What is it like to be a barbecue chef?

What’s It Like to Be a Barbecue Chef? A Working Podcast Transcript.

What’s It Like to Be a Barbecue Chef? A Working Podcast Transcript.

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Aug. 3 2017 10:21 AM

The “How Does a Barbecue Chef Work?” Transcript

Read what a Detroit restauranteur had to say about making smoked meats in Motor City’s burgeoning food scene.

Mike Metevia
Mike Metevia

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jacob Brogan.

This is a transcript of the July 23 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.

Jacob Brogan: For this season of Working, we left the East Coast behind and flew to Detroit. We’re speaking with eight people who are drawing on the city’s complex history as they work to create its future. While we were in Detroit we kept going back to this one restaurant to have lunch, a place called Slows Bar B-Q. Detroit doesn’t have its own regional style of barbecue, but Slows pulls off a fusion of different techniques and approaches that feels personal, and smart, and of course, delicious. We were so impressed that we decided to talk to its chef, Mike Metevia, about how he does what he does. Chef Mike led us through the process of planning a barbecue dish and training a staff that can pull it off consistently. He also talks a little about sourcing ingredients, sometimes from other Detroit-area establishments, and goes into the basic logistics of running a barbecue joint on a day-to-day basis. And though the magic of radio doesn’t allow us, unfortunately, to share a meal with you, Chef Mike does give us an audio tour of the restaurant, which might give you a better sense of what you’re missing if you can’t make it there.

Then, in a Slate Plus extra, Chef Mike shares some tips for home barbecuing. I learned a lot from him, as someone who spends a lot of time over the grill in the summer. And I think you will too. If you’re a member, enjoy bonus segments and interview transcripts from Working, plus other great podcast exclusives. Start your two-week free trial at Slate.com/workingplus.

Brogan: What is your name and what do you do?

Michael Metevia: My name’s Michael Metevia. I’m the chef at Slows Bar B-Q in Detroit.

Brogan: What does that involve? What are your daily responsibilities as chef?

Metevia: My daily responsibility is worrying about the restaurant. It’s pretty much all of it, from scheduling the kitchen staff, hiring them, firing them, creating the menus, running the specials, and a lot of firing emails on my day off. Yeah, just stay worried about the place, and that’s the root of the job.

Brogan: So is it just this one location that you’re overseeing that we’re in now?

Metevia: Yeah. I have minimal involvement in the other locations, but this has been my home base for over 10 years.

Brogan: So were you involved with founding or opening this location?

Metevia: Yeah, in the sense that I was actually hired on as the sous chef in the early days, and we got all our menus completed, recipes written, and then started helping the construction crew. At a certain point of working seven days a week, I eventually got sweat equity in the place, and that really kept me here for the long haul.

Brogan: Have you always been a barbecue guy? Is that how you ended up here?

Metevia: I would say in my personal life, yes. In my work life, no. I’ve worked in a variety of different types of restaurants, and when the opportunity to come here came up, combined the restaurant career I was already in with barbecue. I don’t know. I just like starting fires, if nothing else. It seemed like a fun opportunity.

Brogan: Did you go to culinary school before?

Metevia: No. No, I registered at a certain point, and planned on going, and just didn’t have time. I was already getting positions in kitchens as a sous chef, and whatnot, and you’re putting a lot of hours in doing that, so school never came to pass. I bought the textbooks. I read those.

Brogan: Were they helpful?

Metevia: Yeah, I’d say so.

Brogan: So the menu here ... It’s a barbecue place, but the menu is pretty complicated. It’s not just a slab of meat on a plate. There are real serious, complex dishes. Some of the best macaroni and cheese that I’ve had in a long time, if not ever. What was it like creating the menu? What went into that initial effort to open up a sort of sophisticated but classic barbecue place like this?

Metevia: Well, the heart of the menu came from Chef Brian Perrone, the executive chef and cofounder, with Phil Cooley, of the restaurant. When I came in, he already had a vision of where this menu was going. We were looking at representing regional barbecue from around the country, but putting our own Detroit twist on it, I guess you could say. And I jumped right on that mindset and started contributing items to the menu that I thought stayed within that mindset. And a lot of the dishes, it might be a lot of complicated steps that go into them, but it’s usually in an effort to serve a really simple dish. We’re not here to rethink barbecue.

Brogan: Sure.

Metevia: We just want people to come here and have fun, and feel like they got a good deal and maybe did something a little decadent.

Brogan: Yeah. Is there a particular dish you’re especially proud of, that you were involved with, you can tell us about?

Metevia: Geez, I don’t know. I guess I’ve had involvement in most everything on the menu. Maybe the pork belly sandwich, called the Nature Boy, because I found a way to slip Ric Flair into our menu. But, yeah. I’d say I’ve got pride in the whole thing, you know.

Brogan: Tell us about the Nature Boy, though. What was the process there? How did that one come to be? What’s actually in that sandwich, first of all?

Metevia: It is ancho-rubbed hickory smoke pork belly in a hoagie roll.

Brogan: How long do you smoke it?

Metevia: We smoke it for about four and a half, five hours, depending on the size of the belly. Then it gets cut into basically small cubes, and then broiled till it’s crispy. We put it in a hoagie roll with bacon aioli and baby spinach, pickled onions.

Brogan: Mm-hmm, it’s 11 a.m. and I’m salivating.

Metevia: Yeah. It’s a really good sandwich. It started, though, when I was having lunch at a restaurant in Chicago. I was eating pork belly there and just started thinking, “Why don’t we have pork belly on the menu at home?” And like three days later, there was that sandwich.

Brogan: So, when it comes to actually making a sandwich like that, how involved are you in the prep and the actual production of the food on a daily basis?

Metevia: I mean, it’s 100 percent me in the beginning. When it comes to all of our new menu items and specials, I’m really the only one touching the food in the beginning.

Brogan: So you’re just back there in the kitchen, trying things out.

