Bryan Furman has received recognition and accolades since he first joined the barbecue scene in Savannah, Georgia, in 2014 with his B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue. He followed that with another location of B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue in Atlanta. Furman has since kept himself busy with projects such as a stint as chef in residence at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York and serving BBQ at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena. Toward the end of this year, he plans to open a new restaurant, Bryan Furman BBQ, in Atlanta.
In this edition of Voices in Food, Furman talks about how the barbecue world needs to do more to recognize unsung contributors of the craft, and how aspiring pitmasters should have passion and a knowledge of history.
My father, who was an electrical engineer, is the one who taught me how to cook ribs, so I credit him for that. My grandparents raised pigs, and my dad was always cooking barbecue. I spent years learning how to start fires and cook ribs and chickens from my dad. I always said I wanted to open a barbecue restaurant. I went into welding and some other jobs and moved around to different cities. I’d been putting money in my 401(k), and in 2014 I quit my job and started raising pigs and catering. I opened my first restaurant in December 2014.
I think moving forward, the conversation around barbecue has to be about recognition, about the contribution of people who aren’t getting their due. I don’t think any one culture invented barbecue or can say they own it, and a lot of cultures have had a hand in it. But I will say that Black culture doesn’t get the recognition for its part in barbecue.
“I don’t want to get caught up in the hype of who to honor. I think it’s most important to honor those who don’t get the acknowledgement.”
In too many barbecue places, there’s been an old Black man in the back cooking with a white man owning the place. I’ve been in situations walking through my restaurants where people will ask me if the food is good, not even thinking that I’m the owner. They think I may be the dishwasher. I can be at an event cooking ribs and people will walk past my area because I’m not someone they recognize. Then somebody will say, “You have to try Bryan’s ribs.” Then people will take the time to learn a little something about me. There’s too many times when someone has you doing all the hard work while they’re sitting on their asses — you’re doing the work and they get the recognition. This has been going on for a long time and it’s become more verbalized, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done.
I’m excited about such programs as Kingsford’s Preserve the Pit, which speaks to recognizing Black barbecue culture. I’ll be one of the mentors for the six fellowships the program is offering. But when you see there were around 3,000 applicants, you realize it’s going to take a lot of work to make a big dent in offering this kind of necessary experience and learning.
I think what happened with barbecue, especially after Aaron Franklin won the James Beard Award (Best Chef: Southwest in 2015), is that all of a sudden, everyone wanted to hop on the barbecue trend — it was cool to be dealing with fire. But many of those people didn’t really understand the work and the meaning behind it. If you look up how many barbecue restaurants open each year, the number is high, but then you have to look at how long they stay open. This work has always been a passion of mine. I see too many people come in and tell me they want to do a stage (unpaid internship) with me, and then they think they’re ready to open their own place. When it’s time for them to do the hard work, they fall by the wayside. I’ve hired and fired so many chefs.
“I’ve been in situations walking through my restaurants where people will ask me if the food is good, not even thinking that I’m the owner. They think I may be the dishwasher.”
Beyond recognizing our culture and the work that goes into barbecue, I think there still isn’t proper acknowledgement of the roots of certain dishes. No one state can say a sauce or a dish has to be prepared a certain way, but there should be credit as to where it came from. When I put hash and rice on my menu, you really only found that in South Carolina — but you hardly ever hear anyone talk about that. Now you’re seeing hash and rice being served in other states. If you’re going to put this dish on your menu, give us our due.
I didn’t originally cook brisket. When I put it on my menu, I named the dish after the woman who taught me how to cook it ― it was Miss Brenda’s brisket. I don’t give the state of Texas credit for my ribs. It’s been an honor to cook there, but it was my dad who taught me. If you pay attention to the Texas style of barbecue, it was traditionally a lot of beef. Now you see chefs there cooking whole hog without paying homage to those states where it came from. I don’t see Georgia or Tennessee getting the recognition for the barbecue that comes out of those states.
When you go to culinary arts schools, they teach you about techniques but not about the flavors that go into something like barbecue. There’s really no school teaching that — you have to learn from actually working in a barbecue restaurant. You really have to stay in control of quality. You can’t expect your sous to make sure something is done right.
I don’t want to get caught up in the hype of who to honor. I think it’s most important to honor those who don’t get the acknowledgement. I look at such people I knew from South Carolina like Robert Patillo of Patillo’s Bar-B-Q and Ruth and Francis Campbell of Francis Campbell’s Pit Stop — they’re the people who should be getting recognized.
Looking forward, I want to start training women pitmasters to cook barbecue. The field is very masculine-dominated. For myself, I think I’m always learning. I never think I’ll be able to master barbecue ― I’ll just work to get better every year.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.