Q&A: Sam Croge of Smokehouse Grille and Wingery
Chef Sam Croge from Smokehouse Grille and Wingery
Photo by Patty Canedo
The debate among barbecue connoisseurs ranges from sauces versus rubs to grill versus smoker. It's a truly authentic American cuisine. Barbecue is a celebration of each region's culture and technique; it's a mastery of spices, wood, meat, and skill.
Driving through Boca, I snap out of a daze from the mundane when the smell of something sweet over an open fire hits me. The culprit is a Missouri smoker set behind Boca's Smokehouse Grille and Wingery, slowly smoking hundreds of pounds of ribs, brisket, and pork. Since its conversion from Boca Wings and Ribs in September, the smokehouse pheromones have been billowing down Federal Highway, luring barbecue enthusiasts.
How have you been received in these first couple of months being open?
It's been going very good. The neat thing is that we've been getting people in to try our barbecue 'cause we do true authentic barbecue with the smoker out back. All we've heard is raves about how delicious the food is, so it's been really going well.
What are some of the challenges of using the smoker?
Keeping up with it. Especially between the week of Christmas and New Year's, the smoker was running and we were just trying to smoke as much as we could to keep up with the demand of ribs. We went through 230 slabs of ribs just in that one week alone, and we can only get about 35 rack in the smoker at a time.
How long does it take to smoke the ribs?
We smoke them for four hours. But then our briskets and our porks, they smoke 12 to 14 hours, so that takes up room.
I hear you have a pretty special smoker.
Yeah, we went up to Missouri and got it. It's a phenomenal smoker. It's learning the way the flues work and everything, and after that, it does great smoke meat out of it.
Are you still in the honeymoon period with all new patrons, or are you establishing repeat clientele?
It's catching on more. I mean, once we converted and changed the name and opened up. Smokehouse people didn't know we were here. Now that we are getting people in, they're coming back and repeating. I mean, you see someone one night, and all of a sudden you see them again the next night because they enjoyed the food so much. We are starting to build up our clients for the smoking, for the true barbecue.
Do you ever get any complaints from your neighbors abour the smell from the smoker?
It's funny because one day a gentleman came in and he said, "I was driving by along Federal Highway and I could smell the smoke out there and I had to come in." So there's been no complaints -- it's more people saying, "Wow, I smelled it, and I had to come in." I smell it as I'm working here, but smelling it out on the street is unique, is really neat. It's like having a fireplace in your house -- it's a nice smoky smell. Our neighbors around have come over to eat because of the smell.
Since everything is coming off the smoker out back, how do you execute the food during a busy service?
Once again, our ribs cook such a long time and everything cooks such a long time. We hold them warm so the execution is very quick. Smoking meats develops a bark on the ribs and on the pork, so you don't have to, like someone at home would, put it on the grill to grill it. Ours have a natural crust to it, so we glaze them with barbecue sauce and they are ready to go.
Do you have a grill in your kitchen?
Yes, matter of fact we have a grill which we burn wood on also. It's wood-fired hamburgers and chicken breasts. We use wood everywhere; we only use natural gas on our stove.
So during the rush, it must get pretty smoky in here?
Yes, in the very beginning, until we learned a few things, it got pretty smoky. When we first light the fires in the morning, before anyone's here, it get pretty smoky. But once it gets going, there's not a lot of smoke.
Does your meat require a lot of fabricating?
Well, our ribs are ready to go, and so are our bone-in pork butts. With our brisket, there is fabrication to it. But we just use our magic dust and put things in. Our pork -- we use the whole shoulders, and we hold them whole, so we are just pulling right off the bone when we serve it. Which is real easy and it holds the moisture, the flavor, instead of other techniques that are done. So it's actually easiest for execution, especially for when we are busy.
What is the secret to a really good rib sauce?
It's a balance of sweetness, acidity, a touch of molasses and things, with a little bit of spice to it. So it's really a balance of all those things and the marriage it has with the smoked food. That's why we developed a Carolina sauce which is a mustard and peppery based sauce which goes great with the pork because of the sweetness in the pork. So it's really the balance of flavors that pair with the meat is what makes a sauce really, really good.