Metevia: I’m back there getting it all ... yeah, getting it all prepared. You test recipes and do all that. But once it actually turns into something that we’re running on special, or it’s on the menu, then it gets basically turned over to the staff, so a lot of training comes into play. So I make sure the dish is right, and then make sure they’re trained in how to execute it.

Brogan: Once a dish like that is on the menu, is it pretty much consistent until you take if off?

Metevia: Yeah.

Brogan: Or do you fiddle with it?

Metevia: No. Once it’s on the menu, it’s on the menu. It’s a little different with the specials. I’ll usually give the sandwiches some goofy name, and if I like the name more than the sandwich, I’m more apt to change the sandwich ingredients than the name of it.

Brogan: So what’s it like, then, being the boss? One part of your responsibility is testing out recipes, developing them, but as you said earlier, a lot of it is about hiring the staff, teaching the staff, maybe even firing the staff sometimes.

Metevia: Yeah. It’s, I guess you could say, it’s emotional. You know, you don’t want to be stressed out by it, but when you come up working in kitchens, you’re not really trained to do the public relations end of things, or all the hiring and firing, and just dealing with people’s personal lives on the day-to-day. So you work for years trying to become a good cook, and the more you move up the ladder, the further you move away from the cooking, and the more toward just dealing with people, which takes a lot of practice. And it can be emotional, because I’m, personally, I’m not somebody who likes to have to fire somebody. There’re a couple examples I can think of, of people that, yes, without question, this had to happen.

Brogan: Sure.

Metevia: But other times, you get somebody violating tardiness policies, or whatever it may be, that all of a sudden they wander down that path, and I just don’t like having to be that guy—but I am. And you do it consistently, and stick to your guns with it.

Brogan: Timeliness, understandably important. What kind of hours do you spend in the restaurant?

Metevia: In the beginning, it was seven days a week, anywhere from 80 to 100 hours. That is definitely not the case these days. If it’s a decade later, and I still had to do that, I better get better at training staff.

Brogan: Yeah.

Metevia: These days, it can float anywhere between 40 and 50. It’s much more refined. And even the staff itself. Most kitchens I worked in when I was younger, like working a 50-hour week is not odd at all. We don’t really do that here. We try to structure the kitchen staff so they work a normal 40-hour week. We try to keep their schedules as set as possible. We try to keep a kitchen that’s calm and fun to work in, because we get busy. We could be on an hour-and-a-half wait, and if you have a kitchen that’s used to yelling at each other, it just gets worse and worse. So we’ve got a pretty calm environment back there. And, yeah, the people, we work pretty standard hours.

Brogan: That’s nice.

Metevia: Yeah.

Brogan: How do you keep the kitchen calm? How do you keep that sense of stability?

Metevia: Well, a lot of it comes from me being calm. I’ve worked under chefs before that are really hot-tempered, and frankly, I’m one of those people. But just because you have a bad temper doesn’t mean you can’t control it. And I’ve worked for a lot of people who don’t really seem to consider that, and they’ll throw a plate, or punch a wall, or start screaming at the staff. And I’ve been there, and I just don’t like that environment, so I try to stay pretty mellow back there. I try to be very respectful with the staff, and I don’t tolerate it if I don’t get it back, if I don’t get respect back, and if they don’t respect one another. You’re not gonna last in this environment if you come back there and start disrespecting other people; you don’t have a job here anymore. And over time, it’s pretty easy for people to come in and figure out that this is actually kind of nice. Nobody’s gonna scream at me today, as long as I get my job done. And they stick it out. We’ve got a lot of longevity with our cooks.

Brogan: Your restaurant is called Slows.

Metevia: Yep.

Brogan: And barbecue is relatively a slow food for the most part. That pork belly sandwich you make, four, four and a half hours?

Metevia: Yeah.

Brogan: In the smoker. The brisket you guys make here, I think is 10 hours, something like that?

Metevia: You know, that stuff usually goes at least 12.

Brogan: 12.

Metevia: Sometimes 13, depending on how big the meat is.

Brogan: So, does that element of the food you’re making here contribute to the tone, the style, the feel of the restaurant at all?

Metevia: I hope so. When the place was named Slows, at the time it was kind of a tribute to the slow-food movement in Italy, which is kind of a calling to people to slow down their lifestyle, starting with your food, like get away from fast food. Go back to cooking with your family and slowing things down. And, yeah, maybe it has. Barbecue is not a stressful food. It’s a patient food, and it takes a lot of love and respect, so, yeah, maybe it’s the food making it happen. I hope I have a little to do with it, but it’s probably just the brisket.

Brogan: Yeah. What about sourcing ingredients? Are you involved with supplying the restaurant with the various meats and stuff?

Metevia: Yeah, sourcing. We’ve gone through a lot of changes over the years as we’ve grown because it’s been our effort to keep everything all natural. But as you start selling more product, it becomes more difficult to find suppliers that can keep up with you, especially when you’ve got a few different stores open, trying to sell the same things. But what we do like to do in the different Slows, being Pontiac, Grand Rapids, our to-go location, is to run different specials there, and I personally like to, as much as I can, source ingredients for those specials locally. I buy a whole hog every week or two from a local farm, and we smoke that outside. Now that summer’s upon us, there’re a couple little farms in the area. We like to buy lettuces, or whatever they might have; you don’t really know, going in. You just find out what do you have this week, and then you play with it. Yeah, that pretty much keeps it as local as we can.

Brogan: And the other ingredients, things like the buns. I think some come from—

Metevia: Those come from Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor.

Brogan: Right.

Metevia: And I don’t know how much you guys know about them, but—

Brogan: Tell us about it. It’s a famous neighborhood kind of place.

Metevia: It’s a really cool company. Yeah, it’s—I personally don’t even know the whole Zingerman’s history—but my understanding is that over time, as the business grew from just a deli, they had employees who started having ideas like, “Hey, we should start making our own bread and open a bakery.” They would actually support their employees in those endeavors, to let them grow, and grow their own business at the same time, which I thought was really, really cool. And beyond that, their baked goods are just awesome. We tried a bunch of different things, and it’s really hard to beat Zingerman’s quality and consistency.

