Not long ago, while talking about his new barbecue project at a small brewery in Lucketts, VA, celebrity chef Bryan Voltaggio blanched at the notion he might one day produce smoked meats as memorable as those by Aaron Franklin, the founder and trailblazer behind Franklin Barbecue in Austin.

“He’s next level,” balked Voltaggio.“That’s incredible stuff. I know I’m a good cook. You know what I mean? I’m proud of what I do. But I’m not Aaron Franklin when it comes to barbecue.”

Voltaggio wasn’t erecting a wall of false modesty with his comments. He was just stating the facts as he sees them: Voltaggio may create fine-dining tasting menus that flash both flair and technical brilliance, but he’s a mere a potato peeler compared to Franklin in barbecue circles. And yet, when you taste Voltaggio’s brisket at the Vanish brewery, it mimics some of the qualities you’ll find at Franklin: a lean, pepper-heavy rub, no sauce, quality beef, all-wood cooking.

If he hasn’t directly influenced dozens of startup pitmasters, from Virginia to Texas to Brooklyn, Aaron Franklin has certainly challenged them all: to think bigger, to aim higher, to put their own stamp on barbecue. Since he got into the game, Franklin has been rethinking almost every facet of barbecue, from the grade of meat used to the holding times, and in the process, he has become the very definition of influential.

But who else has left his or her mark on the sometimes insular, always competitive world of American barbecue? It’s a question we put to a group of heavy hitters, people who have been writing and thinking about the subject for years. Their picks spanned generations and almost every regional style, proving something important: Influence comes in many forms. There are the innovators, such as Franklin and formally trained chefs, who continue to redefine barbecue, sometimes looking outside U.S. borders for inspiration. But there are also the traditionalists who adhere to methods developed decades ago. Both have a long line of followers behind them.

Just as important, the panelists had widely divergent opinions on what qualifies as “influential.” One focused on a once little-known joint that, with some timely press from Texas Monthly, practically invented the idea of “destination barbecue.” Another contributor stayed local, noting how one barbecue restaurant keeps its community rooted in place amid all the upheaval of modern society. Our aim here isn’t to quibble over the varying definitions, or even to fight over who serves the best ribs or brisket. (We’ll leave that for another time.) Rather, we set out to find the places and pitmasters��that truly have shaped the legacy of American barbecue.

Our panel of contributors: