1. Embrace Jersey produce
New Jersey is not called the Garden State for nothing! Sure, many could think of better nicknames for the state, but only we are able to do that, and we really don’t mean it anyway. We are very proud of our state, especially its food. When I attended the Wine and BBQ Experience this year, I had the pleasure of speaking with Tom Cosentino, director of the New Jersey Wine Growers Association, and found out that we had some common ground regarding our missions. We both want to make more people aware of some of the great products that New Jersey has to offer, both wine and barbeque. One of the ways that New Jersey is competing with top-notch wineries from around the country is to embrace many of the farm produce in which New Jersey already excels. Not only are Jersey wineries taking advantage of some of the state’s unique micro-climates and topography to yield some terrific grapes , but they are producing award-winning wines from such fruits as cranberries, blueberries, peaches, apples, and even tomatoes. Wineries are capitalizing on the crops in which New Jersey is nationally recognized to create high quality wines from local, high quality ingredients. New Jersey pitmasters and chefs need to do the same. Many Jersey farms, such as River Bend Farms in Bernardsville near me, are raising and quality pigs and cows that lay the foundations for great barbeque. The same fruits that wine growers are using to boost their reputation can be used in sauces or to develop sides that can later be considered staples, even for deep south pitmasters. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel here, but we do need to capitalize on those things that we already do right!
2. Network with other pitmasters and chefs in New Jersey
I do get it. Many chefs are highly protective of their recipes, as it can influence their reputation and livelihood. But when chefs and pitmasters talk shop together, share drinks, stories and tips, and eventually create better barbeque, then everyone wins. The fundamental way in which chefs get better is from learning from successes and failures. If chefs are passing along their own stories to others, then they can learn that much quicker. During my visit to Surf BBQ this year, Alex Smith brought this up when we talked about growing New Jersey’s barbeque reputation. It has been very influential in his career, not only by talking and sharing with others personally, but also connecting through social media and other virtual methods. Even as a young pitmaster who has gained a lot of success, he still understands the need to continue to network with others from the industry in order to grow. When others may have considered a restaurant in the neighboring town to be competition, he saw it as an opportunity to connect and increase their customers appreciation of barbeque. In many parts of the country, barbeque businesses are forming partnerships and associations to get the word out. Recently, I counted that New Jersey has over sixty barbeque restaurants. I hope that these restaurants can use the list to reach out to others and start increasing the state’s standing. Hey, how does the New Jersey Barbeque Association sound?
3. Embrace the diversity within the state
Capitalize on your strengths and de-emphasize your weaknesses, right? New Jersey doesn’t have many weaknesses, so let’s look at its strengths. One of the strengths that we do have, and many of the barbeque powerhouse do not, is diversity. As a center for immigration for hundreds of years, the people getting off the boat loved what they saw and decided to stay here. Those immigrants that brought skills with them did not travel far from their port of entry before they were settled, creating industry, and meeting with great success. Generations later, we can still find their families here, continuing to share their knowledge (and recipes) with others, and enriching the state as a result. We no longer have to look longingly at southern barbeque and try to copy it. Within our own population, there are many different people who can help contribute to developing our barbeque identity. I would love for that identity to consist of either a mosaic of different culture’s perspective’s of barbeque, or a melding of these cultures to produce something that is even better than the parts. Either way, if you look in your surrounding towns, you are guaranteed to find a few places that share their own interpretation of barbeque. Give them a try and appreciate the time and effort it took to bring those recipes and methods from other parts of the world.
4. Take advantage of our relationship with NYC
New York City is a Mecca for attracting world-renowned chefs, high quality restaurants, and very discerning eaters. With multiple restaurants on every block, New York chews up and spits out the ones that can’t hack it, leaving a long trail of failed businesses and very few gems. I know many people who go into the city for the night just to eat at a certain restaurant, ones that have garnered glowing reviews and a great reputations, even among the throng of options. New York’s culinary influence is no longer restrained to just Manhattan either, but stretches out in each of the other boroughs as well. Joints such as Mighty Quinn’s, Hometown BBQ, and Mighty Sau are garnering attention and making lists of the best barbeque restaurants in the country. With New Jersey just right across the river, many of these restaurants are looking towards this fertile ground to expand their influence and open up restaurants that would not force us to go into the city to enjoy a night out. This is not settling for crumbs! This is an expansion of their customer base to another group of discerning eaters! Our close proximity to the city also allows for easier networking for chefs and pitmasters, as well as a garden for graduates from the Culinary Institute of America (which, by the way, does NOT have a field of study dedicated to barbeque). There is nothing to say that huge events like the Big Apple BBQ Block Party could not happen here with some of the same participants.
5. Flaunt that Jersey attitude
If the barbeque doesn’t include attitude in the recipe, it ain’t Jersey Barbeque! Enough said.
6. Be patient
Texas, the Carolinas, and Kansas City did not form their barbeque identity overnight. It took hundreds of years for these areas of the United States to become well-known for the their method of cooking and serving barbeque. Although New Jersey has been around for the same amount of time, barbeque has not been ingrained in the culture of the area as these other regions. Perhaps it is because the geography allows for so many varieties of food, or its proximity to the coast and beaches, or the various cultural influences and tastes. But for whatever reason, when the people in the south and west were experimenting with wood and coals to tenderize the tougher parts of meat, we weren’t. And now that we realize what we’ve been missing, we are hopping on that train and are impatient to arrive at the promised land. It just doesn’t happen that way. When I had the privilege to join Roland and Chef Carl Ruiz in interviewing Myron Mixon on Roland’s Food Court on SiriusXM, I was able to ask him about how states that are not well known for their barbeque can shape their barbeque identity. He stated that it takes time to do this, and he is absolutely right. If we have the goal in mind, follow the steps that I have outlined above, and we have a bit of patience, New Jersey will cultivate great barbeque chefs and restaurants that will form a network that can compete with the rest of the country. I just hope that I am alive at the time to see it, experience it, and eat it.