Guy’s Time: Meating of the Minds
written by CARL DANBURY, JR. | photography by ALAN BROOKS PHOTOGRAPHY
After 16 years as a sales representative for two wine distribution companies, one in North Carolina and one here, Roswell’s Brian Keenan has taken a new road, following his favorite avocation and creating a business. Well noted for his great palate and unobtrusive way with people, Keenan is utilizing those traits as owner and CSO (Chief Smoker Operator) of Meating Street BBQ, which provides multi-regional barbecue for an array of clients.
In the back of his modest home, the Big Pig Rig and the new Pig Rig Trailer are ready to warm to the task for smoking large quantities of St. Louis-cut pork ribs, brisket, pork shoulder, Boston butt, beef ribs, chicken or sausage for corporate or nonprofit events, neighborhood gatherings, restaurant visits, family reunions and once a month at Roswell’s “Alive After 5” in front of Founder’s Hall (appearing July 16). Accompanied by homemade and hand-cut redskin potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans (with five varieties of beans), pickled onions and pickles, the Keenan arsenal is well-stocked to create wide smiles of satisfaction.
Until Keenan opens his planned bricks-and-mortar Northside location in the near future, he will continue to rely upon the purred of mouth from those who have enjoyed his barbecue. I found out about Keenan from one of his former wine sup- pliers, Steve Pignatiello, who included in his e-mail to me the following: “The slab of ribs was exceptional — some of the best I’ve ever had — and his brisket was out-of- this-world delicious. I know you like to eat, Carl.”
OK, Steve, let go of my arm. I’ll be the judge of that.
PERSONALITY IN EVERY BITE
While preparing for May’s “Alive After 5” event, Keenan began pulling meats off the Big Pig Rig and invited me to sample the ribs, sausage and the magnificent sides. As he described the process of how he smokes the meats and prepares the sides, I was slobbering between bites like my 6-year-old bloodhound. The ribs didn’t fall off the bone (a sure sign of overcooking) nor did they take much coaxing. In essence, they were perfectly prepared and the applewood he uses (rather than the masking hickory or oak that is common- place in the Southeast) seasons the meat with a slightly sweet, well-balanced flavor, something Keenan learned in the wine trade.
“There are a million ways to cook barbecue, but I want to do it as naturally as I can,” Keenan said. “I use hardwood lump charcoal that has been burned down from hardwoods in South America. I use applewood from organic apple orchards in northern Missouri. Elements like those end up providing the flavors in the meat. It doesn’t taste like everyone else’s barbecue. I think people seek things that are unique, and I think constantly honing in on things that are an expression of you is important.”
Keenan uses 60-percent hardwood lump charcoal and 40-percent applewood when smoking his meats. Tough cuts can take up to 18 to 20 hours on his indirect heat smoker, and the combination for his heat source provides the right amount of smoke and the right amount of sweetness. How does he figure out the right ratio?
“I am not saying that I am perfecting what I am doing, but I am always focused on making things a little bit better. Working on a fire is a craft on its own. That’s something big that is happening today with barbecue. People are paying more attention to the fire and not closing down all of the vents to create a lot of smoke. It’s managing the airflow to enable you to balance the amount of smoke to create the clean flavors of the meat. If you use too much wood, sometimes the meat can get a bit of a petroleum taste,” he added.
All of his rubs, sauces and recipes are 100 percent his own, and he uses all-natural ingredients. The only item that has gluten is his barbecue sauce, which has a small amount of soy sauce, but those with celiac disease can enjoy these meats without sauce, which Keenan actually prefers.
“The way I cook is very basic, very simple and is done the way I believe it should be done. It’s meat. It should taste like meat. My personality is in every bite you take. A little sweet, salty, spicy, smoky … my friends have said that the meat truly resembles my personality,” he said.
FUELING THE FIRE
Keenan’s wife, Joanna, said she was a bit apprehensive initially with her husband’s entrepreneurial move, but knowing just how good of a cook he was made it more comforting.
“Initially, I was scared because we were going from a two-income household to maybe a one-and-a-quarter one,” she related. “My job [was] unsettled during the last few months of last year, but once that became settled in December, we began thinking that we could take this endeavor more seriously.”
Not only a cheerleader, Joanna has been a recipe taster and a source of inspiration. After all, it was Joanna’s birthday celebration several years ago that first fired up Keenan’s passion for ribs. The challenge of making her a great birthday meal, combined with his quest for perfection, has spawned a new career.
“I told him that if I didn’t believe in what he is doing, it would be really hard for me to be supportive,” she shared. “His food is excellent! I have never had anything that he has made for me — barbecue or beef Stroganoff, any veal dish like Osso Bucco — that hasn’t been top notch. Even breakfast … his omelets are wonderful.”
She said she knows he’ll be successful because of his skills and passion. “It has been an adjustment for us, but he seems so much happier …”
“A million times happier!” Keenan interjected. “The stress level was off the charts. Now, I don’t have a guy calling me on a Thursday afternoon cursing me out because we are out of a wine he is pouring by the glass at his restaurant. I can feel good about what I am doing and what I am selling. I don’t have to make excuses for things I don’t know the answer to. With this, I know exactly what the answer is.”
The answer is offering tempting, naturally smoked barbecue and sides, the recipes and techniques for which have been developed through trial and error.
“At this point, I am cooking the best barbecue I ever have, but in my mind, I also know where I would like to be,” Keenan said. “It’s going to take time, patience and learning to get there. A lot of people say what I am making is great and not to change a thing. While my recipes should not change, the evolution of my techniques should, which will hopefully enable me to perfect the craft.”
One taste of Keenan’s brisket might lead you to think that he already has.
KEENAN’S 10 BASIC PRINCIPLES FOR SMOKING OR GRILLING MEATS
Many backyard Joes and a few Janes believe they are the grill kings and queens. Whether you use a ceramic, charcoal or gas grill, we won’t dispute that notion. We will, however, provide some insight from Meating Street BBQ’s Brian Keenan to help you create your best Fourth of July barbecue ever.
“Everyone is in love with the Big Green Egg, but it’s a very tiny space for cooking things that take a long time,” Keenan said. “The offset cooker system, a very simple one that you can get from Academy Sports in Cumming, for example, does a great job for less than it will cost to purchase a Big Green Egg.”
Instead, Keenan suggests learning about the basic principles of your heat source, the convection flow throughout the unit and “how all of that stuff works together to help you cook a great piece of meat.”
When you are cooking large pieces of meat for extended periods of time, cook ribs at 210 to 225 degrees and beef brisket or pork shoulder at 250 to 275 degrees.
“When I only had my Weber, that thing was fired up four or five times a week, particularly in the summer. There was always something on [it]. I still use it all the time when I am cooking for my wife and [myself], or for small groups at home. If you want to be good at it, you have to do it often. And, don’t be afraid to put your own spin on whatever you’re making,” Keenan offered.
4. If you start with a good quality piece of meat, you’ll likely end up with some good barbecue. Bad pieces of meat can’t be improved just because you are a master griller.