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Photo by Jay Paul
Chris Fultz slices into ZZQ's barbecued brisket while Alex Graf looks on.
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Photo by Jay Paul
Fultz approaches barbecue like architecture, noting smoke flow schematically to improve his product next time.
I’m having a hard time avoiding cliché-ridden words and phrases when I try to describe the barbecued brisket I just tasted. It’s meltingly tender; it pulls apart with the tiniest of effort; the little pockets of almost-liquid fat render it unctuous and addictive. I can say that it’s salty and sweet, with a slow burn, and I can also say I’m determined to get my hands on more — as soon as possible.
Earlier, I watched as Chris Fultz threw a log into Mabel, the enormous meat smoker parked in his backyard in Forest Hill. He checks the temperature, then opens one of the doors to the grill inside and spritzes a rack of ribs with an apple juice/apple cider combo. Next to it, the beef brisket that’s been smoking away for the last eight hours will be ready to come out in a few minutes. We’ll have to wait another two hours, for the meat to sit wrapped in brown paper and aluminum foil, tortured by its scent, before Fultz can slice into it.
It’s an unusual thing for an architect to do on a Sunday. But for Fultz, a Texas native, it makes complete sense. “I got into this by having a lot of bad beef barbecue experiences in Richmond, Virginia,” he says. This town does a great job with pork, he adds, but we don’t know anything about how real Texas barbecued brisket is supposed to taste. “The funny thing for me was, barbecue joints in this part of the country like to advertise brisket as ‘Texas-style’ …but it has nothing to do with it. I’ve always loved to cook and so I asked my dad one time, ‘How the hell do you cook a brisket?’ ” Fultz figured the only way he could get a decent one so far from home was if he made it himself. “That started me on my path.”
A craving turned into an obsession, and now that obsession has turned into a catering company specializing in barbecue, ZZQ. (The name was inspired by Southern rockers ZZ Top.) However, Fultz is still very much an architect. And that’s not just because architecture is both his passion and his full-time gig.
He’s applying his design skills and the precision that seems to be ubiquitous among architects to an entirely new field. (I’m not calling an entire profession monomaniacal, but still, architects can make surgeons look like they’re just going in and winging it every day.) He designed Mabel, the smoker he named after his grandmother (building was done by Charles Yeager and Russell Morton of Richmond-based Yeager Design/Fabrication). As Fultz went through the design process, he kept thinking about how he wanted to use it and the final product he wanted to come out of it. He didn’t let the fact that he hadn’t designed a smoker before deter him.
His partner, Alex Graf, dubbed “Pitmistress,” is an integral element in the success of the new business. Graf, an architect, works by Fultz’s side prepping meat, stoking the fire, and moving it from the smoker onto plates at catering jobs. “She’s the hardest-working woman I’ve ever met,” he says. Graf makes it look easy, as she explains how water pans below the grill hold the heat at a consistent temperature and how the smoke from the fire moves across the meat and up a small chimney in the back.
“I cook fast and hot,” Fultz says. “If you consider eight hours fast,” Graf adds, with a smile. If you ask a pit master, however, the traditional method of smoking brisket can take up to 16 hours. “I didn’t see any difference when I switched [methods],” he says. “And plus, I have to be realistic. I’m 48 years old and don’t like getting up at one in the morning to cook barbecue.” Instead, he gets up at 5 a.m.
Fultz and Graf don’t cook at barbecue competitions. Fultz tried that once, assembling a team called Pigsweat, and came in dead last. “I love the culture … but the circuit is controlled by the KCBS [Kansas City Barbecue Society], and their judges have been trained to have a very specific palate,” he says. It leaves little or no room for variation or creativity, and Fultz has no desire to cook to someone else’s specifications. He’s looking for a flavor profile that’s more complex, more idiosyncratic and more personal.
With help from other chefs around town and the support of colleague and Fultz Architects’ project architect, Amrit Singh (who also was a member of the Pigsweat team), ZZQ is starting to take off. Fultz says about their first catering job, a 150-person wedding almost two years ago, “We had no idea what we were doing; we were just going on gut.” “But we pulled it off!” says Graf. “The universe was good to us that day,” he says.
And that gut sense seems to be the secret ingredient that makes ZZQ’s brisket so exceptional. “I’ve always trusted my instincts,” says Fultz. “And [in that way], there’s been absolutely no difference between architecture and barbecue.”