Meghan spoke with Food Karma’s Communications Director, Dylan Heuer, about serving authentic country barbecue in New York City, the challenges she faces as a female business owner, and the dish with a “cult-following” she’s preparing for Pig Island.
Dylan Heuer: You really built Mable’s from the ground-up. What was that process like?
Meghan Love: It’s pretty wild, because it’s been almost ten years at this point. My husband and I were both in completely different industries. We were both in the arts – he was a painter and I was an actor. We weren’t really making money doing that, it was right around the time of the recession in 2009 and we just sort of decided to change paths very drastically. Although he grew up in restaurants and I had worked in restaurants, we had never owned our own restaurant. And we basically did it on a shoe-string, which caused us to really do the whole thing very DIY. We built the bar by hand. We found an old barn that had come down where we could buy the wood planks and hung those on the walls ourselves. We did almost as much carpentry as we could manage. We didn’t do the plumbing and electric, we contracted that out. But we did all the tiling. We built the tables ourselves.
Some of it was out of necessity, but also some of it was to achieve this look of the space that we hadn’t really seen elsewhere. Most of the materials came from out of state, yard sales, flea markets, just kind of whatever we could get our hands on that felt ‘other’ than New York City. And I think we achieved that feeling, that when you walk in the space you really are transported, which was our goal. At that time we really found the color and the feel of what represented this nostalgic feeling of barbecue restaurants of our childhoods. Jeff [Meghan’s husband and the co-owner of Mable’s Smokehouse] is from Oklahoma, I grew up in Kentucky and we were really looking to recapture a feeling that we hadn’t experienced in New York, having lived there for 10 years at that point. So it was definitely a labor of love.
Dylan Heuer: How does Mable’s Smokehouse fit into New York’s barbecue scene?
Meghan Love: It’s interesting because there were really just a handful [of New York barbecue restaurants] when we opened. There was Blue Smoke, Hill Country had opened, Dinosaur [BBQ] really hadn’t made it to New York, except for the Harlem location, and Fette Sau was in our neighborhood. We felt a lot of pressure in the beginning when we opened to have a sort of elevated style of barbecue in some way. I mean our peers were doing more innovative barbecue techniques, and using interesting ingredients to rub the meat with, and sort of unorthodox smoking techniques, and really we just wanted to do authentic country back-home barbecue. We didn’t want to be new fangled or do things that had not been done before, we felt like in New York City there weren’t really places where you could go and get side of the road gas station barbecue. And I think we achieved [that, and] a lot more in terms of our quality. I know that because it’s been almost 10 years that we have really had practically the same menu.
Dylan Heuer: You’re from Kentucky, and Jeff, your husband and the co-owner of Mable’s Smokehouse, is from Oklahoma. How do your roots influence your cooking?
Meghan Love: My husband and I are a team, and I would say that most of the cooking and recipes are inspired from Oklahoma, rather than Kentucky. We always kind of joked that I took care of the bourbon and he took care of the food, because I did really build and curate the bar. Jeff’s grandmother was Mable, so that’s who the restaurant is named after. And she cooked like a maniac. She cooked for hours basically every day, and she taught him to cook. And a lot of those recipes really haven’t changed. In fact our barbecue sauce recipe is a recipe that Mable – who we called Nan – learned as a girl, when she worked at a little roadside barbecue place in Oklahoma. And that barbecue sauce recipe has never changed. So that really is authentic to that region.
[Jeff] did move to Texas as a young teenager and lived in Texas for a long time, but I would say our style of barbecue is more of a mix. In Texas there’s no sauce, it’s all dry rub. People are serious about the meat not having sauce. And we’re really proud of our sauce, we really love our sauce. We do sauce our pulled pork, our brisket has sauce on the side, our ribs are sauced. And so oftentimes, it’s sort of considered more of a mix of [the] Kansas City – Texas – Memphis barbecue triangle. And you know what, I’m not exactly sure what style it is – it’s just whatever [Jeff’s] grandmother made. That is something that’s really authentic and we just kind of said, “if it’s not broke don’t fix it.”
Dylan Heuer: You co-own Mable’s Smokehouse with your husband, Jeff Lutonsky. How does your partnership work in the kitchen and in matters of business?
Meghan Love: The dynamics have changed over time. We’re married and we have two small kids, and the restaurant is sort of all encompassing. We’ve had to split our responsibilities and our focuses. In the beginning, he was just in the kitchen all the time – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It was just insane. Then over time, he stepped away and focused on the front of the house, [and] I would step into the back and train new people and hire. While all the recipes are still his and the techniques are still his, I know all of those recipes and all of those techniques too. So I’ve sort of been the mentor in the kitchen – training people, checking for quality, and just keeping the legacy going – while he’s more on the business side [right now]. We both do everything, and there [are] times when we need to lean on each other. And we have kids, so there will be weeks where I’ll be just involved with the kids and he’ll be working and vice versa. I don’t think you could describe a partnership in a more immersive way.
Dylan Heuer: Barbecue is definitely a male-dominated field. What has your experience been as a woman in this space?
Meghan Love: You know, it’s been good and bad. Growing up and when I had other ambitions, I never would have thought that I’d be smoking meat, as an adult woman, even though I am from the South. I always worked in front of house [and] I never really thought that I would have these skills. I’ve always cooked but barbecue is a totally different animal, no pun intended. So that’s been really amazing, what I’ve learned and how it becomes this innate feeling. Barbecue becomes more of a feeling than a technique, where you have to understand when the brisket is done. Yes, you can check the temperature, and you can look at it, but you really just have to feel the way that the thermometer goes in. It’s almost like this sense that you have about meat, which is just a totally different thing than any other type of cooking I’ve ever experienced. So all that’s been really sort of magical.
But I think it’s been really hard also. As a female business owner in general, oftentimes you’re not taken seriously. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been on the phone with a purveyor, or some service person, where they’re like “put me on the phone with your husband.” Which makes me so insane because you know there are a lot of ways – and my husband would agree – that I’m much better at the job than he is. That I would even experience that as a business owner in New York City is just shocking. So there’s definitely always sexism, you feel it, but at the same time I’ve just been able to roll with the punches, do the best I can, and always have pride in what I do. And you really don’t want to hear the things I say to people when they say “put me on the phone with your husband,” because I don’t think that they’re fit to print.
Dylan Heuer: Tell me about the dish you’ll be making for Pig Island NYC.
Meghan Love: This is going to be really fun. We made it once before, a long time ago as a special thing. We have never made it since [but] it had sort of a cult following when we did it. We make a little cup, slightly larger than a quiche-sized cup, made out of bacon that we slow cook. And the way the consistency of the bacon in the cup gets, it’s so good. It’s just sort of chewy, but also really sturdy. Then you just put [a] really moist little bite of pulled pork in there, with just a dollop of sauce and it’s this pork explosion in your mouth. It’s so delicious.