Some say the best ideas come to you in the shower. For Evan LeRoy and Matt Gross, their great idea came to them in a swimming pool. "Last summer, we were in a pool, drinking beer and we said, 'You know what we should do? We should have a ... backyard barbecue where we cook barbecue-inspired food, but that's not your typical barbecue,'" laughs Gross.
They decided to name their lofty endeavor the Austin Barbecue Society, and just four days after that fateful pool meeting, the first dinner was held in Gross' backyard. LeRoy, the executive chef and pitmaster of the acclaimed Freedmen's in West Campus, orchestrated the first meal which was an Indian-inspired barbecue feast with dishes like lamb vindaloo. "It was just stuff people hadn't seen before," says Gross. "And we thought, maybe we have something here."
There is a new understanding of barbecue as art, the fusion of time, skill, science and passion.
In less than a year, their "backyard barbecue" has grown to a 50-person ticketed affair, with some of the greatest pitmasters in Austin taking turns as chef. In addition to LeRoy, John Lewis of La Barbecue, Tom Micklethwait of Micklethwait Craft Meats and Miguel Vidal of Valentina's Tex Mex BBQ, have all played host, using the opportunity not to serve up their usual famed fare, but to experiment. "We'll tell whoever is cooking to do whatever [they] want to do, just add smoke to it somehow," says Gross.
Coupled with the festive atmosphere, communal tables, white linens and artful place settings, it's the Austin Barbecue Society's willingness (and emphasis on) experimenting that makes it so special. "You go to every single barbecue restaurant, every single backyard barbecue and everyone has the ribs, the potato salad, the chicken. One of the first things I said to Matt was, 'I want to try out different things.'"
That "try anything" attitude has led to some very unique — and tasty — dishes including: smoked black pepper ice cream from Lewis, fideo beef tenderloin from Vidal, a "very impressive" charcuterie plate from Micklethwait, and smoked saag paneer from LeRoy's first Indian-inspired dinner.
For those of us whom the term "barbecue" still conjures up images of our dad in front of a Weber, all this fuss about barbecue can be surprising. But, during the last few years, the spotlight on this American classic has bred a new understanding of barbecue as art, the fusion of time, skill, science and passion — something that Gross says Texans have always had.
"I think there has always been a cultural respect for barbecue, particularly in Texas. Everybody loves [it]." says Gross. "We have different definitions for [what makes] great barbecue, but the Texas definition is correct," he adds, laughing.
Like the pitmasters and restaurateurs who have elevated barbecue as a cuisine, the Austin Barbecue Society is elevating the experience of barbecue.
Like the pitmasters and restaurateurs who have elevated barbecue as a cuisine, the Austin Barbecue Society is elevating the experience of barbecue. "We could put any of the dishes on a paper plate, and they would still be incredible, but there's something lost in presentation," explains Gross. "There are other things to your experience when you eat that's more than just the food. That kind of detail doesn't go unnoticed."
It's the cultivated experience that has turned this meet-up into a hot commodity. Though ticket prices change according to the dinner, tickets to the most recent Cinco de Mayo celebration were $40 and featured a five-course meal by Vidal. Bringing drinks to the decidedly adult affair is highly encouraged, though the founders are quick to note that people should only bring things they love or have recently discovered and want to share with others.
Sharing and discovery (oh, and barbecue) are the heart of the Austin Barbecue Society. LeRoy and Gross have crafted an anything goes attitude that allows for experimentation and creativity. "It's a sense of community, fostering a real community of people who live and cook barbecue," says LeRoy. "And they love it the most. They devote their lives to it."
To join the mailing list and receive information on the next event, head to the Austin Barbecue Society website.