Jun 1, 2017
Le Havre, he was ready. It had been more than a year since the Paris native had first decided to take on a preposterous task—to open an authentic Texas barbecue joint in the haughtiest of the world’s gastronomic capitals—and now he was about to face perhaps his single greatest challenge: moving the Oyler Pit 700, a mammoth smoker manufactured in Mesquite, Texas, to the doorstep of his new restaurant. So when his phone rang, and he was told that the movers wanted to deliver the enormous contraption at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m., he didn’t argue.
Rue Meslay, where Abramowicz’s restaurant was to open, is a narrow artery in Paris’s Marais district, cluttered with parked cars and home to a handful of clothing boutiques catering to African immigrants. A truck delivering a Texas barbecue pit the size of a walk-in closet in the middle of the day would be a serious disruption. If the unloading started in the early morning and took about three hours, Abramowicz figured, the movers could clear out before rush-hour traffic began. Or so he hoped.
By the time the truck arrived, in the pre-dawn darkness, Abramowicz had removed the restaurant’s entire facade to make way for his prized new possession. There, by the dim glow of streetlights on the deserted street, the four-thousand-pound smoker was lifted by a mechanical arm into the air, swung around, placed on the sidewalk, and slid into the narrow storefront. The job was done by 8 a.m.—only a little behind schedule.
But there was a problem. The back of the restaurant, where the smoker was supposed to live, was two steps up from the front, where the smoker was sitting now. No one knew how to lift the behemoth over those stairs, which left the smoker squatting stolidly in the middle of the dining area. Abramowicz, who was under tremendous pressure to open his restaurant as soon as possible, was flummoxed. He needed to hang lighting fixtures and pour his concrete floor; he needed to start building his bar, which would offer one of the finest selections of bourbons in Paris; he needed to reinstall the front door and window and wall. He needed to start cooking.
It took him an entire week to find the solution, in the form of a piano-moving company brimming with self-confidence. “At first they were like, ‘Don’t worry, we have experience. We know how to do this,’ ” he recalls. “Then, when they saw the actual unit, they said, ‘Oh, my God!’ ” Eventually the company resorted to the same method of lifting and moving that the ancient Egyptians used to build the pyramids: small wooden blocks were placed under the smoker, which was then rolled up the steps. “They did a fantastic job,” Abramowicz remembers with relief.
But the irony was lost on no one. It had taken a month for the smoker to travel five thousand miles from J&R Manufacturing’s facility in North Texas to northern France. It had taken another week for it to travel thirty feet from the front door of Abramowicz’s restaurant to its back wall. The city was asking him a question: Are you sure you want to cook Texas barbecue in Paris?
Thomas Abramowicz and a tray from The Beast.
Abramowicz’s curious culinary journey began in 2007, when he was 25 years old and living in New York City, working as a junior brand manager for the cognac house Hennessy. That November, his roommate, Nathan Whitehouse, took him home to the Hill Country for Thanksgiving, Abramowicz’s first visit to Texas. He was touched by the Whitehouse family’s hospitality, but what changed his life was a visit to the Salt Lick.
“Whatever people think about the Salt Lick, that was my first experience of Texas barbecue,” Abramowicz says, aware that many aficionados look askance at the Driftwood mainstay. “It was all new to me. I loved the fact that people were ordering big trays and putting them in the middle of the table so everyone could share. I loved the ambience, the decor, the smell—obviously!—of spices and fire-smoked meats. And then I had my first bite of brisket, and it was unlike anything I’d had before.”
Abramowicz returned to the Whitehouse home on many Thanksgivings that followed, and each time he would travel to other barbecue restaurants, some of them more renowned than the Salt Lick. The seed had been planted. Paris, he thought, needed to taste this smoke-ringed, slow-cooked, melt-in-your-mouth meat. And if no one else had the vision and determination to open a Texas-style barbecue joint there, then someday, he promised himself, he would.
