Magic in Smoke (No Mirrors)

“BARBECUE,” Daniel Delaney said, opening a smoker filled with briskets, some wrapped in shiny brown paper, others sporting thick black crusts, “is about mastering the art of being reactive.” He targeted the slab closest to him, working two fingers inside the wrapping and holding them there, as if taking a pulse.

“Brisket is a temperamental product to cook with,” he said. “You have to be agile, you have to feel them to know what they’re doing. You don’t use thermometers. You pinch them, juggle them. If filet mignon has the most uniform composition, brisket has the least. One side has an inch and a half of fat, and the other has none. It’s the hardest of the proteins to cook. It’s unforgiving. And easy to ruin.”

That hasn’t stopped Mr. Delaney from staking his livelihood on it. This New Jersey-born 26-year-old believes that he is going to make better Texas barbecue than they make in Texas — smoking it in an empty lot in Brooklyn and serving it at BrisketTown, his new Williamsburg restaurant that was to have opened on Wednesday but is now scheduled for Nov. 15.

This delay seemed predictable enough a month ago, when I met him at what was essentially still a construction site. The restaurant, which will sell diners meat by the pound, is to seat 40 and serve six nights a week. For three months last summer, Mr. Delaney fine-tuned his product by staging what he called Brisketlab, pop-up sites around Brooklyn, where customers preordered their meat online. He sold 3,200 pounds of brisket at $25 per pound, earning $80,000. He then presold more than 4,000 pounds for BrisketTown to give himself a guaranteed customer base and money to open. Additional help from investors allowed him to rent a permanent space at 359 Bedford Avenue.

Mr. Delaney, who plans to be in-house nightly, cutting meat, seemed relatively calm, given the chaos surrounding him. With his upwardly mobile hair — it seems literally to be standing on end — his cherubic face and his laser focus, his optimism appeared to outweigh his fear. Though once we sat down for coffee at the nearby Marlow & Sons, the facade started to crack.

“That double chocolate brownie is staring me down,” he said, carting it to a table. “I’ve been craving chocolate. Maybe I’m pregnant.”

“Only one thing worries me,” he continued. “Nothing about the Department of Health or zoning or liquor licenses, that’s all problem solving. But I had a dream the other night that people came, and they were not happy with the quality.” He bit into the brownie. “Texas barbecue is salt, pepper and smoke, that’s it. But with rigor, precision and dedication, you can produce something wonderful. It’s the most flavorful of all barbecue by far. Pork needs a lot more assistance. Other regions rely on sauces and rubs, they use a lot of crutches. But even though I’m not in the motherland, I still want to be the best.”

Mr. Delaney found his passion for barbecue through a circuitous route. He grew up in New Milford, N.J., the only child of an oncology nurse and the owner of an industrial supply company. He was interested in magic and spent summers at French Woods, a performing arts camp. He also commuted to Manhattan to take improv classes at Chicago City Limits. “In North Jersey, a lot of people wanted to hang out in front of the 7-Eleven,” he said. “In camp, there were a lot of people like me.”

He graduated from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 2008 with a degree in multimedia, doing his thesis on how the design of mobile vending relates to marketing. “I amassed an enormous amount of obscure knowledge of street vending in the United States,” he said. With the advent of food trucks and Twitter, he started producing a Web video series about street food called VendrTV. For two and a half years he traveled around the country, filming up to five episodes a day.

During his trips south, he bonded with Wayne Mueller, the third-generation owner of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Tex. “It’s a lifelong pursuit, and still they were learning their craft,” he said. “Wayne’s father had been smoking brisket for 60 years, and he’d say, ‘The briskets are acting funny today.’ Nothing about it is automatic. I found it intimidating and mysterious, in the way playing an instrument is mysterious.”

Mr. Delaney started learning with a small smoker more than four years ago and worked his way up to the monster he now owns in South Williamsburg. It is outside the old Pfizer building, which has become something of an artisanal food kibbutz recently; McClure’s Pickles and Brooklyn Soda Works are in residence, among others. The smoker is housed in a shipping container as a hedge against bad weather; the meat, which comes from Creekstone Farms, needs to be tended around the clock.

The plan, Mr. Delaney says, is to serve the brisket with homemade white bread, pickles and raw onion. “The protein is very rich,” he said. “The bread is sweet and can absorb the fat, the crisp onion is a palate cleanser, and the pickle adds a level of acidity that cuts through the richness of the brisket. It’s a cast of characters well positioned.”

He pulled a brisket from the smoker and cut a piece for me to taste, pointing out the red line running through the meat. “People think it’s not cooked, but that’s from the smoke,” he said. Normally, the briskets rest, so the moisture redistributes to the lean side. In this piece, the lean side was still dry, the tang of pepper too sharp. However, the fat side was like riding a cloud to heaven.

“If I told you I had 100 percent of the answers, I’d be lying,” Mr. Delaney said. “But I have a passion for challenge. I want to make the best barbecue in the country.”

He actually thinks he can pull that off? Though he survived Hurricane Sandy with his smoker — and gratitude — firmly intact, what about winter snowstorms, vicious online know-it-alls, employees who come and go, bad plumbing and whatever competition opens three months from now?

He squared his shoulders and stared me down, while still managing the hint of a smile. “I think,” he said, “that it would be un-American to think otherwise.”

 

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