A Southern Barbecue Champion In New York: Myron Mixon

Update: Myron Mixon is no longer affiliated with Pride and Joy BBQ, according to various reports.

The midday sunlight cascades through the windows of a landmark Lower East Side building in Manhattan, streaming over Myron Mixon's broad shoulders as he speaks in his distinct southern Georgia accent. We're sitting in a room that used to be part of Lucky Chengs, the infamous cabaret and dinner theater. When it opens next month, the whole spot will have been completely made over into a Southern roadhouse and big-time barbecue joint named Pride and Joy BBQ, with Mixon and his trademark grills on the stage in lieu of Chinese drag queens.

If it all seems incongruous, it is, but then New York City is a cauldron of change and, well, inconguousness. It's also a magnet for the top culinary talents in any field, and while the arrival of the three-time national barbecue champion and TV personality Mixon isn't exactly Thomas Keller opening Per Se in Midtown, Pride and Joy is part of the continuum of major food dudes wanting to bring it to the grand stage that is the Big Apple. 

Mixon doesn't shirk the spotlight. Before the doors to Pride and Joy even opened, he cut a hole in the roof and installed gargantuan rotisserie grills (and documented the whole thing on YouTube, of course); they'll be on a sort of stage where he and his chefs will cook-slash-perform for hungry crowds. Here, in our latest FR Interview, Mixon talks about how while others have tried to bring real-deal 'cue to the Big City, they're not, well, Myron Mixon.

Tell me about your mindset. You're a barbecue champion and now you're coming to the heart of downtown New York City as a restaurateur. What made you want to tackle this?

The thing is that barbecue has already come to New York City. It started probably 15 years ago and you've had several restaurants open since then. I haven't ever eaten at them but I've known folks who have gone to the restaurants and a lot of them have thought they were good. I know if they think that those are good, they are going to think that this is wonderful. I'm doing authentic barbecue here and it's not going to be something touristy. 

It's been an issue whether you can get good barbecue in New York. What is this place going to do for that whole argument? 

Everybody has got his or her own opinion on what good barbecue is. It depends on where he or she was raised and what he or she likes. I don't think anybody like me has come straight from the South and put a restaurant in New York City. I'm from Georgia.

And you learned there?

I was taught by my dad, who was taught by his dad, who was taught by his dad. My family came here in 1650. Poor people all the way through — sharecroppers — went all the way from Jamestown, Virginia through the Carolinas into Georgia. Some of them went further than that into Alabama. My family has been there and we do what we do, which is barbecue.

I took a quick tour of this space and there's a lot of theatrical elements that you're installing. Is that part of the deal — that you want to be on a stage and show off your barbecue skills?

That gets to the presentation part. You can have the best food in the world — and that saying, "if you build it, they will come," is not necessarily true. You've got to build it where there are people and where there are a lot of different restaurants. You're not only competing with other barbecue restaurants in the city, but you are competing with everybody that sells food. You've got to have a stage that makes people want to come — they have to get an experience. It has to be about the food, it has to be about the look, it has to be about how they feel when they come into the place.

And are your pitmasters going to be on display in that room?

Exactly. All those pits were made by my company — Myron Mixon Smokers — and we custom built those pits for this facility. They can cook 2,000 pounds of meat each, but they were also made to be part of a stage where the pitmasters themselves can be right there in front of the clientele. 

Have you done some research on the barbecue in New York to see what you're up against?

No. The only place that I've eaten at is Mighty Quinn's, not far from here. Good guy and good food.

That's got the most buzz out of the places in New York.

[Pitmaster Hugh Mangum] is passionate about what he's doing. I was taken aback by it and I don't go to any barbecue restaurants — I compete and travel all over the country. Whenever I go to Kansas City, everyone wants to take me on a tour of all the restaurants and I don't go because I'm around barbecue all the time and I know who is the best — I don't want to eat any more of it! But, I went that day to Mighty Quinn's and the guy is passionate about what he is doing.

We talk a lot on Food Republic about how grilling is an international pheonomenon. Would you go out on a limb and say that American barbecue is the best barbecue in the world?

As far as my perspective, yes. It's getting to be worldwide. It's the chic thing and trendy food out there now. But it's also the food that people can do at home in their backyards – that's what makes it so cool. People might not be able to do it to the degree we do it here at Pride and Joy, but they can go out in their backyard and do some grilling and smoking and everybody can relate to that. You might love to eat French food, but not everybody can go and do French food at their house. 

