Reflections on American-style Barbecue in South Korea
I’ve never shared this story publicly before, but I think it’s time.
Several years ago I was approached by a businessman about opening a “Kansas City-style” barbecue restaurant in Seoul. This would have been the very first American-style barbecue restaurant in the country.
At the time, the most I had EVER done with barbecue myself was some failed experiments with smoking on my Weber grill (note: when I use the term “barbecue,” I refer specifically to ‘low and slow’ methods of cooking that ideally involve SMOKING the meat. Do not confuse this with GRILLING, even when a grilled meat is served with barbecue sauce, no matter how tasty), and development of my own sauce which, I have to say, was decent, but far from great.
I grew up eating barbecue, but I don’t really consider myself a snob or an expert. Of all of my closest hometown friends, I am probably the LEAST knowledgeable about actual barbecuing methods.
If you are wondering, then, why these people were talking to ME about opening a restaurant… well, I was too.
They had it all lined up. There was a chef that knew his trade very well. Recipes and methods were all chosen. Legit smokers were already purchased. Locations were being scouted.
Now you’re probably REALLY wondering what they needed me for. I was too.
Then it came out: They wanted a white face with a typically American-sounding name behind it. I fit the bill.
Now, I don’t necessarily have a problem with this approach. It is what it is. It works for Korea. And if the product was quality (and I have full confidence that it would have been), I wouldn’t have had a problem with it, and I don’t criticize other foreigners that enter into business arrangements under similar pretenses.
However, as I have watched the “American-style” barbecue trend develop in Korea (mostly from afar as I don’t find myself in Seoul often), something has really bothered me about it.
Let me just tie off a loose end before I start unraveling a new thread: The KC-style BBQ joint never happened. The idea just sort of fizzled, and that’s totally fine. I have no problem with that. This was also around the time that my first daughter was born and it would have been really difficult to manage being a first-time father while running a restaurant.
The first place that made me think of home
Yesterday I tried Manimal for the first time and was very impressed by it (my meal is the one pictured above). The place is legit. But I missed a previous chance to try it nearly a year ago.
I found myself looking for a bite to eat in a fancy new building in Seoul near the US embassy. I don’t remember the name of the building (D-Square maybe? Or D-Tower? I remember the name as being exceptionally phallic) but it seemed to be a fancy office building that featured several trendy foreign restaurants on the first few floors.
As I tried to find Manimal I grew increasingly annoyed. I had just finished up a workshop and had changed out of my suit, so I was wearing sneakers, shorts, and a t-shirt. I had a backpack with me, was probably a bit sweaty and generally not looking my best. In other words: I did not fit in with the dressed-up, selfie-taking crowd that was there on dates, office parties, etc.
I think at one point someone even refused to speak Korean with me, which is particularly annoying when my Korean is significantly better than their English. The point is, I was not in a great mood.
By the time I actually found Manimal, I was pretty agitated. Looking over their menu and the exorbitant prices just made it worse. I remember getting shade from one of the employees there too, which I interpreted as arrogance, but it may have just been my own bad mood coloring the experience.
Anyway, I just couldn’t bring myself to eat barbecue that night and opted for the amazing pizza place in the same building instead. Something about it… the building, the attitude of the people, the prices… It was all very off-putting in a way I couldn’t quite describe.
That night, I sat down and drafted a long-winded FB status update decrying the “American-Style barbecue” trend in Korea and everything it stands for. Deleting it right after I wrote it was the right move, because my thought was incomplete.
The meal that changed everything
Manimal was awesome. It’s brisket and KC-style ribs could hold their own in the KC bbq scene (maybe not quite approaching the top tier, but it would be on the radar and talked about). My friend Joe’s short-lived restaurant was notable as well, although it represented a style of BBQ I’m not familiar with and don’t claim to speak with any authority on. There is even a place down here in Gwangju that has a sauce I found very impressive (although I haven’t returned because most of its meats were obviously grilled, yet it passed them off as barbecue).
In general, the American-style bbq joints also fall victim to the usual suspects of problems any restaurants have in Korea: Just plain bad service (an epidemic in foreign-food restaurants in Korea in my experience), being a little too proud of their side dishes over their main dishes, or just cutting too many corners.
If I add the ubiquitous “…for Korea” qualification, I can’t really be too vociferous in my denunciations of ANY of them. This is, after all, a work in progress.
In fact, I am grateful for all the people that have pioneered this genre of food in Korea (Linus Kim deserves most of the credit here). At the end of the day, it’s spreading the gospel that truly matters, right?
It is, and it isn’t.
As yesterday’s dinner continues to weigh on my mind, the pieces of something I wanted to say a year ago are finally falling into place.
About five months ago I viewed a slick mini-documentary that was put together by the people that do those “Korean girls try American snack food” YouTube videos. In this case, they took North Korean defectors to an “American style BBQ” place I’ve never been to way out in the countryside in Wonju (I hear the place is legit but haven’t had a chance to try it yet).
