Labor Day Feature: Life in the Pits with Brandon Cook

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off for Pork We Go
A few weeks ago the Rib Rabbi and I headed west down Interstate 85 to Lexington, where we rendezvoused with a Winston-Salem Journal reporter for dinner and an interview.  I’d been to Cook’s BBQ a couple of times before, loved their food, and figured it would be the perfect off-the-beaten path location to meet.  If the reporter found her way to this hidden gem of a restaurant several miles south of Lexington, then I figured she could be trusted to report faithfully on the divine swine.  Well, the reporter got lost somewhere on the way to Cook’s BBQ and showed up a little bit late for dinner (she did show up and did apologize so she passed my test).  Lucky for the Rib Rabbi and me, while we waited on our dinner date to arrive pitmaster Brandon Cook  gave us a thorough tour of the operation. 

Zen and the Art of Barbecue
I’d wanted to talk to Brandon ever since reading an interview with him in Holy Smoke, in which he described the way-out-of-the-way location of Cook’s BBQ as follows: “Our location is a very nice spot.  Nobody drops in accidentally; if you’re coming here, this is your destination.”  The quote’s half-Zen, half-mad scientist logic struck a chord with me.  I knew I’d like anybody who thought his restaurant’s location was perfect because nobody could find the place without knowing it was there.  And maybe Brandon was right about the location, as Cook’s BBQ was doing brisk business when we were there.  In fact, it had undergone a major expansion since the last time I’d visited a couple years back.  But it still serves delicious traditional NC barbecue, as well as not-so-traditional-for-NC Texas-style beef brisket.

Beef in Lexington?! It's okay, remain calm...

Beef brisket in Lexington?! It's okay, try to remain calm...

Cook’s Cook Can Cook
Brandon Cook is a fairly young man, but he works the pit like he’s been doing it for many decades.  Brandon grew up in the restaurant business–his dad, Doug, used to own Cook’s BBQ and now owns another joint in town–and learned to work a pit at an early age.  He has been cooking ever since.  Better yet, while scores of other pitmasters (including, not insignificantly, his old man) have moved away from traditional wood pit cooking methods to save time or money, Brandon has clung fiercely to tradition.  Every day Cook’s BBQ is open, Brandon slow-cooks pork shoulders over hickory (and occasionally oak) coals for 10+ hours to get the flavor and tenderness he is so proud of. 

Brandon is serious when it comes to barbecue.  But don’t get me wrong, he is not an over-serious guy.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  While talking with the Rib Rabbi and me, Brandon cracked more jokes than I can remember.  He even joked that he’d refined his craft over the years by barbecuing “deer, raccoons, squirrels, anything my friends bring me, you name it,” but not in Cook’s BBQ’s pit, of course!   He reasoned that if you can barbecue a squirrel without burning it, then a pork shoulder oughta be easy.  I can’t vouch for Brandon’s squirrel cooking talents, but when it comes to cooking Lexington-style pork barbecue the way that folks have been doing since the early 20th century, Brandon is spot on. 

We had the privilege of spending 10 minutes or so at the pit with Brandon, as he showed us how he “slings” in fresh coals under the meat as it cooks, always being careful to pound the coals down to a pebble-like size to avoid “burning the place down.”  Tending the pit is not rocket science, as Brandon would surely agree, but it’s not easy either.  He regularly works 12-hour days and has to tend to the hot, smoky pit a couple of times each hour.  But it’s a life he loves.  Heck, he even claims to still eat at least one barbecue sandwich a day (to keep the doctor health inspector away?).

Shoulders ready to pull of the Cook's BBQ pit

Smoke-kissed pork shoulders ready to pull off the Cook's BBQ pit

The only real shortcut Brandon’s taken is switching from hand chopping the meat to an electric chopper–something he says is necessitated by the volume of ‘cue Cook’s BBQ serves nowadays.  Although some places that do more volume than Cook’s still hand-chop their meat, it’s hard to begrudge him this one.  Given how good a pitmaster Brandon is, I think it might be a good thing for him to preserve his wrists so he can use them for tending the fires for the next few decades.  I know I look forward to tasting his ‘cue for many years to come.  So, raise your glass of sweet tea and join me as I toast pitmaster Brandon Cook’s future and the future of traditional North Carolina barbecue. Here, here!

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