That someday began to take shape in the spring of 2013, when Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn published The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue. Abramowicz snapped up a copy (“I was probably the first Frenchman to buy it”) and began poring over it. A few weeks later, he attended Vaughn’s book signing the night before the Big Apple Barbecue Party, a two-day event in which pitmasters from across the country show off their wares for smoke-starved New Yorkers. Afterward, Abramowicz worked up the courage to approach Vaughn (actually, they were standing in line for the men’s room). “I explained that I wanted to open a barbecue restaurant in Paris, and that I wanted to learn from the best,” Abramowicz says. “I asked him to introduce me to people who could train me properly. He probably thought I was crazy.” (Vaughn confirms this account: he thought Abramowicz was crazy.)
Despite his skepticism, Vaughn agreed to help, and the next day he introduced Abramowicz to Wayne Mueller, the owner of Louie Mueller Barbecue, in Taylor, who was attending the festival. There were vague discussions about training sessions in Texas, but Abramowicz’s ambitions were too nebulous to make actual plans. So they agreed to talk again in the future and left it at that.
Soon afterward, Abramowicz, who was unhappy in his job in New York—he was now a senior global brand manager for Belvedere Vodka—returned to Paris. There, he began doing his market research full-time, investigating smokers and high-quality meats. By October, ready to make his move, he reached back out to Vaughn. At his request, Vaughn posted a gently teasing blog item, featuring a photo of Abramowicz in shorts and a tank top standing on the balcony of his Paris apartment “smoking” meat on a grill. Abramowicz, Vaughn informed Texas’s pitmaster community, was “willing to work as your intern for a few weeks and pay you a fee for passing along your barbecue knowledge.”
The responses were few, but two were all Abramowicz needed: Mueller invited him to Taylor to make good on their conversation, and Wesley Jurena, the proprietor of the recently opened Houston food truck Pappa Charlie’s Barbecue, said he’d be happy to help. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting picture,’ ” says Jurena of the balcony photo. “I was like, ‘Sure, I’ll spend some time with you.’ But you don’t actually think that a guy from Paris is gonna pack his shit and come to Texas. I didn’t put two cents into it.”
In fact, Abramowicz was fully invested in the project. The timing wasn’t great; he had just started a relationship, and it felt serious. But his destiny was calling. “I’m going to Texas,” he told his new girlfriend, Muriel Morot. “I need to follow my path. It’s my new life.”
Abramowicz caught a flight across the Atlantic and began his education by showing up at Jurena’s house with a bottle of champagne. He spent a day helping the pitmaster trim brisket, rub spices onto meat, and stoke the fire, then set off for Taylor to join Mueller. When he showed up for the 2 a.m. shift (a bit early—“I didn’t want to be late; I like to be the good kid, y’know?”), the pit manager, Jason Tedford, gave him a few things to do. “We talked about how you place the wood in the firebox,” Abramowicz recalls. “If you put too much wood in, the fire dies; if you don’t put enough in, it burns too fast.” Abramowicz stayed into the lunch service, which lasted until 3 p.m. “I was tired, and so excited,” he says. “It was like when you get home from a party at five or six a.m. and you feel a little dizzy—you’re half asleep but you’re wide awake. It was the beginning of my dream.”
Abramowicz soon took to the road, driving for several months from barbecue joint to barbecue joint, relying on The Prophets of Smoked Meat as his guide. “You know how some people drive with a map on their knees?” he asks. “I drove with that book on my knees.” His strategy: knock on the door and offer his services in exchange for a little knowledge. “I’d say, ‘I’m happy to wash floors or cut wood, whatever—I just want to spend time here and ask you a few questions.’ And most places, they opened the doors and helped me. Some places I would spend an hour. Some places, a day. Some places, four days. I slept in people’s houses—they let me sleep in a spare room, because they loved my story! Who would do that?”