Which is the most prominent barbecue style here at the Smokehouse?
Our smoking and all is more Texas style. But our pork sandwich is a Carolina sandwich with traditional slaw on top of it.
Which is your favorite style of barbecue?
When you get into the Caroline style or St. Louis style, Memphis style, the differences is the wet basting through the smoking process. Where Texas is a dry rub on your meats and you're just slowly smoking them. It's the development of that crust, that bark, that makes the Texas style one of my favorites.
What are some of the hazards to a cook working with a smoker?
It's really going into the chamber and handling the hot meats coming out. The chamber is all steel, so the metals get really hot. But the fire pit is what you really have to look out for because we have to keep the temperature at about 225 so the chamber doesn't get really hot but it's when you're adding wood, turning wood, and getting our coal base going, that's where the hazards come in.
Which item on the menu has been a surprise hit?
What's been a real surprise has been the pork and brisket. The pork just flies out of here. At lunchtime, we may sell 20 sanwiches 'cause people have just come in here and have tried it and like it so much. The ribs absolutely -- people call up here when they are having friends over and say they'll take half a dozen slabs of ribs. We added a brisket sandwich as a special just to see how it would run, and people are just really enjoying it.
How has Boca been? Is this the area you envisioned for a barbecue restaurant?
Yes, but I would really love to see one in west Boca. I think opening up a store out there, we would really flourish. There's a lot of people there, and we get a ton of calls for delivery out to west Boca, but it's past our zone, so we can't get out there to service those guests. So I think opening up a second location out in west Boca would be a real win for us.
Do you find the size of your dining room limiting?
Yes, we are limited. Lunchtime and dinnertime, we have to go on waits because we only have about 64 seats in here, and it fills up, so we have to wait for people to get up to turn over the dining room. The next location we are looking for will be a large location so that we are able to service the guests when they come in.
Within your first year of opening, you are already planning a second location?
Looking into the future, yes. We have such great feedback from the guests that have been in here. Since we've opened, we've been steadily growing, and as that growth continues, it'll be time to do that.
What do you think the summer months will bring?
The summer months can be challenging for a restaurant, but there's a lot of year-around people here in Boca, and we are trying to build relationships with the businesses around, and through delivery and having people in here, we are hoping to maintain a steady business during the summer. Those are the tough months.
Do you think the barbecue concept limits your creativity as a chef?
No, actually. Whatever you are doing as a chef, you want to the best you can: the best ingredients, the freshest foods, the best flavors. It's been the creation and doing all the things that go along with the smoking, the barbecue sauces we do, the different techniques -- it's not been limiting. And there's still room for further expansion on our menu. It's been fun because it's been a challenge, using the new smoker and perfecting it so you are getting the consistency.
Do you appeal to barbecue connoisseur?
Absolutely. We are one of the only restaurants in this area that does true, authentic barbecue with hardwood-smoked meats. A lot of other people use other techiniques 'cause they don't have the facility we do. If you crave authentic barbecue, this is definitely a place to come.
How do you maintain your smoker in the kitchen?
We actually keep it right outside the back kitchen, tented, so when it rains we are able to work out there. It's on a trailer because we do offsite catering with it. We have a big truck so we can offer that service to people.
Where is your position during a rush? Behind the smoker? On the line?
I'm right in the kitchen expoing because the smoker is running, so once we get it running, it's a matter of maintaining the fire and rotating a little bit. It gives me the opportunity to be on the line... So really, I'm in the kitchen during the peak times making sure our pits are going out correctly and everything is going out the right way.
Do you find you have to 86 things often?
Actually, the brisket is one of those things I've had to 86 'cause it's just one of those things because of the demand. We have a catering menu, and I have people come in and order eight pounds of brisket. When I get orders like that, that's when I'll tend to run out. It's a daylong process; if I'm out of brisket in the morning, I won't have it again until the next day because of the all-day smoking process.
How big is your line?
I only have five guys, but I utilize my production staff to prep things so I can put things together or else I'd never be able to make it without all those guys helping.
Does your staff know the sauce recipes?
