“My favorite thing to do is to cook food that feels like somebody you love is giving you a hug when you take a bite of it,” said chef, author and pitmaster Elizabeth Karmel. To the 55-year-old culinary guru, that hug usually comes in the form of barbecue, a cuisine that has thoroughly shaped her work (she is the founding executive chef of Hill Country Barbecue Market in New York and Washington, D.C.) and, it turns out, the way she sees the world.
Operating within a male-dominated industry — where there are only a handful of renowned female pitmasters in the United States — Karmel is quick to note that, perhaps surprisingly, being a woman has actually “been great” when navigating the world’s barbecue circuits.
In the latest edition of Voices In Food, the master of the flame discusses the evolution of barbecue throughout the years, a changing culinary landscape and what makes the food so special.
Being a woman in a male-dominated field
In a word, it’s been great. The truth is that, when I first became interested in grilling and barbecue, it didn’t even occur to me that I shouldn’t do it because I am female. It didn’t occur to me that it’s a male-dominated industry. I was just so fascinated by every aspect of live-fire cooking that I didn’t even know what an advantage it was for me to be a woman at the beginning, because I have an incessant curiosity. And I asked everyone I met — most of whom were men — many questions. And since I was a woman, not one of them viewed me as competition, so they all told me the truth.
People who are good at something love to share information with those they feel are genuinely interested. I learned so much from these guys, and once I became an expert myself, they treated me with respect and dignity, and welcomed me into their old boys club with open arms. I think the way I was treated is probably one of the reasons why I think barbecue is a great equalizer and melts demographics that oftentimes divide people.
The importance of barbecue within the American culinary canon
Barbecue has evolved throughout the years. I opened Hill Country Barbecue Market in 2007, and since then, barbecue has exploded. It’s really a symbol of American culinary prowess. People abroad are interested in barbecue. They come to the United States, try it, and decide to open a barbecue restaurant in, say, Paris. That really happened! There was a Parisian who was working in New York City, fell in love with Hill Country Barbecue Market and then went on to open a barbecue restaurant in Paris!
I think the barbecue explosion in New York City really spearheaded the popularization of the cuisine worldwide because the city is such a great stage. People may not visit the city of Lockhart in Texas or Wilson in North Carolina or Memphis in Tennessee, but a lot of people come to New York.
One of the things that I love about barbecue is that it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat, Republican or an independent — you can bond over barbecue.
How barbecue has changed over the years
There are two kinds of barbecue these days: the old, OG kind prepared by Texas families that have been doing it for generations using open pits, and newer barbecue pitmasters from the same area, that have adopted a hack from the competition barbecue circuit ― wrapping the meat. They smoke the meat and wrap it. What that does is it lets the meat steam on itself so it has a smoky flavor but the texture is more silky, like pot roast. Their barbecue is delicious, but it’s not exactly the same tradition as the original legends from central Texas. In that way, barbecue has changed in the sense that younger people are incorporating new tips and tricks to make it a bit more succulent.
How the food industry has evolved
Fifteen years ago, if you went out to a fancy restaurant and ordered white wine with your steak, people would look at you askance. Now, it’s all about drinking what you like with whatever you want to eat. Rosé is served year-round and people put ice in their wine; it’s more of a casual lifestyle. The hard and fast rules of old have really relaxed and that’s the way it should be! This isn’t rocket science. We’re not saving lives here, we’re just trying to make life better and more delicious.
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