Jim Shahin writes the Washington Post “Smoke Signals” barbecue column and is an associate professor of journalism at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
“Chefs all over town may dream of owning fancy restaurants, but some might secretly prefer to be Adam Perry Lang,” said The New York Times in 2003, shortly after he opened Daisy May’s.
The Gray Lady was referring to Lang’s trajectory from the rarefied world of Michelin-starred restaurants to running what Lang called a “classic rib shack in the heart of New York City.” Lang’s “rib shack” signaled a change in the way barbecue was perceived. Even in the South, where it has been beloved forever, barbecue was not viewed as elevated cuisine. Lang’s background lent cred to a fledgling movement of smoked meats being taken more seriously as a culinary art. Last year, Austin’s Aaron Franklin, owner of Franklin Barbecue, won a James Beard award for Best Chef: Southwest. Such an accolade for a pitmaster was previously unimaginable.
Upon graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, the Long Island-raised Lang found work in some of the world’s top kitchens, including Le Cirque and Daniel in New York, and Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris. While many contemporaries rode the fine-dining wave, Lang’s interests took him elsewhere. After working in New Mexico for a wealthy Texan, where he experienced the glories of slow-smoked beef brisket, Lang decided to return to New York and open Daisy May’s BBQ USA.
“I don’t really differentiate foie gras from a fine brisket.”
“It was an interesting time in my profession, because things were just starting to shift to the science of food and chemistry,” he says. “But I didn’t want that to be the complete answer. So my response was to get into a way of cooking before you turn on the oven. I looked at it as just another language. It’s like you are going down a river and you think, ‘There’s an interesting direction.’ I just fell in love with cooking with fire.”
Lang went on to oversee nine push carts in New York, open Barbacoa with Jamie Oliver in London, and consult on Mario Batali’s Carnevino in Las Vegas. Along the way, he took grand champion honors at the World Pork Expo, won first place for his pork shoulder at the American Royal in Kansas City, and wrote three cookbooks—BBQ 25, Serious Barbecue, and Charred & Scruffed.
Although his chef and pitmaster pursuits may seem worlds apart, Lang sees little distinction between them. “I don’t really differentiate foie gras from a fine brisket,“ he says. “Great food is great food.”
Lang now lives in Southern California, where he made some noise serving barbecue on the back lot of Jimmy Kimmel Live! He says the much-hyped event didn’t impact the Los Angeles barbecue scene—“we have had barbecue for some time here”—but believes it may have “raised awareness that you can get great barbecue anywhere.” Lang is scheduled to do another back lot barbecue on December 8-10 and 15-17. Meanwhile, he is working on opening a wood-fired restaurant in Los Angeles.
Lang’s career traces the arc of modern barbecue itself. Once steadfastly rural, barbecue is now central to the nation’s urban culinary scene. “Everybody said you can’t have good barbecue in the city,” Lang says, recalling a refrain he heard before he opened Daisy May’s. “These days, there are fewer skeptics coming in.”
From the unassuming brilliance of tripe stew in Daniel Boulud’s kitchen, to a defining moment with pork ribs in Mississippi, here are 10 foods that helped inspire Adam Perry Lang over the years.
Hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut
When I go to New York, it’s literally the first thing I will eat when I get off the plane. It’s my comfort food—the last thing I want to eat before I die. It’s gotta be cooked on a griddle, and done really slowly. I love seeing when all the “dogs” are lined up touching each other, and the guy behind the counter just rolls them with his hand to turn ’em over. I like a kosher dog cooked slightly crispy, but the mustard has to be spicy brown deli mustard—never yellow ballpark. (Photo: greatestamericanhotdogs.com)
Black and white/Italian cookies
Black and white cookies are New York to me, but so are the incredible assortment of cookies that surround them: the Italian layered rainbow cookies that have the texture of marzipan, with their fake chocolate couverture on top, or the chocolate half-dipped, raspberry jam-filled scalloped “sand” cookies, as I call them. They are so buttery and just barely hold together, and crumble into buttery sugar-sand in your mouth. The place I love is called The Bakery [a.k.a., Bakery West], just off of Willis Ave, in Albertson. It’s where I grew up, and it’s been there for well over 40 years.
Growing up, my mother would make a giant pile of chicken cutlets for us kids to eat. Both parents worked, so we often looked after ourselves, and cold cereal just became so old. Cutlets were something we would cook together. The recipe was straightforward: pounded skinless, boneless chicken breast, flour, egg, and seasoned breadcrumbs. The whole house would smell incredible. I’d eat them cold or hot, as chicken parmesan or simply with just lemon, salt, and lots of black pepper. To this day, it’s still my go-to mainstay. (Photo: Youtube/Dishin with Di)
Scallop truffle puff pastry at Le Cirque
There was a dish that Daniel Boulud prepared when I was working at Le Cirque. It was an instant classic, almost like a lighter seafood version of Beef Wellington. He would procure the most beautiful live Maine diver scallop and slice it horizontally into three or four slices. He then sandwiched black truffle between the layers. Because the scallops were so fresh, the protein just welded itself around the truffle, locking in its essence. The whole thing was then wrapped in steamed spinach leaves and thin puff pastry. Freakin’ heaven. Absolute perfection. It really inspired me to see classic dishes in new and fresh ways. Such a mature dish. I loved it. (Photo: Daniel Krieger)
When I graduated from culinary school and worked at Daniel, his sous chef at the time, Philippe Bertineau, would put this giant smelly, awful pot of tripe stew into the oven. Worse, it was right smack under my station. Every Wednesday for Daniel’s plats classique, he would get to work. I hated it. Not only was it in my way, I could not stand the smell. But young in my career, I later realized that I just did not understand what I was experiencing. Over time, I began to understand its true brilliance. The dish just had this haunting, glorious smell, a rich consistency and depth of flavor that you rarely find in food today. This dish became something incredible for me, something I now seek out and flat-out crave. I still have never had one quite like his. I miss it. It just moved me. (Photo: foodwishes.blogspot.com)
Adam’s peanut candy
Adam’s peanut candy was a recipe taught to me in nursery school. In fact, it actually made it to my mother’s sacred index card catalog of recipes. It’s a really special recipe because it was something I made completely by myself, and it was also the first time I can remember seeing enjoyment in people’s eyes from food I made. It really made an impression on me. The ingredients were corn syrup, peanut butter, and I think we put chopped peanuts in. We mixed everything together and rolled it in powdered sugar to keep from sticking. Super simple. I was four-years-old and felt like a star. (Photo: peanut.com)
Linguine with tuna bottarga
This was a dish that I prepared in a restaurant called MONZU, my first chef gig. It was the beginning of my exploration of Sicilian ingredients in a very French way. I created a bottarga butter, which I finished the pasta with in the pan. The dish itself was finished by crumbling nicely caramelized cauliflower, pine nuts, currants, and breadcrumbs over the top. It had a great crisp texture while being velvety all at the same time. By giving it a final shave of bottarga, the dish just exploded with umami essence. It was one of the first dishes where I took something very classic and made my own. (Photo: italyqualityfood.com)
Littleneck clams on the half shell
Littleneck clams on the half shell, fresh from the sea and just touched with grated horseradish, a splash of lemon, and hot sauce—that’s it! When I graduated toward a full appreciation of all things raw, the clam became my obsession. I truly found a love and deep appreciation for it. The salinity of the ocean still contained, and the slightly chewy, unctuous texture gives me intense pleasure. (Photo: swanriverseafood.com)
Fried calamari at Randazzo’s Clam Bar (Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn)
Ordered with “a lotta legs” and medium sauce, with hot sauce on the side. In high school, fresh with a new driver’s license, my friends and I would jump in the car and drive from Long Island to Brooklyn. The long drive just intensified the experience and anticipation. We were known as the “water boys from Riverhead” (even though we were not from Riverhead, go figure). We would constantly ask for pitchers of water because of the hot pepper-spiked sauce, so thick you could stand a spoon in the pot. The calamari was perfectly fried, super crisp. At the time, calamari was not as abundant as it is today, so it was borderline exotic. The dish and restaurant was something really special, a historic place, a place where my grandparents went. A hundred percent nostalgia and personal connection. (Photo: Yelp/Lisa F.)
Pork ribs in Mississippi
Not even sure if he is still around, but down in Greenville, Mississippi, there was literally a roadside stand I came across by chance called The Rib Shack. A guy named John, with two oil-drum smokers that he cooks out of, creates magic. He makes pork ribs that, when I ate them, completely messed me up. It made me rethink and scale down my approach to barbecue. I ate a rack and a half myself. It was an ‘eat-it-on-the-hood-of-the-truck’ kind of experience. My conversation with him after had a real impact on me. He was so confident, and he expressed his barbecue the way an affectionate father speaks of his child. When I think of barbecue, I consider cooking techniques as varied as the situation that could present itself. Having flexibility and many approaches is a lot like playing golf, with the process of choosing a golf club. His barbecue was so stripped down, and it punched like it was a titanium driver. (Photo courtesy Adam Perry Lang)