Brogan: Do you see yourself fitting into the regional-food scene in other ways? A lot of great restaurants in Detroit, and the Detroit area already opened, more opening all the time, it seems like. How do you fit into that landscape more generally?

Metevia: Even though we’re only 10 years old, you almost feel like the old man at this point. There’re definitely older restaurants in Detroit, but for various reasons, we drew a lot more attention than a lot of those places have when we opened. And a lot of stuff happened after we did. We really watched a boom of places opening around us. So I’m just proud to still be part of it. I love watching the restaurant scene grow. I don’t have that mentality of, “Oh, shit. Somebody’s opening on our block. They’re gonna take our customers.” It doesn’t have to be that way. You should be friendly and part of a restaurant community. They’re not gonna come here every time. They should try other restaurants, and then come back to Slows too.

Brogan: Do you have time to eat out at other places around?

Metevia: Once in a while. When I’m not here, I’m usually with my kids. I’m a single dad, so that takes a lot of time. But my kids do love going out to eat, especially for Asian food, so that’s usually where we end up.

Brogan: Do you ever have times when something you try at another restaurant influences what you find yourself doing in your kitchen here?

Metevia: Yeah, I could say that. Like with the example of the pork belly.

Brogan: Right, yeah.

Metevia: I ate it in Chicago. All of a sudden, bing, here it is. I took a trip out to Kansas City several years ago, and spent about 10 days out there doing nothing but exploring and eating barbecue. And even though I don’t think I was influenced hugely by the food, because I was already really accustomed to what I was gonna try there, what I came back with were different ideas on kitchen staffing. Because I was fortunate enough to meet a couple of people running those restaurants who let me look at how they were doing things, and that’s what I came back with is like, “Shit. We need to hire some more cooks around here. We’re working a little too hard.”

Brogan: Density of workflow, and stuff like that?

Metevia: Yeah. And it’s one of those things. It’s one of the reasons I like to go out to eat, or to travel, in general, is to just keep fresh ideas coming into my head. At no point am I gonna be reinventing, or inventing something new. It’s all out there already. You just have to go see it and be reminded of it sometimes.

Brogan: So you’re out—

Metevia: But it’s kind of funny when you come back-

Brogan: Yeah.

Metevia: And it’s like, no it wasn’t about food this time. This was all about staffing and payroll.

Brogan: Yeah.

Metevia: But at least I learned something.

Brogan: Yeah. The block that we’re on here does seem very interesting. It struck us as almost like a mini Bushwick, or something like this. There’s a great coffee shop down the street.

Metevia: Yeah.

Brogan: There’s a good, like a sweet store, or something like this.

Metevia: Oh, The Sugar House. It’s a classic cocktail bar.

Brogan: Oh, is that it? OK.

Metevia: Like a Prohibition-style cocktail bar.

Brogan: All right. So even more like a—

Metevia: Yeah, yeah.

Brogan: Kind of Brooklyn-y feel.

Metevia: Yep.

Brogan: Is that new, that kind of feel of the restaurant scene, the business scene in Detroit?

Metevia: I would say yes, it is. It used to be that the restaurants in Detroit were really far away from one another. You go downtown, and there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to barhop on foot, and to really take a cab or drive around city. And over time, we’ve really watched that change. All these abandoned buildings are getting taken over. They’re getting cleaned up, beautifully renovated. And all of a sudden, we’re getting whole strips of open businesses again, and people who are actually barhopping around, and all that. It’s pretty cool.

Brogan: So that’s new, but it also seems like there is an established barbecue tradition in Detroit itself.

Metevia: Sure.

Brogan: Were you conscious of, or thinking about, how barbecue is done here in Detroit, as you were setting this place up?

Metevia: Not really. I think maybe conscious of it in the respect that you don’t want to do exactly what somebody else is doing.

Brogan: Sure.

Metevia: But no. We went at it completely from the mindset of this is what we like. This tastes good to us. We like how tender this is, or how salty this is, or whatever. It was really, it was a lot of just personal opinion, and putting it out there, and hoping that what we liked, other people would like too.

Brogan: What about, one of the things I think always, with barbecue, is trying to find that balance between tradition and innovation. Is there much room for improvisation, for rethinking those traditions that you’re citing or drawing on?

Metevia: Yeah, I think so. Barbecue’s been going on for a long time, and I wouldn’t call it a rut, but you do have the standards that, depending on where you are in the country, you’re looking at a couple different kinds of ribs, some brisket, some sausage, pork butts. And that’s awesome. But yeah. There is that point where, as it grows more into the entire country, instead of being such a southern- based tradition, you’re gonna see different mindsets of how to go about this thing. Up here, I do more outdoor barbecuing in the winter than I think I do in the summer.

Brogan: Really?

Metevia: I just like the snow.

Brogan: Yeah.

Metevia: And I like being outside in the wintertime. And you can see how that can influence your food, not just with the flavors, that you’re trying to come up with something maybe a little more rich instead of, I don’t know, whatever thing you’re going for, because of the weather. Or you’re smoking things twice as long, because it’s 20 degrees out, so you get a different flavor, based on that. So, yeah, there’s a lot of room for innovation. But I don’t think it’s gonna go too far off the rails.

Brogan: What are the actual tools of the trade that you use in the restaurant here? When I’m barbecuing at home, doing just really basic, indirect heat, on a Weber kettle grill—

Metevia: Right.

Brogan: But I assume you’ve got much more sophisticated tools for barbecuing here, I would guess.

Metevia: Yeah. Well, we’ve got two main machines here. One of them is Charlene.

Brogan: They’ve got names?

Metevia: Yeah. I name the smokers.

Brogan: Nice.

