Fire catalysed human evolution. Perhaps that’s why the sight of roaring fires and watching meat cook on flame brings out something elemental in everyone. This is nothing but barbeque, one of the most primitive forms of cooking. For most of us, barbeque is a leisurely Sunday tradition. But it’s a serious passion for the four pit masters profiled in Chef’s Table: BBQ.
The four-part series focuses on the pit masters, their stories and what they feel about barbeque. Lennox Hastie, a chef who treats fire as his paintbrush wanted to break free from his dream job at a Michelin star restaurant. He felt stifled by the lack of creativity at a restaurant that was set in its ways. Rodney Scot’s whole hog barbeque is an African-American inheritance. Rosalia Chay Chuc, a proud Mayan preserves her millennia-old traditions in the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. Tootsie Tomanetz threw gender norms out of the window when she took up working at the grill, traditionally considered to be a man’s job. These are the stories of rebels, people who’ve persevered through personal and professional crisis to bring more than just food to your plate.
Tootsie Tomanetz doesn’t need a thermometer
Norma “Tootsie” Tomanetz doesn’t need thermometers. The 85-year-old born and raised in the Depression-era spends wee hours on Saturdays firing up the grill at Snow’s BBQ, Texas. She walks around the kitchen from one grill to another shovelling coal and checking temperatures with her bare hands; that’s a skill one only learns after decades of experience. She insists there’s nothing special about her barbecue, just simple ingredients and Texan tradition.
A local legend, she’s considered somewhat of an oddity given her independent spirit. She’s worked jobs that were expected to be done by men such as working at a meat market with her husband. She lost her husband and son to cancer as Snow’s BBQ gained popularity. The tough grandma admits that the love she received from her diners and the local barbecue fraternity was her salvation.
When life came a full circle for Lennox Hastie
Hastie who migrated to Sydney, Australia spent four years looking for a space apt for his restaurant, Firedoor. Even though Lennox Hastie’s split from his mentor Victor Arguinzoniz of Asador Etxebarri, a Spanish restaurant in Basque, was bitter, they ironed out their difference when their respective restaurants won prestigious culinary awards. His face lights up as he describes this in the episode.
The episode shepherds you through his journey. Fresh out of culinary school, Hastie aspired to work at a Michelin star restaurant. Once he was a part of a Michelin star kitchen, he felt stifled by the lack of creativity and described the experience as “soul-sucking”. He left to work at Asador Etxebarri, a grill cookery in Spain’s idyllic Axpe region. Victor Arguinzoniz, a self-taught chef who helms the restaurant mentored Hastie. While Etxebarri won its Michelin star, Hastie felt the need to carve out his space in the global culinary landscape.
Rodney Scot’s ‘exile’ tour
What do you do when your source of income has been burned to the ground? James Beard awardee, Rodney Scott (pictured above) is considered a BBQ star. In 2013, a fire claimed his Hemmingway barbecue pit leaving behind charred, soot-covered meat and putrid smell in the air. His comeback act, Rodney Scot in Exile is the high point of this episode. He went from one city to another on a barbeque tour to raise money for a new pit.
Scot grew up in Hemmingway, an agrarian small town in South Carolina. The town was considered a drug-infested area spanning a crossroad and three traffic lights. Travellers seldom passed through leave alone visiting the town. Akin to Tootsie’s barbeque in Texas, Hemmingway preserves a rural African-American tradition, the whole hog barbecue, a suckling pig slow cooked for over 12 hours. It is hard work, a painstaking process that only a few pitmasters such as Scot preserve. Scot started spending by the grills as a child and remained in his hometown until the fire. His whole-hog barbeque, an inheritance of the African-American drew in people from as far as New York.
Rosalia goes underground
Rosalia Chay Chuc is a proud Mayan and it’s heartbreaking when she narrates that her father taught her Spanish, the language of the colonisers, in order for her to lead an urban life. Chuc is one of the very few who chose to preserve millennia-old ethos through food. Her bestseller cochinita pibil literally translates to a suckling pig cooked underground. It is the Mayan way of giving back to the earth what they harvested.
Alien to her fame, she invites people to her rustic home for a bona fide Mayan meal. She sources her ingredients from the farm and ferries to the mill to grind her home-grown corn for the tortillas. She put Yaxunah on the Mexican culinary map and her culinary skills recognised by David Chang in his Netflix show Ugly Delicious. Danish chef Rene Redzepi collaborated with her at his restaurant, Noma Mexico.