecue,” Boemer admits.
The restaurant pays special attention to one crucial aspect of preparing barbeque—the resting process—which he also thinks is the secret to making truly epic barbecue.
To achieve that level of pure deliciousness, “We use a customized cabinet that specifies the humidity and holding temperature,” the chef says. “It’s insane.”
Boemer explains the resting process this way: If you’re at home, preparing a piece of a meat, and you toss it in a regular cabinet after it’s done cooking, the meat will “dry up like a hockey puck.” But if you immediately cut the meat open and serve it, you’ll lose all the juice on your cutting board. The timing is tricky, though: After about half an hour, the meat gets cold. That’s where Boemer’s customized cabinet comes in: It works in much the same way the sous vide method of cooking does, in which the chef puts the meat in a bag and then submerges it in a water bath, at a controlled temperature, so that he or she can cook it for a long period of time, breaking down, and eventually tenderizing, the meat.
“We are doing a very similar thing, but with a 16-hour smoking process before that. During that ramp down period, the meat is continuing to cook. This process gives us barbecue that is extremely, insanely tender,” Boemer says with pride. “The ideal piece of BBQ is going to be achieved after this prolonged period of rest.”
This process is clearly a scientific one, but Boemer clarifies that there’s also an element of instinct and art to crafting barbecue. For instance, the chef says that his pitmasters don’t always time how long the barbecue smokes—sometimes it’s 16 hours, sometimes it’s 18 hours, depending on the humidity in the air o how cold it is outside. How do these experts in the craft know when their meat is done?
“The most important thing is the jiggle test. At right around 200 degrees—but different BBQ people have different numbers—all of a sudden [the meat] relents, and it just jiggles. It’s floppy, there’s no mistaking it,” Boemer explains.
Jiggle test aside, cooking barbecue takes a strict level of precision and focus. If you cook the meat too fast, “the collagen and the connective tissue doesn’t break down,” and if you let the meat cook past the right temperature, it gets dry. Cook the meat “too low and too slow”, and the fat doesn’t melt, robbing the barbecue of what Boemer calls a “quality mouthfeel.”
Even if you don’t have the high-tech tools at your disposal like those Boemer uses at Revival, he says there’s a still a way to create your own barbecue cooking cabinet. All you need is a bath towel and beer cooler.
“The name of the game right now is understanding resting. That’s the key,” he says. You can cook your meat on a charcoal kettle grill, or on a pellet grill in your backyard, and still “get an incredible product, but you have to rest it.”
There are a few ways to rest your barbecue to make the meat as tender possible: One method is to place the meat in a water pan in the oven. Another is to wrap the meat in a bath towel and place it in a cooler. Boemer strongly advises that novices avoid this method, however. He even goes so far as to call the trend of wrapping barbeque “dangerous,” saying that the method can ruin an otherwise well-made dish. Instead of wrapping the meat, Boemer says you can fold the bath towel (substantial enough that it can absorb moisture) neatly in the bottom of the cooler, then place the meat on top of a tray (ideally a roasting rack, although you may have trouble getting it to fit in said cooler) to keep it elevated, so the juices don’t pool. If you can’t find something that will fit, you can cradle the meat in tin foil.
It might be a lo-fi hack, but it's probably as close you’ll ever get to recreating Boemer's super-tender northern style barbecue in your own home.