One day, on his way from Mesquite to Blanco, Abramowicz drove through a treacherous ice storm; it took him six or seven hours to drive 250 miles. “All my life I have gone to the Alps to ski, and the only time I’ve ever driven on ice was in Texas,” he remembers, still incredulous. Other nights, he stopped in at blues clubs and heard some of the best music of his life. Once, when Whitehouse joined him for a stretch of travel, they visited Luckenbach, where they made a startling entrance at the town’s only bar. “The owner took one look at us and asked, ‘Where are you guys from?’ And I said, ‘I’m from France,’ and he turned to the crowd and yelled, ‘The fags are back!’ ” Abramowicz wasn’t sure what to make of that—was the bar owner making a joke? Did he think all Frenchmen were gay?—but he and Whitehouse settled in, drank some beer, listened to the music, and enjoyed themselves.
Then it was time to hit the road again. “Being on those crazy highways with nothing around you, the pure emptiness, was amazing,” he says. “My mind gets busy when I drive. And it was on those infinite stretches, sometimes six or seven hours a day, where the project came together.” Still, for all his cogitation, there was one thing Abramowicz couldn’t know: Would what seemed like a good idea on those long, flat miles of Texas highway make any sense on the narrow cobblestone streets of Paris?
Though France has long had a love-hate affair with American culture, in many ways the war was won by the U.S. decades ago, as a quick survey of French movie and radio charts—filled with Disney films and English-language pop—demonstrates. Of course, the one field where the French have put up a sustained resistance is gastronomy, the country’s great contribution to the world. For decades, American chefs recognized this distinction, traveling to France to apprentice in storied restaurants before returning home to open a Bouley or a French Laundry.
But they usually left little of their own know-how behind; France wasn’t interested in what the U.S. had to offer. One reason for this resistance, paradoxically, was America’s biggest culinary success in France: McDonald’s, which first entered the French market in the seventies and now has more than a thousand outlets across the country. The ubiquity of le Big Mac and le Royale Cheese confirmed, in the French mind, the notion that American food shouldn’t be taken seriously. “Parisians associated America with fast food, because that’s what they saw,” says David Lebovitz, an American cookbook writer who has lived in Paris since 2004. “Good restaurants in America didn’t open branches in Paris. All we had here were hamburgers and hot dogs.”
Whatever disdain the French had for America went double for Texas, which to this day is widely regarded abroad as an exaggerated version of the U.S. “When you ask the French what they think of Texas, they will tell you cowboys, they’ll tell you ranches, they’ll tell you guns, they’ll tell you the Dallas TV show,” says Abramowicz. “That’s pretty much it.” The gastronomic capital of the world was never going to clamor for the foods produced by such a barbaric place.
But then, in the nineties, French cuisine faced its own reckoning, as critics with increasingly globalized tastes began to express dissatisfaction. It was a familiar litany, delivered with a new urgency: French sauces were too heavy for the modern palate, the presentation too fussy, the contents too predictable. The charcoal grill and the brick oven, prevalent in the rest of the developed world, rarely made their way into the country’s most prestigious kitchens. Adding insult to injury, Spain and London, places French gourmands had long held in low regard, had become centers of innovation.
Though the shift was a shock, the recognition that France had been knocked from its culinary pedestal created an opening for new ideas. Some restaurants began serving simpler fare, reminiscent of countryside home cooking. Japanese chefs arrived, and so too French-Asian fusion. And to the astonishment of many, American cuisine grew into an actual presence. Over the past decade, it has shed its reputation for mass-produced patties; today, outlets such as FrogBurger, Baagaa Burger, Blend Argout, and Big Fernand serve meat-crazy Parisians high-end gourmet burgers, which they eat with a knife and fork.
This particular ascendance arguably began in 2011, when a Los Angeles native, Kristin Frederick, started serving burgers laden with Gruyère and sautéed mushrooms at the city’s first gourmet food truck, Le Camion Qui Fume. (The city now has a very crowded food truck scene.) Frederick had noticed what few others had: that Paris was full of well-off university graduates who had traveled to the U.S. on vacation or, like Abramowicz, had lived there, and developed a taste for American cooking. “Young people in France love places like New York, Austin, and San Francisco,” says Christy Shields, a cultural anthropologist from Illinois who studies food and teaches at the American University in Paris. She has noticed a recent uptick in artisanal breweries in Paris, and attributes that to young French people who have been exposed to the American microbrew scene. “When they come back, they want to start up the sort of places they experienced in the States.”
