Dining with Dan

From the Belly of 'The Beast'

At the BarbeQue Exchange in Gordonsville, Chef Craig Hartman pursues smoky perfection with his custom cooker, “the beast.”


by Daniel M. Walker, Contributing Writer


Dan Walker

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.

A Little History

Chef 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-style barbeque. 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!

Located in downtown Gordonsville, the restaurant welcomes call-in orders and features family-size meals and servings-by-the-pound to go.

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?

Virginia-Style BBQ?

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!


The Barbeque Exchange


102 Martinsburg Avenue • Gordonsville, VA 22942


540.832.0227 • www.bbqex.com


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