TMBBQFest, “23 Pitmasters in 23 Days:” Hard Eight BBQ
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Editor’s Note: The Texas Monthly BBQ Festival is almost here! Each day until then, we’ll be talking to one of the featured pitmasters, with questions from TM staffers, esteemed BBQ experts, Twitter followers and you, the readers of this blog. Today we bring you Chad Decker, 38, of Hard Eight BBQ in Stephenville, Brady, and Coppell. For more info, visit their page on TMBBQ.com. What is your heat source? Strictly mesquite wood. We burn it down in the incinerator until we get good coals, and then we take the coals from our heat box and shovel them and spread them out underneath our meat. Mesquite always gives the barbecue a good flavor. We derive from the Hill Country area, and mesquite wood tends to be the most favored flavor of meat down there. We’ve found it to be pretty popular up here in the North Texas area as well. Who did you learn your craft from? My dad, and my family. We grew up there in Llano, and this is the way we cook. This is how everybody does for every FFA meeting, livestock show, backyard barbeque, church on Sunday; everybody does this the same way. So that’s where I learned it. Did you previously work at another BBQ joint? I worked at Cooper’s for a little bit. You know, just in the summer there in Llano. One summer, three or four weeks there, it wasn’t a long term deal. I started this place with my mother-in-law and father-in-law, Phillip and Vicki Nivens. What’s your signature meat? A lot of people really do like our ribs. Our ribs are one of our main items. Of course, being a barbeque place, brisket and sausage are the most popular. But as far as one of our signature items, I’d say our ribs, and then we have our brush poppers. A brush popper is a small piece of turkey breast, wrapped with a jalapeno onion, then wrapped in bacon, and then grilled over mesquite coals. Do you make your own sausage? We have our own sausage recipe. It’s a beef-pork mixture that we wanted to be eaten as a meal. Somebody can come in here and have it as a meal, instead of a side item like most people do. I’ve got customers now that love our sausage so much they’ll just say, “Give me half a link of that,” and that’s all they want. It’s not that big, greasy, overwhelming, when-you-bite-into-the-grease-just-shoots-down-the-back-of-your-throat, it’s not that way. We use more of a coarse grind, so you get a taste of the meat itself. You get to actually taste the texture of the meat that’s used in the grind. Sauce or no sauce? Two different kinds of sauce. We have our original sauce that we started out with: a sweet, spicy, kind of tangy sauce. Then we have our newer kind, it’s vinegar-based, and it’s got habanero powder. It’s a spicy, kind of vinegary type. Slow and low or high and faster? Slow and low. We’re going to cook our briskets for 24 hours and they’re going to range between 240 all the way down to 180. What non-secret ingredients are in your spice rub? We use kosher salt instead of iodized. The meat will absorb the kosher better and the other will dry it out. It’s got more flavor to it. We use a coarse-ground pepper in our rub, garlic powder, onion powder, a few other little things. What’s your favorite barbeque in Texas other than your own? That would have to be my dad’s in his backyard. Cooper’s in Llano is one of my favorites because they do things they way we do it. It’s hard to get away from a concept and cooking the way we know how to cook. Do you start a new fire everyday or keep the same one going? We keep the same one going. We close down on Christmas Day and Thanksgiving Day, and other than that there’s a fire going in our boxes 24/7. What’s the reason? We get up here early in the morning, we get up here at five in the morning and start our meats. We’re just consistently cooking briskets and cooking different things, so we always have to have the coals available. Sometimes at night, if we have a big event in town or a big catering going on, we’ll be working up here 24 hours a day. Aluminum foil or butcher paper? We serve on butcher paper. It sure does cut down on the dishes. [Laughs] What should the home smoker look for when picking out a side of brisket from the market? You want to look at the fat cap on the end and make sure it’s got a good, consistent color to it. When you’re handling the meat, you pick it up, and you handle it. Make sure it’s a got a soft, consistent feel, where you don’t have a bunch of gristle or feel a bunch of fat pockets in there. Verify that it’s a good cut of meat. So it’s more important to actually feel it than say, look at the grade or the quality? Yeah, for sure. Pick it up and feel it and analyze it, not only with your eyes, but feeling and touching it, making sure it’s a quality product. Kind of like picking a produce, when you pick an avocado you want a consistent feel; you don’t want a mushy spot here or too hard there. What’s the one other piece of advice you’d give to someone smoking a brisket at home? Take your time, don’t get in a hurry. We keep our process pretty simple here. We’ll throw our brisket down on the pit, get ‘em brown real good on both sides, and then we’ll pull ‘em off and season ‘em after their browned. And then we’ll wrap ‘em. If you brown everything while you’re smoking it, that flavor and the rub itself is just going to dry your meat out even more. Brown your meat, rub your brisket, then wrap it in tin foil, put in back on there and let it cook in its own juices, and let those spices have a chance to seep down into the meat. That’s a secret. A lot of people just throw ‘em on the pit and just smoke, smoke, smoke, smoke. You can get way too much smoke on those things. Do you use or have you considered using a gas- or electric-fired smoker, such as a Southern Pride, Ole Hickory, or J&R, for any of your meats? We do have the capabilities here at Stephenville and at Coppell to do that, and we use them for some things. But not our briskets, our briskets are 150 percent done just as I described ‘em: open pit. We’ve got a Southern Pride, we do the chicken on there, turkey breast, our pork chops go on there. Ever have any Texas barbecue outside of Texas? What did you think? No ma’am. How many pounds of meat do you smoke in a week? I can tell you this, we just ran a figure off for the 2010 year. Altogether in just our three stores, Coppell, here [Stephenville], and Brady, we sold a little over 2.2 million pounds of meat. That’s quite a lot. Is there anything else unique about your style of barbecue? The way we present it, it’s not your normal plate-lunch place. We’ve got our open pit out in the front, and the customer walks up and picks as little or as much as they want off the pit, and we weigh it right there on the scale. You can come inside and get all your other sides down through here. We offer free beans, of course. Here in Stephenville, Erath County being dry, we give beer away. Free beer here in Stephenville. Coppell and Brady we sell it, but in Stephenville, TX, we give it away. That’s awesome! Has it ever become a problem? No ma’am. Every one of our patrons come in here, they’ll drink one or two beers, have a great meal, and it’s just a good time. We have a deal here where you can be as casual as you’d like, or you can be as dressy as you’d like. We cater to all different kinds of people. Our store down in Brady, of course it being in the Western edge of the Hill Country, everyone’s in camouflage talkin’ about their huntin’day. Here in Stephenville we’re known as the “Cowboy Capital of the World,” and everyday it’s nothing to see two or three world champions sitting in here, spurs jingling across the floor. Then you go up to Coppell and you got more business men, and everyone’s got their tie over their shoulder just eatin’ at it. Everybody enjoys our type of food and the way that we do things. Barbecue for everyone. Yes, ma’am. (Questions by Jason Cohen, Andrea Valdez, Pat Sharpe, Katy Vine, Sonia Smith, Daniel Vaughn, Jim Shahin, J.C. Reid, @stewlevine&@JoePerryinTX.)