Do you know who the most influential person at a barbecue joint is? I do. It’s probably not who you think it is, either. It’s not the butcher, or the owner, or even the pitmaster himself.
The biggest influencer of a barbecue restaurant’s reputation is the meat cutter.
I had often thought about the importance of the role of the cutter (or at very least, the instructions the cutter is given to follow), but a recent meal of excellent barbecue confirmed the theory. I had ordered moist brisket, my friend (during a lapse of judgement) had ordered lean and also received the charred end piece. The meal was one of the best I’ve had in Austin, and certainly I couldn’t fault my tray at all, but then I reached across to try the very end of the flat that was served to my mate. As you’d expect, it was unpleasant at best. Dry and crusty, it had the texture of jerky with the added challenge of being too thick and too charred to even bite down on it successfully. A real masticatorial obstacle.
I tried it because it was there. I knew what it was going to taste like and didn’t let it change my opinion on the rest of the barbecue because I knew it shouldn’t have been served and that’s not the type of brisket you judge a place on. But what if I were to recommend this place and send people there to eat? They would potentially get that end piece and think I was mental. This inclusion of the end piece had the potential to change the entire opinion of the meal, and therefore of the barbecue restaurant.
The meat that is served, or not served, is singlehandedly controlled by the cutter, who therefore controls the difference between a one and a five star meal.
When a brisket is cooked, no matter the talent of the pitmaster, there is usually some wastage. Unlike the “burnt ends” which come from a moist point end, some of the extremities of the flat, and other trimmed areas, may get a little too crusty and should be trimmed away and not served. These imperfect offcuts don’t mean the cook isn’t talented, nor does it mean he is cheating by not serving them. I liken it to a restaurant serving the same perfectly sized portion of fish, rather that using the entire filet which is harder to cook evenly since it tapers off.
Any business owner or proud pitmaster worth their salt should be instructing and training the meat cutter to remove any unpalatable chunks at all costs. There are two major reasons why this doesn’t happen: greed or ignorance.
If a business is greedy, the cutter may choose, or be under instruction, to serve everything that comes off the pit no matter the condition. A brisket already loses around 50% of it’s mass during the cook time, and some people just aren’t comfortable with the idea of not serving what precious amount is left. But, there’s no such thing as ‘can’t afford the wastage’. A restaurant simply must include wastage in the costings and everyday business expenses. Choosing to serve a bad piece of barbecue by claiming that your bottom line can’t afford the wastage will be more damaging to overall profits than the initial loss of a few bucks could ever be.
If the cutter is ignorant, or untrained, it may not even occur to them that they should be withholding cuts that aren’t up to scratch. They may feel they will get into trouble if they don’t maximise profits by not wasting anything, or scrapping too many pieces. Alternatively, they may not even like barbecue all that much, but just be doing it as they would any other job, and it doesn’t occur to them that those end pieces aren’t actually good. Both of these scenarios could be improved by initial and ongoing training of staff. If the pitmaster is cutting and won’t let a piece through, the person cutting when the PM has a day off should be trained to cut in exactly the same fashion.
Whatever the reason, this all comes down to an issue of quality control. Taking the extra time and expense to implement and maintain a higher level of quality control means barbecue joints would have greater control over consistency, no matter what the weather or fire is doing. And ultimately, this should lead to a bigger fan base and increased revenue. But most importantly, it’s just plain un-Texan to serve bad barbecue.
As a customer, there are a couple of things you can do to improve your own barbecue experience. Get yourself educated enough to never accept the very first cut from the flat end of a brisket (yes, you actually do have the right to specify the part you’d like, although this only applies to restaurants selling by the pound and cutting to order). A very least, I recommend ordering both point (moist) and flat (lean) when trying brisket, if only to figure out which you prefer. Someone once asked me whether I preferred to order moist or lean brisket – and to this day I still order a little of both. Moist for the flavor, lean to see how talented the pitmaster is. Or maybe it’s always just been how good the cutter is at quality control…