|Chef Erin O'Shea; Photo by Jason Varney|
What makes barbecue barbecue? Is it the spices? Cooking method? What is the defining factor (in your opinion)?
There are so many different varieties of barbecue that it would be impossible for me to speak to all of them without writing a book - which, come to think of it, isn’t a bad idea…! I can speak specifically to what we do at Percy Street Barbecue here in Philadelphia, which is Texas-style barbecue. Some of the hallmarks of this style include slow, patient smoking of proteins that range from pork ribs to beef brisket, and an assortment of sides and sauces to complement the simple, pure flavors of properly smoked meat. We don’t use a ton of spices in our rubs or our marinades, preferring to allow the smoker to do the work for us and really bathe the meat in that unmistakable flavor. But again, that’s specific to Texas-style barbecue, and different regions rely on different techniques.
Percy Street started with Texas-inspired barbecue, but you've recently added some other styles. What are they and what was the inspiration for adding them? How would you describe your menu now?
Our menu still relies most heavily on the barbecue that my team and I studied with our research trip to Lockhart, Texas and the Hill Country before opening, but it’s safe to say that some of my other Southern culinary heritage has crept in. One terrific example is our domestic ham plate, a charcuterie board that features a rotating American artisanal ham from one of my favorite producers in Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky or North Carolina (to name a few), paired with house-made green tomato preserves and drop biscuits. It’s a fun play on a hoity-toity charcuterie plate that is definitely down-home enough to be comfortable on our austere, Texas-inspired menu - and like our barbecue, it’s a celebration of terrific ingredients that are painstakingly prepared and served at the peak of their flavors.
Percy Street recently expanded to the Comcast Center, is that doing well? Do you have any plans for future expansion?
My partners and I subscribe to a ‘never-say-never’ approach when it comes to expansion. I don’t know that I ever anticipated growing this business outside of the original four walls, but it’s been fun to bring our food to a new audience, and I wouldn’t want to rule anything out. For now, we’re just seeing how it all goes and continuing to prepare and serve the best product we can at both of our locations.
You were previously chef at Marigold Kitchen, which served a pretty broad range of foods. How does it feel to have to stay within the realm of "barbecue"? Do you leave the kitchen with a BBQ scent? Do you ever eat barbecue anymore, or are you sick of it?
Like so many pitmasters before me, I often find myself at home with the sweet smell of smoke lingering in my hair and clothes. Not that I’m complaining, although it does make me hungry nearly all the time! As for exploring other cuisines, I’m very lucky at Percy Street that we’re able to incorporate my roots - specifically my Southern cooking at Marigold - into what we do and sort of update barbecue classics with other great Southern flavors. Working with great people helps, too. It’s never boring, and our guests have always been game to try whatever we’re cooking up next, which makes my job a pleasure.
How many different sauces do you serve at Percy, and how did you come up with them? Which one is your favorite?
We have three house signature sauces: Old Faithful, our classic; Hot Mess, our spicy sauce; and Sweet Thang, a sweeter version. They hit pretty much every flavor you could want in a barbecue sauce: vinegar-y and bright but also alternately savory, spicy and sweet. Choosing a personal favorite is tough, because I like each sauce for different things. Hot Mess and a pork rib makes me pretty happy, though.
Have any tips for folks who want to make barbecue at home? Pre-cook? Marinate? Spice rub? Sauce?
Barbecue is all about patience - letting the slow, low temps of the smoke permeate the proteins and really infuse them all the way to the bone with flavor. Spice rubs and marinades are great for saving time, but if you really want to access those authentic smoky flavors, you’ll just have to take your time. Believe me, it’s always worth it!