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WhiteTrash BBQ -- Real Pit Barbecue from New York City. This is the story of a fire obsessed guy, living in Brooklyn, with a dream of producing award winning, competition busting, real Barbeque. Come live the dream as I compete around the country in the KCBS Championship Barbecue circuit.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Pitmasters: Big Lou Elrose

What a great way to start the day. This article from today's New York Times came into my inbox. Lou Elrose is a giant of a man and one of the nicest folks on the New York barbeque scene.

Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

Published: December 9, 2007

Lou Elrose overseeing barbecue at home in Queens. He has moved quickly from running a food cart to being pit master for a start-up barbecue chain.

LOU ELROSE, a retired police officer with a passion for barbecue, is suddenly a hot commodity.

In the past year, Mr. Elrose, who has won barbecue competitions, has gone from selling pulled pork and slow-cooked brisket from a food cart in Ozone Park, Queens, to a job as deputy pit master at Hill Country, a new barbecue restaurant in the Chelsea section of Manhattan.

After only three months, Mr. Elrose, 55, was recruited for another job, as head pit master at Wildwood Barbecue, a restaurant set to open in March a few blocks south of Hill Country. With this new post, Mr. Elrose is commanding his highest salary yet — approaching six figures, he said. He is also eligible for a stock purchase plan.

“Anybody who has anything to do with the meat will be reporting to me,” he said.

It is a good time to be a barbecue expert in New York. The city has long been stuffed with Italian, French and Japanese restaurants, but barbecue spots were in short supply for many years. Now the landscape has changed.

Tim Zagat, co-founder of the Zagat Survey restaurant guides, estimates that there are about 20 notable barbecue restaurants in New York, up from just a few five years ago.

The 2008 Zagat Guide to New York City restaurants, published in October, notes six new spots, including Hill Country, which specializes in Texas-style barbecue; Southern Hospitality, on the Upper East Side, with the pop star Justin Timberlake as a co-owner; and Fette Sau (“fat pig” in German) in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

The trend is prompting demand for well-trained cooks. “Most people think that with barbecue you throw it into a smoker and 16 hours later you have wonderful food,” Mr. Zagat said. “A really good pit master has to be a talented person and technically has to be fairly sophisticated.”

Pit masters create recipes (including those for secret spice rubs for their brisket and ribs), order and butcher meat and preside over pits in the restaurants. While a pit conjures an image of a hole in the ground, in this case it is actually an oven, sometimes burning mild fruitwood like apple or cherry, or other hardwoods.

Some pit masters, including Mr. Elrose, earn their stripes as serious hobbyists who have smokers at home and who travel the thriving national circuit of cooking competitions. Others are classically trained chefs, like Kenny Callaghan, executive chef of Blue Smoke, which was opened in 2002 by the restaurateur Danny Meyer.

Meat experts aren’t the only people in demand in city restaurants. Despite the troubled housing market and recession fears, employment at full-service restaurants in New York City reached a record 98,600 last year and is on track to exceed that this year, said Jim Brown, labor market analyst for the New York State DepartmentricaLabor.

At the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., job postings are plentiful, said Wendy Higgins, assistant director for career development and employer services. “It is a very good market,” she said. The school has not had specific requests to fill pit master jobs, she said.

Mr. Brown said there was some concern that the financial industry’s slowdown would start to affect restaurants. But he said foreign tourists enjoying favorable exchange rates were likely to fill seats vacated by locals. Moreover, the city’s growing population is adding more diners to the mix, he said.

“Employment growth has been quite strong, and skilled staff, especially as you move up the ladder to the higher-end restaurants, has been in short supply for a while,” Mr. Brown said. “For most restaurants, the only way you’re going to get an experienced worker is to lure them from someplace else. We don’t track it in hard numbers, but there certainly has been a pickup in poaching.”

THE creator of Wildwood Barbecue, Stephen Hanson, founder and president of B.R. Guest Restaurants, a New York company with 16 restaurants, acknowledges poaching talent.

“Poaching is just part of New York,” he said. “Everybody always takes the interview.” He said demand has pushed up salaries for pit masters by 50 percent during the last two years.

Mr. Hanson hopes to open five Wildwoods by the end of next year, including locations in Las Vegas and Arizona. All will need pit masters, who will report to him.

Before joining the Police Department, Mr. Elrose worked for Landi’s Pork Store in Brooklyn and owned a deli. He often cooks for his wife and three children.

Some retired police officers contemplate fishing trips, but Mr. Elrose, known as Big Lou, is expecting a busy second act. “Working for Steve Hanson is like being attached to a rocket,” he said. “Every time I see him he says, ‘Lou, you don’t know how big this is going to be.’ Maybe I don’t, but I’m on for the ride.”

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