Charleston, South Carolina, is America’s restaurant-world overachiever. It dominates the way Jamaica runs reggae; this one little dot on the map shouldn’t exert so much influence, and yet it does. But while Charleston can lay claim to the best low-country cuisine, Southern charcuterie and more, one man thought it was missing something. That man is John Lewis.
Lewis is a Texas pitmaster who helped Aaron Franklin start up Austin’s most famous barbecue spot, then took his brisket and custom-smoker savvy to La Barbecue, which became the city’s second-most beloved source of all things BBQ. It was during a visit to Charleston two years ago, he says, that he noticed a key difference between these two culinary hot spots. “There’s barbecue all over South Carolina, but there’s not actually all that much in Charleston,” he says. “In Austin, it’s like every other street corner now at this point.”
With that in mind, Lewis packed up the smokers last year, literally, and steered the truck toward Charleston. He’s spent months doing pop-ups at Revelry Brewing and has created the sort of lines, and buzz, that are well known to Austin barbecue acolytes. Next up is his own spot, Lewis Barbecue, opening this spring. Along the way, Lewis has become revered for his pit building and smoking techniques, earning this onetime pastry chef the type of industry respect usually reserved for Michelin-starred chefs. We caught up with Lewis a few weeks before his headlining slot serving his ‘cue at Charleston Wine and Food’s sold-out Chicken Shit Bingo event (though tickets for this have all been snagged, plenty of other events are still available at the fest’s website; the festival runs March 2-6).
Why move from Austin to Charleston?
I was looking for a new place to do barbecue. It’s too saturated in Austin right now. I was doing an event (in Charleston) almost two years ago with Rodney Scott; he does whole hog out here. It was my first time in Charleston, and I really liked it. Then I came back just to check it out. I saw an untapped market for what I do, and I wanted to live here.
Last year, one of the top-ranked cookbooks was Franklin Barbecue. Why do you think people are reacting so strongly to barbecue?
I think there’s a sort of food and cooking revolution that’s been going on the last few years. Everyone’s been wanting to do everything from scratch, whether that’s barbecue or mac and cheese, bread, whatever. So it seems really natural that that would be happening with barbecue. Barbecue’s also been moving. The rural areas were the only places you could find it before. Now it’s in the cities. So now it’s more accessible; more people are seeing it. I think the level of barbecue that’s being produced right now is way better than it was 10 years ago, so it’s making people way more excited about it.
Are you finding that there are more and more people who want to do more than just taste the food; they want to know what you’re doing, they’re trying to spy on your technique a little bit?
Yeah, I think so. I know that’s what happened to me; that’s how I got into it. I grew up in El Paso, and I moved to Austin when I was 18. Outside of town, Pat [Gee’s] was my first bite of essential Texas barbecue. It was totally different then, what I thought barbecue was before. And I love cooking. I think eventually, I tried to re-create it, but I think that’s what everyone else does.
How long did it take you before you got it right?
Fifteen years, maybe? A lot of trial and error, a lot of pit builds, a lot of briskets going in the trash [laughs].
Are you going to be doing a whole restaurant with Lewis Barbecue, or are you going to keep it simple? What’s the menu going to be like?
It’s going to be meat-market style, like in Texas. We’ve got multiple cutting stations and registers so it’ll move a little quicker. We’re going to have a full bar that’s going to be indoor and outdoor. Two hundred seats inside, 300 seats outside. We’ll be doing lunch and dinner. There’ll be a bunch of barbecue pits there [laughs].
How has it been sourcing meat in South Carolina? Any different than Texas?
It all comes out of the Midwest. No one’s really using Texas beef; it’s not all that great. So it’s coming from Kansas, Nebraska. We don’t have much of it right now. It’s been a little tricky, but when I start buying by the pallet it’s no problem to get it here.
Have you been selling out at these Saturday pop-ups at Revelry Brewery?
How much meat are you going through?
We got to where we were going just as much last summer as we do at La Barbecue. I’ll have about three times as much capacity at the restaurant than at La Barbecue.
Charleston has been one of the hottest food cities for people in the know over the past few years. Do you think it lives up to that hype, and what’s your feeling about the scene?
I think it definitely does. I moved here last March, and I’ve been coming here for almost two years before that. It draws a lot of people from all over the country, too. A lot of chefs. So you get a lot of different things, not just she-crab soup and oysters and stuff like that. I think there’s a lot of good talent here. There’s a lot of new places opening with a lot of really, really good chefs.
I think it’s a place like Austin, too, that’s obviously not as big, but with a lot of tourists — kind of a steady influx of people to buy all that food.
What’s the neighborhood like where you’re putting your Lewis Barbecue?
It’s kind of the new up-and-coming spot. There’s the upper King Street area that’s getting all revitalized and fixed up and everything, and we’re right above that. We’re the first spot on the upper part of downtown where there is parking — which is a big deal here because there’s nowhere to park. We can build whatever we want, [with] all that space for all these cookers.