In the past decade, when Atlanta chef-restaurateurs wanted to expand into more casual concepts, the go-to move was to open a burger joint.
In 2018, the new move seems to be barbecue, with a handful of prominent chefs tackling the challenging genre: Scott Serpas at Dixie Q in Brookhaven, Shaun Doty and the Federal team bringing King Barbecue to Avalon soon, and Todd Ginsberg of the General Muir opening Wood’s Chapel BBQ in Summerhill later this year. Meanwhile, chef Kevin Gillespie has been running frequent pop-ups of his Terminus City BBQ while on the lookout for the right space.
Why barbecue? Chef Nick Melvin, who moved from Venkman’s over to Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q last year, summed it up succinctly: “It’s in your soul — chefs love fire, chefs love meat.”
For Melvin, the shift from upscale dining at Venkman’s to the smokehouse has been eye-opening. And, he expects that the other chefs getting into barbecue for the first time will have a similar experience, advising, “I hope they learn the tradition of it first, the basics, then they can start playing with it and put their own touch on it.”
At Dixie Q, Serpas has taken that notion to heart. His menu is mostly standards — brisket, pulled pork, house-made sausage — with just a few touches to hint that an upscale-dining chef is involved (quinoa and arugula with sherry vinaigrette, anyone?). In fact, Serpas has been reticent even to publicize his presence at Dixie Q, despite the fact that he’s the de facto chef and pitmaster. “With barbecue,” he warned, “you’ve got to be careful. Keep it simple, clean, and you can’t get too fancy.”
He said that he wanted to keep his presence at Dixie Q “below the radar and make sure that I put out a good product first.” Half a year in, he’s ready to start weaving in some of the Louisiana influences that he’s known for at his namesake Serpas True Food, planning a crawfish boil and barbecue blowout at Dixie Q to kick off the start of summer.
Serpas’ motivation for Dixie Q, which he calls “a passion project,” came down to a simple business opportunity. In Brookhaven, he found a space in a neighborhood that seemed like it could use a barbecue joint.
For Ginsberg and his partners at the General Muir, the opportunity to launch Wood’s Chapel BBQ was born from a similar set of circumstances. Partner Ben Johnson admitted, “we weren’t setting out looking for a place to do barbecue; it was the other way around. We saw the development project (being undertaken by Carter in the historic Summerhill neighborhood), the old buildings, and it just felt like it should be a barbecue place, strange to say.”
“Woods Chapel is going to be a barbecue restaurant with a modern American feel to the menu,” he said, “and we have to work on the traditional aspects first, so we can do other things really well.” For Ginsberg, that means, “to surround ourselves with people that are smarter than us to figure this out. We’re working with a guy who is developing an offset smoker for us, and testing that out. We may have three different smokers — all of which will use wood, no gas.”
Out at Avalon, Doty and partner Lance Gummere already have the man they need to bring the barbecue smarts to King Barbecue — Carey Wise, who is an operating partner in the new endeavor and an accomplished chef and pitmaster in his own right. With time spent at both Fox Bros. and Grand Champion BBQ, Wise has the barbecue skills that only hours alongside the smoker can bring. And, he’s eager to show them off at King Barbecue. “Our concept is to take the best methods from all over the South, and execute them with only the highest quality proteins.”
Back in town, Jonathan Fox of Fox Bros. is keeping an eye on all the newcomers. “I’ve spent 20 years doing this and we are still working on things,” he said. As for the newcomers to the community of barbecue pros in town, Fox observed, “We all kind of know each other. You don’t want to see anybody not succeed. … I just know the road we took to get here, and, if you can get there, more power to you, and congratulations, because you deserve it.”
Serpas, Ginsberg, Doty and friends are ready to walk that road. Whether they all make it as far as Fox, and still manage to keep their existing restaurants chugging along, well, we’ll just have to wait and see. Barbecue takes time.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.