At the BarbeQue Exchange in Gordonsville, Chef Craig Hartman pursues
smoky perfection with his custom cooker, “the beast.”
by Daniel M. Walker, Contributing Writer
The last time you enjoyed a plate of your favorite
barbeque, did you consider how its taste was influenced by regional
traditions and flavors? Craig Hartman, chef and owner of the Barbeque
Exchange in Gordonsville, Va., has spent much of his 30-year culinary career
thinking about and experimenting with the influence of regional flavors. The
former executive chef of Keswick Hall’s renowned Fossett’s Restaurant is
highly regarded for his culinary knowledge and skill in bringing local
agriculture, history, and culture together in his cuisine. “What better way
to accomplish this mission than with basic comfort food like barbeque?”
questioned Chef Craig.
Chef Craig believes that barbeque is the one food in
our country that is most heavily influenced by regional culture, traditions,
and flavors. Much like other comfort foods, barbeque can be intensely
personal. For example, the mesquite wood used to flavor the meat, as well
as rubs that feature local peppers and spices, characterize Texas barbeque.
And of course, Texas barbeque is primarily beef.
North Carolina barbeque, on the other hand, is a
totally different taste experience. North Carolina and other southern states
are well known for using the whole hog and infusing the pork with vinegar.
While there are several regional styles of barbeque in North Carolina, it is
the slow-cooked, vinegar--based pulled pork barbeque that is commonly known
as “Carolina” barbeque. Pungent and sharp, the vinegar-based cookery
penetrates the pork and cuts the sensation of fat against the taste buds.
Chef Craig explained that he didn’t want to serve Carolina-style barbeque,
but wanted to be influenced by Virginia’s heritage with the best flavors
that the state has to offer.
Craig and "The Beast," a specialized cooker
custom-built by brother-in-law Jim Kush.
During the 1700s, Virginia, with its palatial estates,
looked to England and France for style. Virginians imported European
fabrics, china, furniture, architectural design, and culinary influence.
History tells us that when Thomas Jefferson went to France as an
ambassador, he took his cook, the very talented James Hemings, with him. In
Paris, Hemings trained in the French style of cookery and in 1787, became
chef de cuisine at the Hotel de Langeac. Later, another Jefferson chef,
Edith Fossett, learned French cooking in Washington with President Jefferson
and followed Jefferson to retirement back at Monticello. Her cooking was
once described by Daniel Webster as “in half Virginian, half French style,
in good taste and abundance.” It was Mr. Webster’s quote that came to mind
as I interviewed Chef Craig — it seemed to characterize his objective to
infuse Virginia flavors into his barbeque. “Virginia’s best flavors come
from Smithfield-style ham, peanuts, molasses, and the savory flavor of pork
cooking over green hickory wood,” he explained .
At my visit to The Barbeque Exchange, Chef Craig
started me off with Brunswick Stew, Virginia baked beans with bits of smoked
bacon and molasses, kale and cornbread. Next, he served a sample of thick,
smoked bacon, sausage, and pulled/chopped barbeque. There was no mistaking
this for North Carolina-stylebarbeque. It had a
deep, rich flavor of its own.
Chef Craig also let me sample a new taste sensation
that is still in the developmental stages. He has salt-cured a ham shoulder
and smoked it in a molasses coating. This slightly salty/sweet creation
melted in my mouth, and in my opinion, is ready for market consumption!
in downtown Gordonsville, the restaurant
welcomes call-in orders and features
family-size meals and servings-by-the-pound
It’s not surprising that The
Barbeque Exchange is a very labor-intensive operation. Chef Craig’s staff
includes three graduates from the American Culinary Institute and a pastry
chef, which partly explains the scrumptious peanut pie. It further explains
why The Barbeque Exchange may be one of the few barbeque restaurants that
attracts vegetarians. That is correct — how about some barbequed tofu?
Is Virginia ready for a barbeque style based on its own
heritage? The numbers seem to suggest this may be the case. Chef Craig said
that last year they smoked over 200,000 pounds of meat and that on a busy
Saturday, they may serve 1,200 barbeque-hungry guests.
And, by the way, this year is Gordonsville’s
bicentennial. Happy 200th birthday, Gordonsville — 1813- 2013!