What about smoking? That's such a key element to your persona as a chef. What can the average guy do with his charcoal or gas grill to use smoke in a way that most people overlook?

The thing about it is that if you don't have a real smoker, you're limited in how you can apply smoke to meats. If you have a charcoal grill like a Weber, you can do some smoking with water-soaked chips or chunks in there mixed with charcoal. If you have a gas grill, you can go ahead and take some aluminum foil, perforate it and make a basket with some water-soaked chips, put it over one of the burners, let that do your smoking on the side and cook your meat on a side where you keep your burners down. They're not lit and you're doing an indirect heat type of process, as well as smoking. You can do some things that might not be as good as you'd get from a traditional smoker, but it's still going to be good.

I noticed that there is a lot of wood piled down near your grills here in the restaurant. What kind of wood do you like to use?

Georgia peach wood. That's hard to get up here and the closest cousin we can find is wild cherry. It does a great job and we use it in our restaurant in Miami [the first Pride and Joy opened there in December]. I love fruit woods and the reason is that it gives a mild, smoky flavor but it doesn't overpower the meat.

Is this a certain type of Southern barbecue or are you more across the board?

I'm more across the board and let me tell you why. Regional barbecue was still very prominent about 20 years ago but it's not there now. You can go into Georgia, into Alabama, into the Carolinas, into Texas and you could find some pockets of rural areas that still have what they were doing 50 or 60 years ago. But because people move so much, you get a blend of different regions and different flavor profiles and I think that's a good thing. If we kept all those little regions, barbecue wouldn't be what it is today.

What about the location? Coming to 1st Ave. and 1st St. in New York — a lot of people knew this location as Lucky Cheng's which I'm sure wouldn't go over so well in certain parts of Georgia.

This was luck on our part because you couldn't be in a better spot. The Lower East Side is where everything is happening. People who have lived there all their lives may not like it, but it's beginning to be the trendy place to come in New York, as far as clubs, nightlife, stores and restaurants opening up here. I'm so glad we got here and it was built in the '20s, which is pretty cool.

You're a judge on American Pitmasters along with Aaron Franklin, who's making the most hyped-up barbecue down in Austin. What's the secret beyond him just being good? Is there something on his grill that makes the flavor that much better?

Well, he's been there three years so it can't be the imparting of his flavor on the grills. He's just a good pitmaster — he's got his recipes and he's got his technique. He does it in a very small location and cooks the same amount of food everyday. He's got a plan that he likes and one that works. [See: Aaron Franklin On Why People Wait 3+ Hours For His Barbecue.] Me? I want a place big enough that can fit everyone who wants to come in and I want a place for them to sit down. I want to be able to serve as much food as I have to in order to make sure that everybody has got food and has got great food.

Do you feel like there are advantages or disadvantages to being known from TV? You talked about getting people influenced by the way things look, but aren't they also influenced by celebrity?

Correct, you're right about that. I've been doing TV since 2007 and I've done a lot with Discovery. BBQ Pitmasters is the most well-known barbecue show out there and it started it all. More networks now are coming out with their own — and imitation is always considered the best form of flattery. People do recognize me and know I've been on these barbecue shows on TV. You will have x amount of people come through these doors based on that more o than how it looks or anything else. That's a great advantage for getting people into your restaurant, to buy your product and to pay attention to you. With that being said, it also puts a target on your back.

Especially in New York City...

Yes, it does. New York City isn't like anywhere else in the world as far as food goes. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, but you don't get second chances here. You have to be on point the second the door opens. You have such great food here that everybody is going to compare you on those levels and it doesn't necessarily have to be barbecue restaurants – you're going to be compared against every great restaurant in the city.

You've won three world championships and are one of the most acclaimed barbecue chefs in the world. Do you have aspirations as a chef? Do you want Pride and Joy to get reviewed in major publications?

Yes. I want this restaurant here in New York to be considered the best in its category for what it does. I want it to be considered the best, hands down.

Miami opened up late last year. Was that always set up as a test run for this?

It always was. We wanted to come to New York and Chicago. And that's not to say that we won't go to Chicago and open one there. Miami was going to be the easiest place for us to work out the kinks. You don't get second chances in this city. There are a lot of cities — Miami being one — that are more forgiving. You need to do research and development somewhere other than New York. We did that and that's why we're ready to come in here.

And you're coming in big?

We're coming in big. It's either go big or go home.

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This Food Republic Interview is presented by our friends at Ribera Wines