Metevia: It’s out of respect. So, Charlene has been here since we opened. The wall had to be torn down, bring the smoker in, build the wall back up. So it was definitely committed to like, “You’re not going anywhere.” That one, it’s a Southern Pride smoker. It’s a pretty simple mechanism. A pilot light lights hickory wood, and the fire heats the smoker up, and the rotisserie. And as the fire goes down, it’ll hit it with a little more flame, get it going back up.

Out on the patio, we have a Yoder Smoker. It’s a company out of Kansas. And it’s a 3,000-pound monster. And that thing is a—

Brogan: What’s it made out of?

Metevia: Well, steel. It’s a big steel beast. You can take a look at it when we’re done here, if you like.

Brogan: Yeah.

Metevia: That one, though, is just a charcoal chimney, like an all-natural mesquite charcoal, just to get the fire going, and after that, it’s all just hickory, and monitoring the air, and the fire.

Brogan: How do you know what types of wood to use? Is there a rationale of that?

Metevia: Yeah, for sure. The standard for our regular menu here is hickory. It’s plentiful, and it burns really well. When we first opened, we were using a lot of apple wood, because we were getting ahold of it by the truckload really easily. But what that meant is we’d start smoking something at 10 at night, and I’d have to get up at two or three in the morning to come down here and load more wood into the smoker, because it burns up really quickly.

Brogan: Yeah.

Metevia: We found with the hickory, it’s got a longer burn time. I get more sleep. It works out a little bit better.

Brogan: Do you still have to have people monitoring it overnight, though?

Metevia: Well, usually we have people here to at least two in the morning, so we have them add some wood to the rotisserie smoker before they leave. And we’re back here by eight in the morning, and by then, the wood’s burned out, but it’s absorbed all the smoke it’s gonna get anyway.

When it comes to the big one outside, if I’m doing a whole hog in that, that means 12, 13 hours. I might leave to go let my dog out for a minute, but otherwise I’m there keeping an eye on that fire.

Brogan: Does it have a lock or anything on the outside? You don’t have to worry about anyone coming and peeking in there?

Metevia: It’s a lock, like in the sense that the General Lee on the Dukes of Hazard’s hood has a lock. It’s just like that little clip that goes on it, which is actually in my key bowl at my house right now. So yeah, I’ve caught people trying to peak in there before. It’s made me think I should get an actual lock.

Brogan: You’re listening to Chef Mike Metevia. Next, he gives us an audio tour of Slows Bar B-Q. That’s coming up. It is interesting.

* * *

Metevia: So I get really obsessive about the music around here.

Brogan: Is that something you think about, creating the kind of tone or vibe of the restaurant in that way?

Metevia: Yeah. Well, you have to leave a lot of that to the actual staff. They’re the people out here working. But as one of the owners, and somebody who lives a lot of their life here, yeah. You want to kind of have a vibe that goes with the food and the customers. Sometimes you just gotta come out and look at the dining room, and these are people. Do they look happy? Are they nodding their heads? Do they look disinterested? And be like, I’m gonna change the music and see if we can liven this room up

Brogan: Shake things up a bit.

Metevia: Yeah. Or mellow it out. You never know.

Brogan: Yeah, yeah.

Metevia: Like, these people are acting wild. I’m gonna put on some old jazz and calm them down.

Brogan: Nice.

Metevia: You wanna?

Brogan: Yeah.

Metevia: This is the entrance to the kitchen. You’ve got two different frialators here; I’m surprised they’re not bubbling right now. These two big fancy Rational ovens that are an oven, a steamer, and a pain in the ass, all combined into one.

Brogan: Why a pain in the ass?

Metevia: They break a lot, and just little things like that. I don’t know how many of these handles we’ve gone through. But, yeah, it’s such a sensitive mechanism, and it does such amazing things, that I don’t know, it’s like driving a Cadillac. If something goes wrong, it’s gonna be obvious really fast.

Brogan: Each of them has a bunch of racks. Do you use them for holding food, stuff like this?

Metevia: We use them, yeah, for holding food, to reheat items. We do a lot of cooking in there, steaming of things. It’s pretty much a machine that can do anything. If I were ever a super-rich guy, I’d just want one of those in my kitchen, and—

Brogan: I want one now too.

Metevia: I’d be good to go. I’m sure it wouldn’t break as much—or like it does here—if it wasn’t being used 12 hours a day.

Brogan: Probably not as much.

And then there’s, it looks like a big cast-iron stove over here.

Metevia: Yeah. This first station’s the brisket station, where they keep extremely busy. Anybody that works this station, don’t arm wrestle them. They spend eight hours …

Brogan: Slicing.

Metevia: … cutting, cutting, cutting. Yeah. Down here’s the center of the line, where they do all the sauté, the cutting of the ribs, and a few other things. And then down here is the pork station, which probably churns out a good percentage of the restaurant’s food, just because it’s the pulled pork. The amount of that stuff we go through, yeah, these guys stay busy. You’re lucky to be here on a slow Monday morning, where they’re not running around.

Brogan: Yeah. And then, you got some Salamanders too. Is that what these are called?

Metevia: Yeah. Those things, we use one of them to brown some enchiladas. Otherwise, they’re almost constantly filled with macaroni and cheese.

Brogan: Just browning the top of it?

Metevia: Yeah, yeah. On a day like today, it won’t be so heavy. But get us on a weekend, we’ll go through a few hundred of those.

Brogan: And then the flat top, is that for crisping buns up?

Metevia: Yeah, crisping the buns. We grill all the bread. That’s something, when I go out to eat myself, I don’t know why I’m so judgmental about cold buns, but I really am. Take a little effort and grill your bread, everybody.

Brogan: Do you butter it or anything beforehand, or—

Metevia: Oh yeah.

Brogan: Yeah.

Metevia: I’m not going into it with a calorie-saving mindset. I want it to be good.

Brogan: Seems like that’s important with barbecue too, ’cause you don’t want it to soak through the bottom bun, especially, with the pulled pork.

