BLOG— YS BBQ up close and personal
- Published: September 9, 2015
The smell of barbeque is irresistible. I often find myself taking a detour to walk by anywhere it is being sold, trying my best to enjoy the smell and not necessarily indulge in another meal right after the lunch I just finished. Sometimes I have self-control, sometimes I don’t. In any case, imagine my delight in being able to see and smell the barbeque process up close and personal, and moreover being able to hear all about it from someone as friendly as Tomaz, who runs Pig Wings BBQ with his wife Margaret. They are stationed in the parking lot of the BP and will be there basically until it gets too cold to be outside. Tomaz talked to me about bonding over cooking with his dad, his philosophies about food, and some of the tricks of the trade. Every business touts their dedication to customer service, but Tomaz is genuinely nice to people in a way that has nothing to do with blasé business directives – he is happy to talk to people, happy to ply his craft, and happy to make it a family affair.
I was raised around barbeque. My father barbequed all the time. He gravitated towards food – he was a gourmet cook and he taught himself a lot of his skills. I grew up crawling in underneath the seats in a restaurant that used to be over there [points across the street]. It was called Gabby’s and it served barbeque when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s cause the owner and my father were good friends.
My parents are from west Dayton. My father grew up very poor. A lot of the food that was historically barbequed was from the Black experience – the lower cuts of meat people didn’t want, that’s how it really came to be about. I always thought cooking was interesting and I always stood back and watched my dad do it. I’m from a family of nine kids and when we left the house, we all knew how to cook. There wasn’t one of us that couldn’t cook. Ever since my kids were little, I tried to do the same thing my dad did – he let the kids come in the kitchen, maybe just chopping up the carrots or whatever, but letting us participate in it. It was a great way for me and him to have that kind of bonding. We bonded over food, over cooking, over serving other people – I think I picked that up from him. He’s a little bit more wild with his tastes than I am – he was out there trying all different kinds of things, even trying molecular gastronomy, like freezing food and that kind of thing. (Laughs) I hope I’m representing him in this.
So cooking’s always been something I’ve done, About 10-12 years ago, I started getting a lot more serious about barbeque. We do our regular stuff right in here [indicates large mobile smoker] – pulled pork, barbeque ribs, brisket. We have our pig wings, which are smoked pork shanks and where we get our name from. Fridays we do salmon on wood planks, and when we cater we do beer can chicken.
My recipe is a hybrid of a family recipe and something I’ve come up with. I have all my dad’s recipes – all the sauces and stuff come from those. They’re written on old index cards, splattered with food. We’ve also branched off and done some other things, like the Dr. Pepper sauce, where we reduce Dr. Pepper to a syrup and use that instead of molasses. We also have the Carolina sauce, which is a mustard-based, apple cider vinegar sauce.
There are four big barbeque regions. You have Carolina, where they do a lot of pulled pork and use a lot of vinegar in their sauces. They even put vinegar straight on the pulled pork in some places. That’s where we get our coleslaw – we don’t use any mayonnaise in our slaw; we use sweet vinegar. Then you have Memphis, which is very famous for having dry-rubbed ribs and pork and not a lot of sauce, but it’s sweet and heavy sauce when they do. And obviously there’s Texas. It’s beef country, so you have a lot of brisket down there. Kansas City is another huge region. Their sauces are a lot sweeter than what you’re gonna find in the South. We just try to do the best from each one that we can. I just tried to take what I thought those regions have and do something impressive from them.
What we use is called a Reverse-Flow Pit. We are stick-burners, which means I cook with wood. I try to minimize the amount of charcoal and lighter fluid I use. I have a gas hook-up near the wood burner that can start the fire. So you have the firebox, and across the bottom of the pit is a plate. The heat and smoke travel under the plates and come up the other side of the pit and travel back across all the meat before it exits from a chimney. It’s a circle – what we’re doing is cooking with indirect heat and smoking it at the same time.
All of our big pieces – brisket and pork butts – are in here for fifteen to sixteen hours. We when get off her tonight at seven o’clock, I’ll put pieces of meat on for the next day. They’re on there all night ‘til we get here the next morning and start serving at eleven. In the morning, I do ribs and we switch over from hickory and oak wood to a fruit tree mix. It gives it a sweeter taste that’s not as powerful. Those big pieces need heavy smoke to penetrate them, but if that happens to the ribs it can turn them bitter.
My wife and I designed the pit, and East Texas Smoker Company of Tyler, Texas built it for us. You can build it online, basically. They took the template and what we wanted and they went ahead and made it for us. Like I said, this pit is reverse-flow and I’ve got a 55-gallon water tank and 35-gallon waste tank on here. I’ve got a hot water heater; I’ve got two gas tanks up front that go to two burners in the back, so we can do corn or deep-fry turkeys.
We get a lot of people calling it a grill. A grill has the heat source right underneath and is cooking the food, where this is indirect. When you smoke a piece of meat like ribs, you’ll get what they call a smoke ring, which is a red circle around the meat. The inside will be cooked, white, but the outside will be red. If you cut a butt in half, you’d see red about an inch and a half or two inches around the meat. I’ve had people say that means it’s not cooked, but I explain that if it’s not there, then it’s not cooked. (Laughs)
It probably took six or seven years to get my recipe right. We were still experimenting with the brisket up until last year. I still try to look at it and tweak it. I have my cook times down for how long everything should cook per pound, and we try to get as close to that as we can. The challenge for me is, when things are cooked, to try to keep them in the pit without overcooking them, so when you come at four o’clock I’m still giving you the same quality food that I would if you came when we opened. I know the cool parts on this pit; I know the hot spots on this pit, so when things are cooked we try to move them to the cool spots of the pit to try to maintain that [perfect texture].
