The Food Dudes Mess With Texas
Team research trip leads to a strategic pivot, a custom-built smoker, and newfound BBQ expertise
July 31, 2017
We were somewhere around Barton Hills, on the edge of Austin, when the meat sweats began to take hold.
Hang on. Rewind.
Once upon a time, The Food Dudes opened a little takeout lunch counter on the ground floor of our Leslieville headquarters. We called it Pantry. The original idea was to take advantage of product surpluses to create the menu but, very quickly, we were too busy to keep up with only leftovers. We needed to devise a new concept to build Pantry around, so we headed to the land of indulgence and inspiration: America.
Any culinary pilgrimage requires a detailed itinerary, maybe even a reservation or two made in advance. Our guru on this decisive journey was longtime pal and noted Nota Bene chef David Lee, who provided our guide map to carnivorous transcendence. Armed with David’s expertly-curated list and our never-say-die appetites, we took off for Austin – in the heart of Texas – on a mission to bring some form of BBQ magic back home.
The centrepiece of our fire pit-traversing trek would be Franklin Barbecue – the world famous, award-drenched, Obama-graced, highest-esteemed joint on either side of the Mississippi – but we’d build up to that. Our flight from Toronto touched down midday, the vast Texan bounty glowing with sunlight before us, and we hit the ground running.
Few taxi rides remain as memorable as our fired-up bolt to Terry Black’s, chauffeured by an incredulous cabbie who couldn’t fathom our bona fides (the David Lee effect in action, thank you very much) and charged with hopeful energy. Having dropped our bags in a haste before plunging headfirst into Austin’s succulent abyss, we’d soon find our minds and memories blurring like waves of heat off the highway.
Terry Black’s massive beef short rib brought peak enjoyment with its tenderness and drool-inducing flavour, and soon our whirlwind tour of the Lone Star capital was rolling along in a decadent haze. Tito’s and quesos and briskets (oh my!). We took the city by storm, barely pausing between bites or beverages, and taking notes at every turn. We were struck by the precision of the barbecue menus, and the mindblowing simplicity of the products used. Slack-jawed, dizzy and salivating our way from one meal to the next.
We even cleaned up for some fine dining excursions, most notably a visit to Olamaie for sublime Southern cuisine of the highest order. The gracious hospitality receiving us was only outmatched by the perfection of the dishes we tasted, as our request to sample the entire menu sent one of the chefs generously rushing to roll fresh crackers to ensure we wouldn’t miss out on the famed Fish Dip. Creative cocktails and flawless Southern fare washed over us. We savoured every last second.
The next day, after dusting off bodies and brains, our date with Franklin had arrived. We joined an impossibly long queue on the sunny sidewalk, peering at the hundred-plus people ahead of us and wondering if any food would be left by the time we reached the counter. An hour and a half later, with our anticipation peaking, we met the mecca of BBQ. The juices soon dripped off our chins, our eyes rolled back into our heads, and all was right with the world.
Out of our flesh-fed fog, an epiphany emerged: The new meat smoker we had been designing could do more than merely supply a classic BBQ joint, and the new Rosedale outpost of Pantry could expand beyond such specificity by featuring a sort of greatest hits of Food Dudes dishes. Instead of identifying a singular focus as intricate of the art of Texas-style BBQ (a feat Toronto has recently seen achieved, by the way), and thereby restricting ourselves to certain menu standards, Pantry could think bigger. The path forward, now clear and inspired, was to nurture our excitement and creativity as chefs via Pantry, and to give Food Dudes’ catering arm some valuable time in the smoker while we’re at it.
The custom smoker project would came together with typical fervour, its shipping container skeleton and carbon filter system allowing it to hide in plain sight for the peace of our neighbours, and the whole Food Dudes team getting a crack at its versatile capabilities. Our dream of uncovering some elusive BBQ secret and recreating it for the folks back home had faded and, as we watched the sun set on our Texan sojourn, we toasted our good fortune in finding that sometimes, a change of plans waits to make room for amusement.