It’s no secret that Danny Meyer seriously loves southern food. The restaurateur, whose upcoming documentary, aptly titled The Restaurateur, recently debuted at the Sonoma Film Festival, pretty much invented the concept of authentic barbecue in New York. Meyer prides himself on bringing the best of the South to the city each summer with his Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, celebrating its 8th anniversary this June 12th & 13th. What most people don’t know is that Danny is also a very wise man, particularly when it comes to the city’s recent embrace of BBQ. Here are a few thought-provoking insights he shared with me.
On New York City’s newfound love of BBQ
It all starts with how many expats live here. It’s a mistake to think that everyone here was born in New York. It’s actually the other way around. There’s a huge hunger for southern food here. At Blue Smoke, we give cues to southerners: Texas Pete is a wink to North Carolina; Salt & Pepper ribs nod to Hill Country; toasted ravioli and root beer are for the folks from St. Louis; and Kansas City barbecue sauce is for the rib-lovers there.
On his customers’ changing reactions to BBQ over the years
When I opened Blue Smoke, so many people asked me if I really thought people would know how to eat ribs with their hands. I said, ‘Absolutely.’ And you know what, they did. People these days want to go out to eat, rather than go out to dine. That’s one of the reasons people love barbecue so much. There’s an insatiable appetite for authentic food in this country, and especially in New York City. Barbecue is highly democratic and brings together people from all walks of life. I’ve never seen anyone fighting with a rib in his hand.
On the differences between southern and northern BBQ lovers
Southerners are always vocal. New Yorkers are also very sophisticated and vocal when it comes to BBQ, which is kind of a recent thing. I think the Big Apple BBQ Block Party has helped educate people from all over about the different quality and styles—that rib meat falling off the bone doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best, that kind of thing.
On his inspiration for the Big Apple BBQ Block Party
I grew up in St. Louis. In 1999, a friend named Richard Coraine and I started gradually falling in love with southern food again so we decided to take a trip each year to find the best and most authentic regional food from the South. We’d take three days, usually the weekend after July 4th, and pick a new spot every year. We’ve gone to Texas, Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, Missouri—you name it. We found our first vendors at Memphis in May and then the other partners got involved, as well. There were 5 vendors at the first BBQ fest; this year we’re expecting around 15.
On what so many BBQ restaurants mean for southern food
The guys at Hill Country are doing fantastic BBQ with a Point of View from Texas. The very fact that that exists proves that BBQ has evolved in New York City, that it’s been fully accepted. The specificity shows how far everything has come. Southern food is an ethic cuisine and like all ethic cuisines, the trend emerges in parts before finally the whole area is represented. Think of it in the context of Italian food. When Italian food first became popular in New York City, it was just general Italian food. Then you saw restaurants open that focused on food from either the north or the south of Italy. Then you saw even more specificity—Tuscan food, for instance. Now, we’ve just opened Maialino, which specializes only in the foods of Rome, one single Italian city. Hill Country is just like that.