Barn & Company, Featuring GWiv
When Bob Zrenner, chef at Hubbard Inn, PM’d me on Facebook asking if I knew of anyone who could be Pitmaster as his new restaurant (at that point unnamed), there was no hesitation: Gary Wiviott is the man you want at your pit.
I don’t think anyone in Chicago or maybe the country approaches BBQ with the passionate studiousness, the downright fetishistic attention to detail of Wiviott.
I’ve probably eaten 20 pounds of BBQ on various occasions in Wiviott’s backyard, but Zrenner’s new restaurant – Barn & Company – presents some new challenges to the old master.
For instance, instead of cooking for maybe 80 friends, working in a commercial kitchen demands that you cook for 100s of strangers, every night, day after day. It can be a drag, though Wiviott shows no signs of that. In fact, I'd say I've never seen him more in his element.
Still, there’s a lot to get used to in the transition between backyard and professional kitchen.
Some of it is very welcome. “It’s a lot easier pulling pork,” Wiviott told me, “with a kitchen full of professional chefs as opposed to a bunch of drunken BBQ guys.” And who wouldn't love assigning clean-up to a bunch of guys half your age with twice your energy.
But Wiviott also has to accustom himself to cooking on a Fast Eddy’s by Cookshack, a pellet smoker that Wiviott is studying as a scientist at Area 51 might examine an alien spacecraft. Remember, this is a guy who has championed the Weber Smokey Mountain and aquarium smokers, each of which can turn out only a small percentage of the volume of this massive stainless steel smoking machine.
To maximize the deliciousness of what comes out of this industrial smokehouse, Wiviott is filling a notebook with observations and ideas.
“Everything is always changing. For instance, you’d be surprised at the variation that results from the amount of product you put in,” and to enhance smoky flavor, Wiviott is adding some wood to supplement the pellets.
After pieces are portioned, they’re put on an Argentine grill to be lightly brushed with sauce (also designed by Wiviott) and finished over a lump charcoal fire to caramelize the meat and create slightly barky burnt bits.
Because this is a soft opening (motivated, Zrenner told me, by the Taste of Lincoln Ave. a few feet from his door) the menu was limited. I had the sampler of ribs, pulled pork sliders, fries and cole slaw. Fries and slaw were excellent, and the pulled pork on the sliders was very moist and juicy with good pork flavor, though perhaps they could have used a bit more smokiness, and they benefitted from the Wiviott-inspired bourbon sauce. The ribs were very tasty and a hybrid of paradigmatic Wiviott Q prepared for a larger audience.
As I said, I’ve eaten a lot of Wiviott’s Q, and he tends to go for toothsome, textured rib meat, and I do too, but I’m guessing if you asked 10 people in Barn & Company what they look for in a rib, 9 would say something like “fall of the bone,” “melt in your mouth,” or some other descriptor that is exactly not what Wiviott has ever gone for. But he’s cooking for these people and like any chef, he’s going to try to make them happy while maintaining some adherence to his own beliefs as to what makes for a good rack of ribs. The result is a delicious mouthful – his rubs and sauces, restrained in both heat and sweetness, really perk it up – a cross between Wiviott’s own preferred meatiness and what is apparently the larger public’s expectation that the meat be tender. It won’t fall off the bone or melt in your mouth, but if you know Wiviott’s Q, you will notice that you’re not working your jaws quite so hard. Maybe that’s not a bad thing at all, and that was just the case this afternoon. I suspect the taste and texture will evolve with time.
Wiviott is the BBQ yoda in this kitchen, and he’s regularly consulted by the staff; I think they’re very lucky to have him (before he came on board, Calvin had been trying his hand at some Q, and it just wasn't working out).
“How’s that guy to work with?” I asked a kitchen worker. “Yes,” he smiled, diplomatically. I'm sure Wiviott demands a lot of these guys, but that's probably part of the reason Zrenner hired him.
Barn & Company is designed to open up to the street so that the young and restless can breeze in and out, watch a little flatscreen, play some games, and maybe eat a little something. It's probably not the kind of place you would have expected Wiviott to be flexing his considerable BBQ biceps.
But Wiviott is not walking around the restaurant flirting with the servers (at least on Day One he wasn’t). He seems very focused on turning out a product that people will like and that will make him proud, and he's very much at home back at his “chef’s table.”
While I was there, he got a call from his mom, “Yes, mom, I’m having a lot of fun,” he assured her. I have no doubt he was telling the truth.
Barn & Company
950 W. Wrightwood
All other days: 11 am to 2 am
Saturdays: 11 am to 3 am
11 am to midnight
“We all have to stand before the kitchen gods.” Chef Jacob Sahaya Kumar Aruni