No, they have a recipe manual and follow it verbatim because they don't know the recipes. We developed all the people here. The conversion of it and the training the first week was very intense because it was also a time to learn using a wood-fired grill, maintaining even temperature. It's not like turning on your gas grill and there it is. You have to keep adding your wood and stooking your coals and things. Learning the barbecue techniques, when things are done and not done, the guys really stepped up to it.
What are you looking for in cooks?
I'm looking for people who really have an enthiusiastic attitude about cooking. If they know how to cook, I can teach them barbecue. It's not as simple as sauteeing something or grilling something but I'd rather have someone who's open and willing who's excited about learning things.
Will you ever be able to offer organic meats?
The only thing with that is concerning the cost to the customer, because of the expense of using all natural, hormone-free, organic meats. We've been big about value, keeping our prices down and giving a lot of food. A lot of people will come in and share a pit platter because there's so much there for them. Getting into the organics and all there may be a call for it some day but right now we aren't looking down that avenue.
Do you consider Smokehouse gourmet barbecue?
Absolutely. It's unique and we do things in the traditional way, the right way. If barbecue could be gourmet, we would be gourmet barbecue. But it's more comfort food, sit down have a nice slab of ribs and enjoy.
Proteins aside, what is your best item on the menu?
We do a mac and cheese, but with a twist. I put a little bacon and spice into my mac and cheese. We have carmelized onion mashed potatoes, we do a baked bean with 13 different ingredients in it, and they are like sitting at home and having a great dish with a family dinner. We pride ourselves on the sides too, because of the variety we have. We grill our corn on the cob over the grill so people really enjoy it.
What is the craziest thing to happen to you on the line so far?
I think the first week we were open. People who don't understand barbecue and were opening up their ribs and they're looking at our smoke ring -- our ribs will get a nice rubby color, purple color, they are falling off the bone and people would send them back saying, 'This meat isn't done.' That was crazy because it's educating those people on barbecue. That meat was so done it was falling off the bone, it's tender. That's been crazy and doing the off-site catering. It's packing up the trailer, getting to the site, getting your fire started and getting the whole thing rolling when you get off site. It's been unique but a lot of fun.
How often do you face the whole 'meat/chicken cooked extra well' challenge come up?
When we first opened up, it first it happened probably a couple times a week. Now it probably happens once a month. And yes chicken was another thing. People see a little pink in their chicken and they are like 'oh my gosh' but once again our servers and everyone one who works in the front of the house has been educated on how to explain to them what they are looking at. No it's not raw, that's our smoke ring. The meat is done, it's tender and moist. We've overcome a lot of that from the beginning.
Are you getting people from beyond Boca?
We are drawing from Delray, Boynton, Pompano and Fort Lauderdale. We have one gentleman that comes once a week from Pompano, eats here and drives up here cause he absolutely loves the food. Really our base is Boca, but we are expanding out.
Have you had any fires get out of control with the Smoker?
When we first started working with the smoker someone decided to load up with wood and we almost caught a tree on fire because of the smoke stack. The flames were shooting up about 20 feet.
How do you prepare your quantity of meat for a busy weekend?
I pretty much start on Wednesday for the weekend because the amount of food we go through on Friday and Saturday, it takes me two days to prepare that much food. Then I'm still working Friday to get through the weekend just in case we get a big catering order. I'll start two days out getting ready for the weekend. It's come in on Monday replenish from the weekend. Then Tuesday comes along and you start to prepare everything, then Wednesday it starts; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, cooking, cooking, cooking and then it starts all over again. This Monday was the first day in three weeks that we didn't use the smoker, that I had a break from it. We were smoking that much. We were smoking five days a week, then the past three weeks its been seven days. Everything's just been taking off so much.
How are your wings prepared?
Well going back in time this was Boca Wings and Ribs, so the wings have always been here and we haven't changed the way we've done our wings from Boca Wings. We've expanded from our grilled and smoked. We've had the rise in barbecue so we are only doing about 75% of the wings we used to do. The wings are still a big part of business especially at lunch time because we run a special with our wings. The wings are always going to be part of the business but we've seen since we added the grilled and smoked wings people are getting that since it's a little more healthy that fried, especially the smoked. Not that the wing is a healthy thing but it's better than fried.