Metevia: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Brogan: You got a sauce and a meat.

Metevia: And it’s just, it complements it, a little bit of crispness on the bread. How could that possibly be bad?

Brogan: Never.

Metevia: Yeah.

Brogan: Huge dishwashing station over here.

Metevia: It is a big dishwashing station. During the day, we got Richard over here,

who can hold the tank together himself. But once nighttime hits, it usually takes two guys to do what he does himself.

Brogan: Old industrial dishwasher.

Metevia: Yeah. It’s a big conveyor belt. Before this thing, we had a machine like a large version of what you’d have in your house, and we’re still just cranking through. It was pretty miserable.

Brogan: Yeah. These things, I used to use these. They work pretty fast.

Metevia: Yeah, yeah. You know, as we’ve grown over time, you gotta kinda keep up with the technology, and do your best to give the staff the best tools you can get your hands on.

Brogan: Yeah. Is this your smoker over here?

Metevia: This is Charlene.

Brogan: Can you describe Charlene for us?

Metevia: Well, today Charlene is a dirty girl, as you can see. We just pulled a bunch of pork out of there, so there’s a lot of fat dripping. So she ends up getting cleaned every few days, just to scrape out excess fat and stuff.

Brogan: OK. Looks like three racks in there.

Metevia: It’s four different carousels …

Brogan: Oh, OK.

Metevia: ... that each hold three racks. There’s only two in each right now. But, yeah. We keep the thing clean, but you don’t want to go so ape on it that you’re removing the seasoning. You gotta kinda treat these smokers like you would a cast-iron pan. That flavor’s gonna develop over the years in it, so you don’t run it through a dishwasher.

Brogan: Now where does the smoking component go?

Metevia: Back here.

Brogan: It’s got these two doors that swing open, but then there’s a side door over ... OK.

Metevia: Right back here’s a firebox, and yeah, you’ll see a pilot light come out. You stack your wood in front of it. The pilot gets the wood going, and fire maintains the heat. And as the fire goes out, then the pilot clicks back on to keep your heat even. So we’re spoiled by this thing.

Brogan: So you mostly keep these doors closed, I assume, when you’re cooking.

Metevia: Yeah.

Brogan: But you can open that up occasionally to check the smoke level?

Metevia: Yeah. Just to make sure that there’s wood in there, if you need to add anymore. But, yeah. This machine definitely spoils you, because we have it down to such a formula.

Brogan: Yeah.

Metevia: Going outside’s different, like if the wind moves from the east or something, it’s like, “Oh, everything just changed.” Whereas in here, it is not like that.

Brogan: Yeah.

Metevia: But if it was, I don’t think we’d ever be able to keep up.

Then over here’s the pantry station, which they’re making the salads on the menu, putting desserts out. Surprisingly, here at the barbecue restaurant, salads are not the hottest item.

Brogan: I can’t imagine why.

Metevia: Yeah. What’s up with that? But anyway, the pantry guy, they do a lot of our prep too. Because for every salad he puts together, they probably just sold 20 pork sandwiches. So, yeah. This is kind of the salad-prep area. And moving past there, you just come down to more prep area, and then our basement, where you’ve got a walk-in cooler down there, walk-in freezer, more prep tables.

Brogan: Is that where most of the meat is kept?

Metevia: Yep. Yeah, it’s all kept down there. Our disorganized office. Every couple weeks we arrange a cleaning, and clean half of it, and then it’s messed up again.

Brogan: So you got some onions caramelizing here?

Metevia: Yep. That’s to make a smoked meatloaf. That’s something I added to the menu a few months ago. It’s like a little individual meatloaf glazed with poblano barbecue sauce.

Brogan: It must be good, because those smell incredible.

Metevia: It’s a good meatloaf. It’s a lot different, I think, than what most people expect from a meatloaf. It’s got a lot more barbecue flavor to it. It’s got smoked Gouda in it, so it’s really moist and kinda gooey. Yeah.

Brogan: Can we see the outside?

Metevia: Yeah. This is just the service drive, where we’ve seen some pretty sweet accidents over the years. Seen a lot of cars get towed away. Yeah, then just the backs of all of our neighboring businesses. You got Sugar House here, Astro, O’Connor, the real estate office, LJ’s.

Brogan: And is this where you have the other smoker?

Metevia: No. That’s out on our patio.

Brogan: Oh, OK.

Metevia: We can go out there too.

Brogan: Yeah.

Metevia: This is, well, where the staff does their smoking.

Brogan: Yeah.

Metevia: I do my smoking on the patio.

Brogan: Gotcha.

Metevia: We’re actually doing some construction on our patio right now, to expand a little bit of our space, so it’ll look a little disheveled out there. Music’s even louder out here. Yeah, this is our patio. And this is Jesco, one of the other smokers.

Brogan: It’s huge.

Metevia: Yeah. It’s a monster. You can fit about 170 pound pig inside of it.

Brogan: Yeah, so does it, it opens over here?

Metevia: Yep.

Brogan: You can face the patio while you’re working out here on this?

Metevia: Yeah. These were moved so that ... Usually with a whole hog, depending on its size, I’ll either end up cutting it right in half, and putting on two racks. Or if it’s smaller, just splaying it out.

Brogan: Is the top rack removable here?

Metevia: Yeah. They’re both removable. And then there’s a big firebox down here.

Brogan: So it’s got four different thermometers on it. Is that so that you make sure you know what the heat is at different areas of it?

Metevia: Yeah. It was a little challenge getting to know this thing when we first brought it here, to learn how to regulate all the heat, but this thing’s really well insulated. It’s got a lot of controls for airflow, so yeah. I’ve got it down to the point now that I can get all four of them pretty much saying the same thing.

Brogan: Nice.

Metevia: And down here, it’s just the firebox. Nice water gathered on top of it.

Brogan: A lot of rain this morning.

