When Matt Barry graduated from North Carolina State University in 2008, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. There just aren’t that many exciting jobs with promising career paths for 27-year-olds with history degrees. So he returned to The Q Shack, a small barbecue joint he had worked at between dropping out of college at 21 then returning later to finish.
As a child growing up in North Carolina, barbecue had always been a part of his life. As with any Carolina kid, he came across barbecue at picnics, parties and family reunions. As an adult, he enjoyed smoking meats and would always cook something up for the tailgate at football games. At The Q Shack, his hobby became a passion, but it wasn’t until he met Charlotte restaurateur Frank Scibelli that his passion became a career.
Barry’s uncle introduced him to Scibelli in 2011, and Scibelli told him about a new barbecue concept he was planning for Charlotte as part of his restaurant family, FS Food Group. Barry cooked for Scibelli that weekend, and within two weeks he moved down to Charlotte to work in the new Midwood Smokehouse on Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood. He began as a sous chef, but by August 2012 he was the executive chef, and now oversees the menus at five locations: Plaza Midwood, Ballantyne, Park Road, Birkdale and Columbia, South Carolina.
In his seven years as executive chef, Barry has turned Midwood Smokehouse into one of Charlotte’s most popular barbecue spots. Not only has the restaurant built a name for itself with locals, it’s apparently tossed around all the right circles nationally, as the original location has attracted some huge names in recent years: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Justin Timberlake, Bill Murray and Bob Dylan to name a few.
Kristin Bobenage, general manager at the Plaza Midwood location, says she doesn’t even know how some of these A-list celebrities hear about her restaurant, but she does her best to make them feel comfortable when they show up. She can recognize when someone like Bill Murray is playing up his celebrity as opposed to when someone like Justin Timberlake just wants to get his food without much fuss.
“You can tell with different people based on their vibes how their experience is going to go, and if they pick a table that’s far back in the room and they’re facing a wall, you can tell they just want to eat. They want to be normal, they want to have that hour out of their day where they’re not being bombarded,” Bobenage says. “Sometimes it’s the other guests that are in the restaurant that jump in, but we try to keep it as lowkey as possible up until that point.”
It’s not as though there’s a special celebrity version of Yelp these folks are using. Most of the times, it’s old-fashioned word of mouth that leads them in. With Bill Murray, his musical partner Jan Vogler happened by for a bite while he was in town for a show at Belk Theater and promised the unknowing servers he’d bring his bandmate by the next night. Barack Obama’s Secret Service agents were in town a week or so before his appearance on the campaign trail with Clinton and had a meal there. The restaurant was added to the president’s itinerary.
And so it seems that celebrities are attracted to Midwood Smokehouse for the same reasons anyone else is: because they heard about some damn good food.
To what does Barry attribute this success? Authenticity.
Since taking over at Midwood, Barry has traveled the Carolinas to work alongside famed pitmasters like Ed Mitchell and Sam Jones. He’s gone to Texas to attend Camp Brisket and Barbecue Summer Camp. It may sound like a fantasy to your average Joe, but to Barry, it’s life.
In a world where many pitmasters use gas-ignited or gas-assisted smokers, Barry says he’s sticking to his all-wood smoker and that, among other traditions, makes all the difference.
“We tried to go back to the roots of what everything is. We’ve taken the time to go and look at what the best people in the industry are doing,” Barry says. “Things evolve over time and things change a little bit, but the basics don’t really ever change.”
A rule that Barry implemented in all Midwood kitchens years ago serves as one example of how he keeps food quality top rate. A large sign in view of the chopping board at each Midwood kitchen states that the chef on duty must eat the first slice of every brisket that reaches the block. If it doesn’t pass the taste test, they set it aside.
“We’re never going to sell something that’s inferior product,” Barry says. “Cooking brisket is difficult, it’s not a very easy thing to find that perfect spot on it and checking every brisket, I’m not sure if anybody else does that. They may do that, but I doubt it. That’s a lot of brisket. You get sick of eating brisket sometimes.”
The policy paid off in more ways than one, however. Barry wasn’t about to toss all that brisket just because it wasn’t perfectly cooked, so he began using those briskets to make burnt ends, a staple of Kansas City barbecue that has since become one of the restaurant’s best sellers.