Camille Bégin, a Paris-born food anthropologist who teaches at the University of Toronto Scarborough, notes that an increasing interest in vegetarianism has also tilted menus toward the U.S. “The French have only recently discovered wraps and California rolls,” she says. “The modern American kale salad with creamy dressing and an avocado on top is very popular in Paris.” The trend toward Americanization, she adds, can sometimes approach the absurd; she cites a recently opened restaurant called Flakes in the gentrifying Belleville neighborhood that offers a menu of breakfast cereals for Parisians who can’t start their day without a bowl of Froot Loops or Lucky Charms. When Bégin went back to Paris for her wedding, the caterer tried to persuade her to serve mini-burgers. “I had to say, ‘No, no. No sliders at my wedding reception.’ ” But there’s an openness now that can’t be denied. “We did serve kale salad,” she admits.
Americans see Paris as ripe for opportunity. “The presence of several great American chefs in the city is going a long way toward squaring the reality of how the U.S. eats today with the very cartoonish perceptions of the U.S. as the country of malbouffe, or lousy food,” says Alexander Lobrano, an American food writer who has lived in Paris for three decades. “Daniel Rose, of Spring, and Braden Perkins, of the brilliant Ellsworth, are showing Parisians how good contemporary American cooking can be.” The era of American cooks traveling to France to learn classic technique is hardly over; there will always be a call for that sort of food in U.S. cities. But today the prestige is traveling in the opposite direction as well.
Abramowicz returned to Paris energized. But to make his restaurant a reality, he faced some daunting questions. There was no guarantee that Parisians, despite their newfound affection for American food, would take to Texas barbecue. “They’d never heard of smoked meat, except pastrami,” Abramowicz says. “They’d never heard of low and slow cooking.” And the overdose of pepper that many Texas pitmasters rub onto their brisket? There was little reason to believe that the refined Parisian palate, which is usually averse to bold spices, would accept the pungent crust known as “bark.”
There were more basic matters to attend to as well, the most important one being how to procure the meat. Europeans don’t butcher cows the same way Americans do; the brisket cut doesn’t exist on the continent. And even when Abramowicz managed to find someone who would carve a cow to those specifications, the results weren’t palatable, because European cows aren’t marbled as thoroughly as American cows are. “Those lean meats are great for grilling, very tasty,” he told me, “but not right for smoking. Every time I tried, the meat came out dry and flavorless.”
After months of auditioning various suppliers, Abramowicz found what he was looking for when he was introduced to Olivier Metzger, a meat wholesaler who promised a steady supply of briskets from Creekstone Farms, in Kansas, the same company that services Franklin Barbecue and Louie Mueller. Shipping fifty or so briskets a week from middle America to northern France added a fair amount of expense—and violated the sort of farm-to-table ethos Abramowicz wanted to abide by—but he didn’t see another option.
When the smoker arrived, in late September, and was finally secured in the back corner of the kitchen, it was as if the last piece had fallen into place. Still, Abramowicz couldn’t help but worry. “I ran as many tests as possible on it,” he recalls. “I was doing overnight sessions, sleeping by the pit, on a mattress on the floor—I was too scared to leave it alone. This was my first restaurant. What if something went wrong?”
But nothing did, and the Beast—named in tribute to bovines and to that beastly smoker—opened on October 29, 2014, to much fanfare from the local news and food blogs. They were, doubtless, responding to the Beast’s aura of authenticity: the unmistakable aroma of burning oak, the American flag once owned by Wayne Mueller positioned on a back wall, and the motto that any Texas pitmaster would approve of, mounted just above the front door: “Meat. Fire. Time.” In further keeping with Texas tradition, and in defiance of the Parisian custom of table service, diners were required to order at the counter; though the food was delivered to the table by a waiter, it was served on the culturally appropriate butcher paper and metal tray.