Metevia: Yeah. So here’s something else I’ll be doing today, cleaning the smoker.

Brogan: And then, when you’re first getting a fire going in there, are you ... So you start, you do a chimney start, or—?

Metevia: Yeah. I do a chimney start with that natural mesquite charcoal. And once that gets going, it’s just—

Brogan: You lay the logs on top of it.

Metevia: Yep. Feeding logs into it, and, you know …

Brogan: It’s a top-loading system here that we’re looking at.

Metevia: Yep. And then, oftentimes it’s hickory, just ’cause I always have it around. But I also like getting ahold of other wood. We got a stack of pecan wood back there right now that I want to play with this week. Just different flavors that you can get out of it.

Brogan: Get different. Cool.

Metevia: Yeah.

Brogan: Nice.

Brogan: You’re listening to Mike Metevia. After this brief break, he talks about the logistics of running a barbecue restaurant, and discusses some of the things that go hand in hand with smoked meats, like sauces and, obviously, booze.

* * *

Brogan: Can we talk a little about sauces?

Metevia: Sure.

Brogan: You have, I think, five different main sauces that you set out on the table.

Metevia: Yep. And then just a rotating cast of, we call them seasonal sauces, but I don’t really base it on what season it is. It’s more of a what am I trying to use up around here.

Brogan: Sure.

Metevia: With all the beers we have on draft, you see a lot of beer-based barbecue sauces, local soda pop, stuff like that.

Brogan: How do you develop a barbecue sauce? What’s the process there?

Metevia: It’s a lot easier now than it was in the beginning. When we first opened, I’d made barbecue sauce before, but not to the point it is now, where—just in the back of my mind—I can balance the salt, and the sweet, and the spice, and all that. In the early days, it was a lot of experimenting, and a lot of, I don’t know, a lot of sauce eating. Fortunately, most of the sauces that are on the table now, those recipes came together pretty quickly and easily. It was just an idea we had, like, “OK, let’s do an apple barbecue." “Let’s do a mustard-based one.” And then we just started screwing around in the kitchen and see what we could come up with.

Brogan: Do you have a favorite style of barbecue sauce?

Metevia: I guess it would probably be the style they would call Kansas City barbecue sauce, the really traditional sticky, sweet, and tangy barbecue sauce.

Brogan: Kind of like ketchup-based?

Metevia: Yeah. I mean, I …

Brogan: You probably use tomato paste or something in it?

Metevia: Eh ...

Brogan: All right. Yeah, yeah.

Metevia: It depends on the sauce. I enjoy a fun, out-there barbecue sauce. But I think I like making them more than I like eating them. I usually go back to the real basic stuff.

Brogan: One thing really surprised me about this place—and, again, I don’t know why I should be surprised by this, but I was struck by it—was how deep your booze list is. You’ve got a lot of really interesting, and actually kinda weird beers and ciders on the menu. A lot of kinda funky sours, and things like this. Is that your doing?

Metevia: That’s not my doing. That, I would put that beer list mostly on Tara Garrity. She’s our general manager at this location. That woman’s beer knowledge, it’s almost annoying. It’s just really impressive. But you start talking to her, and I’ve met other people like this too. Cicerones that I know and stuff. You know when you’re outmatched. It’s almost not worth having the conversation.

Brogan: You just let them do their thing.

Metevia: Yeah, you do your thing. Hopefully I pick up on something. But beyond her knowledge, she’s just got such great relationships with all the vendors. She’s a really just sweet person, but she also, I guess, has the restaurant’s back. You’re not gonna sell her something just because you think she should buy it. She’s got a lot of confidence in what goes into this bar. And she and I do talk a lot about the food, and how that plays with the beer. So that’s, a lot of times when you see these really oddball beers here, if you were to grab Tara and ask her, “What do you think of that?” I almost guarantee she’s gonna name a food item in her description. She specifically thought of, like, “Oh, this chicken sandwich would taste great with this beer.” And all of a sudden it’s here, because it complements the restaurant as a whole.

Brogan: Do you ever talk to her about those kind of issues when you’re starting to develop a new dish, or does that just come after the fact?

Metevia: Oh yeah. She and I have been very close friends for years before this restaurant even opened. So it’s fun working with her now, and having such a good working relationship. We like to do events as much as we can here in the summer, be it beer-pairing dinners or just fun patio parties. And that’s when it comes to her and I having to talk a lot about just beers that she can get ahold of, what my mindset is going into the party itself. What do I want to achieve with this. And then it’s a lot of tasting. There’ve been a lot of times where it’s like, “Oh, I had to go to work and they made me taste beer today.” Where you will sit there for, it can be like an hour or two, with some beer rapper, like you’ll be lucky enough to meet a brewer that they brought over from Belgium, just to explain his beer. That’s happened, and I was just amazed by it. Yeah, I’ll sit here for an hour tasting Belgian beer with you. And then you just kinda write notes. As I taste things, it’s like, “Oh, man. This kinda reminds me of a pastrami.” And then I just start writing that stuff down. And a few weeks later, you’re probably gonna end up seeing pastrami coming out of the kitchen and that beer coming out of the bar.

Brogan: What’s the most difficult element of running a business like this one for you?

Metevia: Geez, I don’t know. I try not to think about that part of it. It would probably be staffing.

Brogan: Yeah.

Metevia: Not just maintaining a staff, but making sure that the staff you have is fulfilled in their jobs, and that they’re happy to come here. There’s no way you’re gonna come here five days a week smiling and thrilled. I’d think you’re a psycho.

Brogan: Yeah.

Metevia: But in general, yeah, I want these people to be happy to be here, and I don’t know, that’s on my mind a lot. I’m pretty confident in the food, and what I’m doing with that, but dealing with people from day to day, and wanting to keep this respectful environment, that’s a constant learning process. That’s what really throws me for a loop around here.