We don’t serve any of our meat with sauce on it. We have sauces people can add, but I believe that you shouldn’t have to have sauce on them. Sauces should complement the meat but it should be tasty enough without it. Some barbequers dump a bunch of sauce on it to hide the fact that they didn’t do everything they should’ve to make it good.
I don’t get a lot of hassle from vegetarians. (Laughs) We have our black beans and rice and we have our coleslaw, and we get a lot of people that come up and just get those items. They have that smoky flavor to them. Last year we did a lot of portabella mushrooms. We marinated them because we do have a lot of customers who are vegetarians, and we try to have something that everybody can eat. We also do things for the holidays – hams, turkeys, those kinds of things. We try to mix it up, always have something that’s non-pork for people who don’t eat pork. We even cook it in separate pans so it never even touches the same surfaces. We do everything we can to pay attention to that, to offer them something legitimate that they can eat, and that’s really important to us.
I’m struggling with cold smoking stuff. I’d like to be able to smoke cheeses and that hasn’t gone too well yet. (Laughs) The way I’ve seen it done before is that you’ve got to keep the temperature below 40, yet you’ve got to create the smoke for it. We’ll get it sooner or later but it’s been a challenge. And with the fish, it’s so delicate that you have to be real careful with how you treat it or you’re just gonna give someone a chunk of board. And that’s why salmon is a dinner item – it’s not in there all day long. I can throw it in at 3:30 and give it a good half an hour. I try to keep my pit between 150 and 200 at all time, so to give it time to cook thoroughly and get all that smoke and still be that really good quality salmon [is a delicate operation].
We’ve been really blessed – we have people coming from Wilmington and Columbus to get our food, which is crazy that they come this far. We’ve done some things in Fairborn, at Five Points, and we have a pretty good group of people that follow us up there. We try to do one or two events up there and one or two competitions per year. We’ve got a bunch of kids so that kind of limits what you can do or where we can go. But I’m from here so it’s kind of nice to spend my time here, in town.
Yellow Springs is our home base. This is our third year here. It’s a neat thing to be home and doing it, seeing all the people. But one of things I think the town is missing is minority-owned businesses. When I was growing up there were four or five that were minority-owned. As the minority population in town has gone down, so has the number of minority business owners [which is why] I think it’s important to be here.
I think it’s funny – people will come up to me and say, I went to Yellow Springs this weekend and people were dressed crazy, and I’m like, most of those people aren’t from here! (Laughs) It’s a lot of fun being down here. I feel like ambassadors to the town, helping people out with directions or whatnot. “Where’s the bathroom?” – that’s the main question we get! I’ve been able to learn the signs and spot somebody who’s looking for a restroom.
I’ve always told my kids that serving people is one of the highest callings you can have. It doesn’t matter what kind of serving it is. Serving people is something we need to do and something I enjoy doing. In this case it’s food, but it’s also in the way you treat somebody. Hopefully the leave with good food but also with an idea of what Yellow Springs is about.
George from the Bourbon Chicken stand [an establishment in the parking lot next to Pig Wings BBQ] has been great. He’s been here for seven years. When we came here, I know that we hurt his pocket but he’s been so gracious and so kind to us, helping us out at every turn. It’s really beautiful. It shows his character and what type of person he is. One of the reasons I don’t do chicken is because he does chicken. I refuse to do something that would further cut into what he’s doing, out of respect for how he’s been to us. Whatever we need, he comes over to help. I can ask him for containers, whatever else. He’s always been that way. When that Brazilian food truck showed up, we wanted to be the same way he was with us. Very gracious, very helping. I have a lot of respect for him.
We had been asked a lot about opening a restaurant. But this pit has such low overhead – it’s not cost-prohibitive. I would never say never, but right now this is how we want to do it. And we’re where the people are at, which is really good. We served in Fairborn and did about the same amount business that we do here, but a lot of it was just diners coming through, getting food to go. Here you can really engage with people a bit more, and I like that. I’m a ham in that way.
(Tomaz’s wife Margaret was sitting with two of their kids under the meager shade of the awning. She never thought she’d be co-owner of a barbeque pit. “We work together usually. I homeschool the kids so I’m only here on weekends now, but I’m out here everyday in the summer,” she said.)
We were cooking like this anyway when we were pastors in Florida. I used to do this when I’d cook for the church. We did a lot of things for a non-profit in Tampa-St. Petersburg called the Dream Center and we’d go out and do what they called ‘coffee runs’ at night. Panera and places like that would let us get all their old coffee and sandwiches and we’d take them to people that were in the streets. Tampa-St. Petersburg is huge for people who don’t have a place to or are in-between for whatever reason…so many families with kids. We would take them sandwiches and coffee, and then we started doing barbeque. Cooking like that is something that got me interested in doing this pit.
I want to be in a position where we won’t turn anybody away. And we don’t. People say, I have two dollars, what can I get? It’s in my DNA from growing up here, the same sort of ethics and the same sort of openness to different types of people. We were always into having people come in to our church – it didn’t matter what you looked like or where you were from or anything like that. It was funny – our church looked like Yellow Springs, people from all kinds of backgrounds. We’re really open to that.