This near-anthropological attention to detail paid off. Abramowicz says that some nights he has turned away 30 to 40 customers from his 43-seat venue, and a recent visit to the Beast bore out this popularity; at dinnertime, the place was loud and busy, filled largely with locals—the sort of people who will eat a sausage sandwich with, yes, a knife and fork. As for the barbecue itself? It’s excellent. The brisket is every bit as smoky as what you’d find at Pecan Lodge or Cooper’s, the beef rib is a giant slab of intense flavor, and the pork rib is supremely tender. It took American meat and American training and an American smoker, but the Beast is doing the seemingly impossible: creating authentic Texas barbecue five thousand miles away from Texas.
There are some differences, of course. The international character of the Beast’s staff (“We have ten staffers and five nationalities,” Abramowicz says) marks it as a very distinct enterprise. The pitmaster, Carlos Mirande, is an Argentinian with a Ph.D. in philosophy who had never worked in a restaurant before starting as an entry-level cook at the Beast. Austin native Andrew Dorsey, a trained butcher, was hired as the head chef six months after the Beast opened, though he had no prior experience smoking barbecue. “I learned how to cook Texas barbecue from an Argentinian in Paris,” says the sixth-generation Texan. “It’s crazy.” (In February, feeling homesick, Dorsey returned to Austin.) Basque Country native Muriel Morot—who waited for Abramowicz, and last spring gave birth to their son, and will marry him in September—is the head of business development.
The differences extend to the plate as well. On Tuesdays the restaurant offers a smoked specialty of the kind you won’t find in Lockhart: chicken wings glazed with hot sauce maison, say, or a banh mi with spicy lemongrass sausage and pâté de campagne. Abramowicz also settled on a mild spice rub. (Where Mueller, for instance, uses a nine-to-one pepper-to-salt ratio, the Beast deploys one to one.) Most of the standard sides are here—there are pickles and onions and coleslaw and beans and mac and cheese—but all of them are prepared from scratch, and during the summer, there’s zucchini salad with smoked pecans. As for the bread—well, this is Paris. No one is going to settle for a few slices of Mrs Baird’s.
Abramowicz wasn’t actually the first person to bring Texas barbecue to the French capital. In 2010 an expat from Dallas named Diana Darrah opened a restaurant called Blues Bar-B-Q near the Bastille. She brought a pellet smoker from the U.S., and by many accounts her brisket was excellent. But she chose to play up a theme-park version of Americana: Blues Bar-B-Q’s decor was classic mid-century diner, illuminated with copious neon and furnished with chrome-edged retro chairs and tables; its logo featured a cartoon pig in sunglasses playing a saxophone. After six years in business, the restaurant closed last summer.
By contrast, there’s nothing kitschy or nostalgic or ironic about Abramowicz’s approach. He may not have been the first person to bring Texas barbecue to Paris, but he was the first to do so in a manner that drew a connection between the two cultures he loves. A Texas barbecue restaurant in Paris might, from afar, sound like a setup for a joke. But there are clear affinities: Texas barbecue, like French cuisine, is rooted in tradition, passed down from mentor to student. It’s an exacting form of cooking that must be done with great care. And the focus on brisket—one of the things that distinguishes Texas barbecue from its Southern and Midwestern cousins—makes sense to the French, who regard beef as more elegant than pork.
The Beast’s close attention to the food—even the desserts are made from scratch, right down to the crust of the banana–peanut butter pie—reassures Parisians that they’re in the hands of a fellow gourmand who abides by their culinary mores. “Thomas succeeded by framing Texas barbecue in terms of connoisseurship,” says food writer Lobrano. “The French are always keen on such gastronomic seriousness.”
On a Friday afternoon, when I asked Abramowicz if I could interview some of his customers during the lunch service, he looked stricken. “In Paris,” he explained, with the patience of a man who has dealt with more sharp-elbowed Americans than he can count, “Friday lunch is sacred.”
The Beast, located in Paris’ hip Le Marais neighborhood; the bourbon bar inside.