Brogan: For you, you are the boss, so it’s gotta be, you’re on a different level from your employees. How do you maintain open lines of communication? How do you ensure that they are able to come to you, or make their feelings heard, if something is off, or what have you?

Metevia: I don’t know. Probably effective use of profanity. I came up as a cook, so I still act and talk as a cook. I’m not somebody who had it in their head I’m gonna go to culinary school and be a chef, and then they went to school, and within two years actually got that job. I busted my ass to get where I am, working on the line. And I know what the line’s like. You’re a pirate back there, and you kinda act and talk like one. Yeah. I don’t know. I’m on the same level with those guys. I hope they recognize how honest I am with them about everything. And I seem to get that back for the most part, I hope.

Brogan: So just being, maintaining yourself on that level.

Metevia: Yeah, just trying to maintain, so I’m not bullshitting you, so you don’t have to treat me that way. I’m honest with you, I’m forward with you. Be the same with me.

Brogan: Yeah. So how has this block changed since you first opened up here? What’s it been like to witness those shifts?

Metevia: It’s got a lot more going on. When we first opened, there was LJ’s, down the street. They’re still open. That was the bar that we would go to every day when we were done working here. And that was pretty much it. Music studio opened across the street about the time we opened. That’s the building right there with the Squirt sign hanging on it. So then it was just us. And then all of a sudden, other things started to pop up. The burger place across the street, Sugar House, the great cocktail bar next door, Astro, the coffee shop. Incredible pastries in there.

Brogan: One of the best pour-overs I’ve ever had as well.

Metevia: They’re incredible.

Brogan: Really, just astonishing coffee.

Metevia: Yeah. That’s Di and Jess. Di used to work here, while he was building the coffee shop. He worked here as an expediter. So he’d work here all day, then he’d go next door and work on that. So it’s just really cool to see somebody create these businesses from the ground up, and just kinda watch the neighborhood flourish around them. It’s been nice.

Brogan: Do you feel that you’re contributing to what’s happening in Detroit, to the way that it’s changing or growing?

Metevia: I hope so. I really love a lot of the new restaurants that have opened over the last several years, who are doing stuff wildly different than what we do here, that I got a lot of respect for. I hope that what we still bring to the table is just reminding everybody that if you keep your product consistent, and you keep your mindset consistent, of wanting to be part of your community and give back to it, that you’ll, you can have longevity. ’Cause most restaurants don’t last more than a year or two, and we’re going on 11 years here. And yeah, I hope that other restaurant folk see that, and then once they’re a few years into their place, they realize that’s what you gotta do, stick to my guns, treat my staff right, make my food consistent, and I’ll get that 10 years, and then maybe I’ll get that 20 years too.

Brogan: There are a lot of persistent economic disparities in Detroit city that has some very wealthy people, thanks to some of the businesses in the area, and a lot of poverty, still. This is a place, a restaurant, that’s selling relatively high-end goods. How do you feel yourself fitting into the economics of Detroit more generally?

Metevia: Well, like you say, we are selling a higher-end item, but—you really have to stick to your guns with that. There are people out there who want that food, and are willing to pay for it. And if you were to compare our prices to really everyone around us, you’ll see that there’s not really any sort of disparity there, that we’re pretty …

Brogan: Comparable.

Metevia: ... middle of the road there, and comparable. I think one thing we brought to the neighborhood is providing a lot of jobs. And we do get a lot of neighborhood people who eat here, but even more so, we get people from the neighborhood who work here. And that’s been great just to see people come in here, they get jobs, they distribute their money into other businesses that they go to. And we get a lot of customers from the burbs, actually. A lot of people are coming down here for Tigers games. They’re going to the theater. They’re doing whatever it is that you do when you come down to the city. So our audience ... You’re coming outta Oakland County. There’s a lot of money in Oakland County. So we’re seeing everybody in here. It could be the neighborhood guy who maybe has enough money to go out once a month, and I’m proud that he picked this place, and I hope it was worth it to him. And then you get other people who, they probably do this three times a day, every day, and don’t even think about it. We’ve got the whole spectrum.

Brogan: How do you think about pricing generally? Has that changed over the years, how much you’re charging for stuff?

Metevia: Yeah, well, it’s had to change over the years, because our prices change.

Brogan: Right.

Metevia: And there was definitely a spell there where our prices, especially for our meat, just kept going up, and up, and up. And our prices never did. So at a certain point, yeah, we have had to change the menu, and play with the prices a little bit. But it was always in line with our own price changes. And yeah, you basically set up a formula of “This is what I need to make off this item, because this is what the lights cost, and this is what it costs to pay the staff, and this is what it needs to be profitable.” And then once you come up with those numbers, the pricing gets a lot easier, because you just put a recipe together and like, “OK, reality dictates if it doesn’t cost this, we close.”

Brogan: Was that kind of mathematical profit-based thinking something that came naturally to you, or did you have to learn it over the years?

Metevia: No, not really. Like I said, coming up in this, I cook and I eat. And a lot of these other, these chef skills, you pick up along the way. And yeah, that one did not come naturally to me. I am not a math person by nature, but I’ve gotten pretty good at kitchen math,

Brogan: How much of your day would you say you spend thinking about that kitchen math, about the bottom line?

Metevia: Oh, too much of it. I’ll think about that driving here. I have to remind myself to think about something else. And then even that’s probably work related. But yeah, too much of it.

Brogan: For you, someone who presumably really loves the work, the art of barbecue, is it ever a bummer that you have to focus on those material realities?

Metevia: Yes, it is a bummer. There’s no other way to put it. I have to spend a lot of time at the computer. And I get it. There’s no way around it in this day and age. Everything from the way the schedule is written, the way the invoices are received, it obviously goes through computers. And so yeah, there’s a good chunk of the week spent at that computer in the basement office, and I would very much rather be outside at the smoker, or even standing on the line, making a burger. But I don’t know. You make the best of it. I’ve gotten pretty fast at typing.

Brogan: What’s the most rewarding part of the process of running this place?