“It’s crazy now,” Barry says of the unexpected hit. “We did it originally so we could control the brisket we were selling, or if we have an extra brisket, but we actually cook brisket just to have for burnt ends now, which I knew my life was going to change forever the first time we did that.”
It’s not the only happy mistake that Barry has made. In fact, one of the items on the new menu that Barry rolled out in March was meant to be a way to consolidate food scraps, similar to the burnt ends, and has already turned into the restaurant’s newest hit.
The smoked meatballs, made of the trimmings and scraps from a brisket that are run through the grinder, mixed with bread crumbs and spices, smoked and topped with jalapeno BBQ sauce, mixed melted cheese and green onion have garnered popularity with restaurant patrons since its launch.
For Barry, it was like burnt end déjà vu.
“I certainly wasn’t thinking that was going to be a thing,” he says. “We ran it as a special before we put it on a menu and it sold, but there wasn’t anything crazy going on. Then it went on the menu and we’re now talking about whether we should buy ground brisket to supplement, which defeats the whole purpose of what we were trying to do. It’s a good problem to have.”
Other new menu items include the Fat Matt, a sliced brisket sandwich that’s a holdover from the now-closed Smoke Shack, a casual, counter-service iteration of Midwood Smokehouse in Matthews that never quite took off. The “ridiculous-sized sandwich,” as Bobenage calls it, is topped with an apple jalapeno slaw.
The slaw, like almost everything in the restaurant, is house-made. It’s a point that Barry holds close to his heart.
“That’s a matter of pride. It’s hard to take pride if you’re not making everything and not accountable for everything,” Barry says. “When you’re hiring people and interviewing people — especially in this industry — who hold themselves to a high standard, they want that. They don’t want to go work somewhere that’s bringing in gallons of ranch dressing or buckets of potato salad. That’s not a good feeling.”
Barry also added two new fried chicken sandwiches: the Pollo Texano, tossed in honey chipotle glaze and topped with apple jalapeno slaw and Angry Pickles (housemade pickles with jalapenos and red onion); and the Appalachian Yard Bird, topped with pimento cheese and Angry Pickles on a brioche bun.
As important as it is to Barry that he spreads things around from Texas to Kansas City to any other style he can pay homage to, the fried chicken brings things back home.
“Midwood Smokehouse is a barbecue restaurant first, but we’re also in the South and we’re a Southern restaurant,” he says. “We wanted to have another chicken option, and a fried chicken sandwich is just good. Who doesn’t like Chick-fil-A?”
Chick-fil-A sandwiches these are not. Barry brines his chicken thighs, then smokes them, then marinates them in the restaurant’s house-made buttermilk batter before he fries them up.
“We wanted to put our little twist on it,” Barry says.
On June 1, Barry will teach some of those twists at a Barbecue 101 workshop he’s hosting at the restaurant’s Park Road Shopping Center location. Barry held one of the workshops last summer and loved it. For him, any reason to shoot the shit about his passion is a good enough reason to host an event, but he also sees it as a way to spread knowledge in a culture that’s still growing — similar to a once-small subculture that has since blown up in Charlotte.
“It’s like the microbrew thing that we have here,” he says. “People like to do homebrew at their home and make their own beer, barbecue is kind of like the same thing. They’re both kind of craft sections; like craft beer, that little niche of the beverage industry, barbecue I think is a crafty niche of the food industry. People want to do that stuff themselves and there’s a lot of interest there.”
But before June, Barry will be focused on celebrating National Barbecue Month with a couple new(er) menu items. Every day his restaurants will be serving pork belly burnt ends with a peach bourbon barbecue sauce. The pork bellies will be provided by Joyce Farms, a Winston-Salem farm that Midwood has begun partnering with as they roll out their line of pork products.
On weekends, Barry is throwing down family-style with a Tex-Mex beef-rib platter made to feed four. The three pound platter offers groups a chance to build their own tacos by peeling the meat off the ribs themselves.
It will be a National Barbecue Month to remember, which is only right coming from a history graduate.