It was fascinating to see them look at the pile of meat set in front of them and marvel at it. They told stories of how rare it was to have beef in North Korea, and talk about how meat would be prepared, in the rare chance they had to eat it.
This was an enormous missed opportunity.
If anybody on set that day, including the people that ran the restaurant, had even an inkling of what “authentic American-style barbecue” truly is, then that informative, touching, story could have elevated a viral video to an award-winning one.
The roots of American-style barbecue are in slavery.
Slave owners would pass off the toughest, most undesirable cuts of meat to their slaves. These were the cuts that were believed to be little more than trash. If they hadn’t given it to the slaves, they probably would have tossed it to their dogs or livestock. And those slaves turned it in to something that is now seen as fare appropriate for multi-million dollar buildings erected as monuments to consumerism and elitism where I, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, was not fully welcome.
When I think of the creativity, mastery, and LOVE that went into developing the ‘low and slow’ methods under the most horrific circumstances imaginable, I can only marvel at the capacity of the human heart. They took these scraps of meat, this terrible thing, and made something beautiful out of it that endures to this day.
I think that bit of history would resonate with North Koreans.
Most South Koreans too, for that matter.
I was told at one point that me being white is what would make a restaurant’s KC-style BBQ “authentic.”
I beg to differ.
Before you cast me into the “culture appropriation/SJW” category, let me say this: Nobody has exclusive claim to barbecue. I’m not saying that only African Americans with a lineage traced directly to slavery have a right to prepare or profit off of barbecue.
I’ve never been to a barbecue competition, but from what I understand they are host to people from all walks of life. Rich/poor, black/white/asian, and everyone else, coming together to work towards the betterment of the art.
Here is where I finally finish my thought that has been years in the making and reveal my thesis. My message to the purveyors of American-style barbecue in Korea is this:
You don’t have to change a thing about your food or your establishments if you don’t want to. All I ask is that you respect the history.
One final story: Big Daddy’s restaurant was not in one of the traditional mecca’s of the American bbq scene. It was in Des Moines, IA. Nor was he famous for any of the typical reasons for being famous. He was famous for the spiciness of his sauces.
But Big Daddy was, to use a very modern term, fully “woke.”
The one and only time I visited his restaurant, turned into far more than dropping in for lunch. Big Daddy, a very large African American man from the poorest area of the city, came out and sat with us, a table of white, middle-class, privileged college kids. We chatted for hours about barbecue, his restaurant, Dave Letterman (I was a huge fan. Big Daddy had been on his show to serve sandwiches so spicy that their consumers were taken to local hospitals by ambulance). He made no assumptions about me based on the color of my skin or my socio-economic status.
He was also firmly and inextricably linked to his community and worked towards the betterment of it.
I was taken aback at the price of a sandwich and Big Daddy’s restaurant. It was as pricey as Arthur Bryant’s, but portions were much smaller. However, during my conversation with Big Daddy, I realized that I wasn’t just paying for my meal. I was contributing to this cornerstone of the community.
Big Daddy mentioned that, in spite of his fame and popularity, he could never move his location. We pressed him on why. We had to read between the lines of his answer to figure out that he was supporting the entire community.
For many of the children in the neighborhood, meals they ate at school were the only meals they got. For a variety of reasons, when they came home, they couldn’t expect a home-cooked meal waiting for them. But they all knew if they stopped in for a chat with Big Daddy, he wouldn’t let them leave with an empty stomach.
Arthur Bryant’s, Gate’s, even probably Jack Stack (which aims to be a more hoity toity version of KC bbq) have similarly established themselves as pillars in their communities by giving local residents a refuge; maybe even a career.
I have come to understand (after I initially published this article, I admit) that many of Seoul’s American-style barbecue places bend over backwards to support the local community in equivalent ways, and I unequivocally applaud and encourage these efforts.
How to respect the history of barbecue and get rich and famous at the same time
I, too, drool at the glossy photo spreads showcasing perfectly cooked racks of ribs in the various English-language magazines out there diligently documenting every trend. I am grateful everything that has been done so far to spread the gospel of barbecue in Korea.
But I implore you to respect the history of this food that you are profiting off of.
It’s okay to have an outlet of your restaurant in a multi-million dollar high rise building. I get that it is a business and a business has to make money. But how about finding some way to include a bit of the history in your decor? Maybe something as simple as a framed picture in a prominent location?
I only recently heard that Big Daddy died several years ago and his restaurant was shut down (his family carries on his legacy selling his sauces online). This made me sad, not just because I’ll never have a chance to eat his food again, but for the kids in the neighborhood that will no longer be able to rely on Big Daddy to fill their stomachs for them and counsel their souls.
I would think having a legacy like Big Daddy’s would be more meaningful than all the glossy photo spreads or fancy locations combined.
This is the “face” I hope American-style BBQ can show to the people of South Korea.