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A New Orleans Restaurant Veteran Finds Balance in Barbecue
RIVERBEND -- Tilting a glass of strong iced coffee, Neil McClure laughs at a recollection of two friends trying to give him a break from his late night post monitoring the hickory logs inside the firebox of his Lang 84” smoker during a recent marathon session.
“They couldn’t even give me an hour before they came knocking at the window. ‘Neil, we screwed up the fire.’ The fog had rolled in, the fire got low, they didn’t stoke it enough, I don’t know. It just started losing temperature, and I’m like, ‘Y’all go to bed. You’ve had enough drink. You don’t even know how to tend fire.’”
McClure recently traded his high stress, night-and-weekend-eating schedule as general manager of Dante’s Kitchen for a lower stress, graveyard-through-swing rotation in which his chief concern is to “watch the fire.” In many other situations this phrase would seem metaphorical. But for an enterprising purveyor of traditional barbecue, it means just what it means.
McClure loads up a chamber of his smoker with hardwood logs and sets it alight around 1 a.m. Ten hours later, he opens the doors to customers of his popup inside of Dante’s. Until then, however, his job is to maintain an even fire that will slow cook his beef briskets, pork butts, racks of ribs, and chickens. He opens the door to the wood chamber every half hour or so to check on it, using the blackened blade of a shovel to shift wood, rearrange embers, and settle new logs into prime position. The goal is to avoid the white smoke of a dying fire.
“When you’ve got a clean burning fire, it emits what has been termed ‘thin, blue smoke’… It’s hard to see sometimes. If it’s really burning good you can barely see anything.”
Maintaining the heat throughout the smoker is important so that each individual piece of meat inside gets cooked as consistently as its neighbor, and avoiding the white smoke means the resulting barbecue won’t have a heavy creosote flavor.
The result of these long hours keeping the flame is outstanding barbecue and also a tired, slightly discombobulated version of McClure by the end of service, especially on Tuesday nights when he powers through to serve dinner family style. Replicating an after-church big bowl, shared-plate style experience was McClure's original plan for his own restaurant, but that approach became hard to incorporate in a lunch setting due to quick turnover at the tables. His Tuesday night crowds, though, are more open to this Southern traditional version of Bacchanal where you simply step through the door, grab a beer or two out of the ice tub, have a seat and let the food arrive.
Even though McClure put a quick stop to the endless servings of meat—“One guy came in and ate a rack and a half, and I realized how bad a decision that was as a business person”—his fleet-footed staff are ready to replenish empty bowls of slaw, potato salad, and mac ‘n cheese. McClure obviously takes a pride in having his sides made fresh every day and on not taking shortcuts or dumping ingredients out of Sysco bags. He has taken many trips through barbecue country, tasting and soliciting advice. While he learned a lot about the meat, he also noticed that side dishes could be an afterthought - even in some high profile joints.
“Maybe that’s the New Orleans foodie in me being kind of snobbish on sides, but it really was one of my efforts early on," he said. "I can’t sell beans out of a can…I cook things from scratch because that’s how we cook in New Orleans. And maybe that’s where Louisiana barbecue will come into its own nature, just taking better care of the food.”
McClure acknowledges that a big part of the ongoing evolution of New Orleans’ barbecue palate is the amount of transplants from throughout the South that have arrived and slowly raised an awareness of the different techniques and flavors out there. He freely admits to trying to knock off other restaurants’ sauces and provides seven bottles to every table that represent different capitals of consumption.
There is a tomato and molasses sauce flying the Kansas City banner. He added some Louisiana heat to a mayo, cider vinegar, and pepper sauce he borrowed from Gibson’s in Decatur, Alabama. And in paying tribute to the rival regions of the cradle of barbecue, North Carolina, he has both a sweet and tangy Western and a vinegar-based Eastern variety.
Not being a native of any of these places, he has used the ample time he has alone in the night to work on the flavor profiles and consistency of these sauces, and experimentation is popular with many of the diners who have no allegiance of their own either.
Over the past few months his customers have fed McClure second helpings of positive reinforcement, and he is eagerly on the search for the right space and the right investors to make his own location a reality. He has enjoyed a little more of a symbiotic relationship inside of Dante’s than other popups might have— if you consider working six shifts in a week “popping up”—but it is apparent that his transition from being the general manager of a place to being the guy who borrows the space is nearing its end. He is still trying to kick the habit of saying “we” when referring to the established restaurant and notes that the logistical issues can be restrictive for both parties. He is considering transitioning to operating in another restaurant’s space to move along and learn new lessons while planning his ideal method of operations.
One thing he knows for sure: the standalone McClure’s Barbecue won’t be beholden to finicky point of sale systems or overzealous wine reps.
“Pen and paper,” he says, referring to how he would prefer to run tickets and balance the register. “No more waking up in the middle of the night dreaming that the system has gone down.”
Almost every neighborhood from Mid-City to the Irish Channel is a possible target, but finding a space that is willing to deal with his particularly delicious-smelling carbon footprint is an obstacle.
“Wherever the wind’s blowing that’s where my business is coming from…But that’s also going to be a problem," he says. "A couple places I’ve already looked at on Freret weren’t interested in having smoke around them in their buildings.”
While he might have to give up on the idea of family style, he thinks he may be able to incorporate a weekly Whole Pig Pickin’ that will encourage communal eating.
“We all stand around the table eating crawfish, right?” he says.
He also wants to facilitate the incubation of other talents like his and offer up his future home to promising popups once a week.
“You gotta pay back karma,” he says.
Wherever McClure ends up, he will be taking his process with him, including the long hours and methodical preparation. He’s not an open-up and step-back type of guy.
“It’s why my wife has not wanted me to do my own thing for the sixteen years we’ve been together," he says. "And now she’s kind of cool with it because she sees that I’m a lot happier.”
McClure’s reroute onto the path of simplicity has him spending more time with his sons now that he’s off weekends and nights, and he has an excuse to tap out right before bath time. In his time alone he has learned to track constellations across the sky and notice the varieties of dawn that color the riverside levee. “It’s all about keeping it simple,” he says. The goal is to avoid the white smoke of a dying fire. You either know how to do it or you don’t."
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