Metevia: Honestly, it might sound corny, but I think it’s my kids’ reaction to it. Before my kids, I don’t know what the most rewarding part was. I think I was too busy to think about it. I think it was the fact that I was taking care of myself, and was helping to employ other people who were taking care of their own lives. At this point, though, it’s that. It’s the kids.

Early in the year, my son had a project at school where they had to make a timeline of their life, and they had to come up with five of their most important life events, and for an eight-year-old, it’s pretty ... You’re curious. What happened in your life in these eight years that are really gonna stand out to you? And one of them was helping my dad smoke a pig at work, because it made me feel important. That really hit me, ’cause I didn’t think that much of it. I’ve drug him down here a few times like, “Hey, buddy. Can you help me do this?” And I’ll show him how to clean the inside of the pig out, and how to cut the thing up, and all that. And I don’t know, I had him out here out of necessity, if nothing else, like, I don’t have anybody to watch the kids today. Come down here with me, and we’re gonna cut a pig up really quick. And it really, yeah, the way it affected the kids that it was such a huge deal to them. I’m proud to be able to do that for them.

Brogan: That’s awesome.

Metevia: My daughter didn’t have the same reaction.

Brogan: I’m sure she likes the food, though.

Metevia: She likes the food, the macaroni in particular. She’s a very, very picky little eater, whereas my son, he’s like me. He’s down for whatever, like, “What is it? I’ll try it.”

Brogan: Well thank you so much for sharing your work with us today.

Metevia: I really appreciate you coming to talk to me. It’s been fun.

Brogan: It’s been fun for us too, and we love your food.

Metevia: Thank you.

Brogan: Thanks for listening to this episode of Working. I’m Jacob Brogan. If you, like me, are a Game of Thrones fan, I want to give a huge shout-out and recommendation this week to Slate’s Game of Thrones TV Club Podcast. Each week you can join the great June Thomas, Seth Stevenson, and Isaac Butler, three very smart, cool people, as they dissect every shocking power play for the Iron Throne, and debate who will survive this relentless winter. You can listen now at Slate.com/gameofthrones. And if that’s your thing, you can also, on Mondays, or if you’re up late, on Sunday nights, check out my weekly column “Worst Person in Westeros,” where I try to suss out who sucks the worst on a show full of terrible people. They also talk about that on the Game of Thrones TV Club Podcast.

We’d also love to hear your thoughts about Working. Our email address is working@slate.com. You can listen to past episodes at Slate.com/working.

In this Slate Plus extra, Mike Metevia shares his tips for home barbecue chefs.


Brogan: Do you have any tips for home barbecue chefs, anything that you’ve learned in the process of running this whole kitchen operation that can influence what people do at home?

Metevia: Yeah. I could say for one, don’t rush. Know going in that this is probably an all-day project. Quit opening your smoker to look at it.

Brogan: OK.

Metevia: As long as you have a thermometer sticking out of that thing, which—

Brogan: You suggest like a wired thermometer?

Metevia: Yeah, I would. It hits a certain point that you really don’t need it anymore. But even at that point, why not have it. All it’s gonna do is help you. It’s not hurting you in any way.

I personally don’t like lighter fluid. Some people do; I don’t. I like charcoal chimneys. I tell people to stay away from all the chemicals they can. If you’re gonna get charcoal, get a nice, natural hardwood charcoal. There’s a lot of them out there.

Brogan: Do you have a brand you like?

Metevia: Not really. I don’t even remember the name of the brand I’m using right now, to be honest with you.

Brogan: Just not the self-lighting kind.

Metevia: Yeah, just not the self-lighting kind. I like the big, ugly, chunky, messy kind.

Brogan: Burnstar.

Metevia: Yep. And it’s better flavor. And the quality of the meat. If you’re gonna spend six hours, twelve hours, whatever, barbecuing something, don’t do it because it was on sale. Go to the best butcher you can find, if you’re lucky enough to even have a butcher where you live. Buy decent stuff. If you can find organic, or all natural, or whatever, with your meat, it’s important, not just for the sustainability of the planet itself, but for you. You want it to taste good, right?

Brogan: Sure.

Metevia: And it’s not gonna be good if you’re using cheap commodity meat.

Brogan: Seasoning the meat, beforehand. Are there any standard things that you do for all cuts, before you’re getting something ready to smoke?

Metevia: I think the one standard thing would be to season it in advance. You can just throw a bunch of spice on it, and start barbecuing, and it’ll probably come out really good. But if you season it a day in advance, and try doing that same thing again, you’re gonna find a lot more flavor pushed into the meat.

Brogan: Dry brining, where you salt it heavily beforehand.

Metevia: Basically, yeah. It’s a lot of salt and spices, and yeah, exactly what you said, like a dry brine. The spices and the salt gets kinda sucked into the meat. So I definitely suggest that. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the phrase “the Texas crutch.” It’s what I’ve always heard it called when you wrap your ribs in foil. I would totally recommend that, toward the end. Say you’re smoking some ribs at home, and you plan on smoking them for five hours. During that last hour, take a few slabs of them and wrap them up in foil, and stick them back in there.

Brogan: What does that achieve?

Metevia: It helps them maintain all the moisture, in your foil pouch, and it makes a little bit of steam. So at that point, you’ve already soaked up all the smoke you’re gonna get. You’re just trying to maintain some moisture at the end, too. You can definitely make a great rib without doing that, but it’s definitely helpful.

Brogan: Is that just for ribs, or would that work on a pork shoulder or something?

Metevia: You can do it on all kinds of stuff. Like a pork shoulder or a brisket, I would suggest to people, that even if the entire process it’s smoked, it’s not wrapped; when they get done, wrap that thing up in foil, and just let it rest for an hour. And they’re gonna find that the heat redistributes. The tenderness is better, and it’s gotta cool down a little bit anyway. Yeah, I go through a lot of foil. Now that we’re talking about it, like, geez.