If you had the sort of focus that led you to do crazy things to accomplish something equally crazy—to spend months driving the back roads of a faraway country, knocking on strangers’ doors and asking for their tutelage; to spend a year and a half trying to source the perfectly marbled cut of meat; to insist on moving a two-ton piece of equipment across an ocean, all in the name of bringing the cuisine of a disreputable part of the world to a city long enamored of its own reflection—what would you do with all that intensity when everything went better than you could have imagined, when your Texas barbecue restaurant became the toast of Paris?
For Abramowicz, the answer has been to push his business in directions that Wayne Mueller and Wesley Jurena might never have imagined, taking the lessons of barbecue to reach beyond it. One afternoon last November, the proprietors of Module, a company that plans pop-up events, met with Abramowicz at a stylish Place de la République cafe to recruit him for an event that would bring together artists, performers, and chefs in an abandoned building. Later that evening, a few Beast employees, Texas flag in tow, showed up at an outdoor food court to serve barbecue to a young clientele who could also choose from Mexican, Argentinian, and Sri Lankan cuisine. A few days later, the Beast and the owners of the popular restaurant Lao Siam catered a special Sunday dinner for 150 customers consisting entirely of Texas-Thai-Laotian fusion dishes. There were chicken wings, duck breast, and veal carpaccio, prepared with Southeast Asian seasonings and Hill Country smoke. (The test dishes I was given the chance to sample were dazzling.)
All this came fast on the heels of Abramowicz’s most consequential news: his bank had just approved a loan that would allow him to open a second, grander branch of the Beast. This new Beast, which he hopes to open in the Belleville neighborhood this month, will be nearly twice the size of the original and feature an expanded menu. “We’ll use the smoker to explore more things,” Abramowicz says. “There will be fresh smoked fish every day. One day it might be smoked octopus, the next day maybe smoked salmon, the next, sardines.” There will be vegetable dishes, to appeal to the occasional vegetarian who walks in with carnivore colleagues. (Abramowicz is particularly excited about a dish he calls “beet tartare.”) Downstairs, a basement space that seats about twenty people will house a separate establishment, Son of a Beast, that will serve a rotating selection of barbecue fusion starting with Chinese-Texas cuisine and then moving on to French-, Argentinean-, Japanese-, and Thai-influenced offerings.
Could this mean that the Texas barbecue craze in Paris is winding down as quickly as it began? On the contrary: in the wake of the Beast, at least two restaurants have opened that also purport to offer Texas barbecue. Last September, the proprietors of popular burger chain Paris New York launched Paris Texas, which serves pork ribs, beef ribs, and “pulled pork Austin.” In late November, a restaurant called Melt opened a mere twelve-minute walk from the Beast, with an alum of Dallas’s Pecan Lodge manning the pit. Melt’s debt to the Beast is clear—the single-syllable English-language name sounds a faint echo, and the decor, like the Beast’s, is a variant on the rustic-industrial Brooklyn style that has gone global in recent years, right down to the pale exposed brick and the modernist chairs that are nearly identical to the ones Abramowicz chose for his restaurant. “I’m happy to see that the barbecue trend is going well in Paris,” he says when asked about this shot across his bow. “It’s good for business.” He chooses to say little more on the subject.
By expanding his menu at the new Beast, Abramowicz may stay one step ahead of the competition—and, in turn, possibly offer a path for those in Texas to whom he owes everything. Not long ago, Texas barbecue was a largely rural enterprise; urbanites who wanted top-notch brisket had to get behind the wheel and head to the hinterlands for their fix. Since Franklin Barbecue jump-started the barbecue revolution eight years ago, that locus has shifted; now the center of the barbecue scene is in the cities. This creates a challenge: a lot of good barbecue restaurants competing for a finite pool of customers, with new places seeming to open every month. That can’t go on forever; eventually, one restaurant will try to distinguish itself by offering something new. Could Paris be the place a pitmaster looks to for inspiration?
Perhaps. One can easily imagine Aaron Franklin taking a trip to France, eating a meal of smoked sardines and veggies at the new Beast, and thinking, “I wonder if we could do this in Texas?”
Source: Texas Monthly