Telling me about training a Professional Smoker?
It's something that someone can be trained but it would take about a month to really understand and have it down to where you know how to do it. Thinking about when you have your fire out there, when you're going to need to go back out and check it, depending on how your ribs are, when you need to rotate, when they're going to be done. It would take a solid month to just learn the basic and probably a couple months after to where they have no questions on things. I don't know if in this area you'll find someone because there's not a lot of places that do authentic barbecue.
What is the hardest part of learning to cook in this manner?
It's unique in the fact that you are building a fire in your fire pit and you have to maintain the temperature in your chamber, It's not like turning on your oven and you're done. Then knowing the right about of rub to put on your ribs, knowing how to keep the rotation so your ribs cook evenly and not burning them, knowing when their done, when they're ready to coming out. There's a lot of nuances to it, it's not like I'm going to learn to braise today or broil today or grill today. There's a lot of different stages through out it and it is a difficult technique. Especially when you get into the porks and the briskets, that's the big things. They can dry out, the ribs will hold a little more moisture to them but your briskets if you are leaving them in to long you'll put a char on them or dry them out.
How much did the recent cold front challenge your smoker?
I had to build a hotter fire because the steel got cold on the chamber and the wood just wasn't burning like it normally would. We get two different size woods, a smaller log for the inside and a larger log for the smoker because it'll burn longer and we don't use as much wood that day. We use the center of a pine tree to start the fire. It's amazine how it burns, our wood vendor brought these to us. This little stick is all I use to start the fire in the morning.
Do you think the summer will pose cooking challenges?
We got this back in April. We just changed the name in September. It does get very hot, that was the reason for getting a large tent of the smoker was cause you'll come out here and have to spend 20 minutes out here and in the Florida sun and when you're cooking it get really hot.
Do you use a sous vide to hold your meats?
No. That's we run the smoker so many times because we do everything day to day to day. Going back to your question about running out of things, I only run out of brisket. Have I come really close on other things? Yes. I mean we just try to keep up. I've gotten so close on things but it's just a matter of coming in earlier and getting started earlier.
Do you ever get frustrated with the slow smoking cooking process?
You get to time to where you want to speed things. I always think back and remember how people talk about the food and that's what keeps me true to what needs to be done because its the best quality. When its raining out here or its a hot day or its a cold day, you just think about that, it's what needs to be done.
Where did you cook previous to Smokehouse?
I was with a major hotel chain for 15 years.
How do you compare the experiences?
It's corporation versus an independent. I love independent restaurants because of the freedom. There's no limits, no restrictions to what you can try and taking care of the people in the restaurant. Of course, you are pain stakingly doing everything but it's a reward in the end with the people, the guests and the associates that work for you.
So you ever miss the high-end, hotel atmosphere?
Once in awhile when you're doing a dinner for a Palm Beach person, you do miss that because it's the upper eshalon of doing things. But once again the freedom and the experssion of an indepedent restaurant is a unique experience.
Do you barbecue this way at home?
No, I don't have a smoker to do these things. But I've always loved to grill since I was a little boy, so this is just taking it up another level. I develop the barbecue sauces we used here, we have four types of barbecue sauces we make here in house. The house barbecue we do here was actually the seventh try because we kept changing little levels of different ingredients in it till we found something that went well with our ribs. We had to try it with the ribs, not just the sauce by itself and we came to it and it's wonderful.
Where do you go to eat?
I like sushi, other than that I eat at home. If I do go out I enjoy sushi.
Could you ever imagine yourself a vegetarian?
No, never. I love my barbecue too much.
What do you think about culinary schools?
Culinary schools nowadays, sometimes they push too far where the students aren't really learning the real hard work in a restaurant. You really have to build with your foundations. You learn great techniques in culinary school and they'll put you into an apprenticeship or co-op program so you'll have experience while you're going through school. If you want to do culinary as a profession, I definetely suggest culinary school, it'll teach you all your techniques across the board. Then going to work in a restaurant you'll fine tune what you've learned in school.
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