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Can Michael Symon Take Cleveland-Style Barbecue Mainstream?

Inside his plan to put Ohio’s barbecue culture on the map

No foodstuff is discussed with as much near-religious fervor as barbecue. Whether they hail from Texas, Memphis, the Carolinas, or another region with long-held traditions, smoked meat loyalists will rabidly defend their hometown’s version as superior to the rest. One place that’s not often cited in said argument, however, is Cleveland, Ohio.

Celebrity chef and restaurateur Michael Symon, a Cleveland native, wants to change all that. In April, the Food Network fixture and Emmy-winning co-host of ABC daytime talk show The Chew unveiled his latest project: a restaurant called Mabel’s BBQ, specializing in what he’s dubbed "Cleveland-style" barbecue. "From the sides all the way through the meats, we made a very conscious effort to make it feel like the hometown that I grew up in, and the hometown that I grew up eating food in," Symon says. "Our goal was to use the knowledge that we had about barbecue and smoking techniques, and make sure that the flavor profile is distinctive to Cleveland."

That’s not to say barbecue doesn’t already exist in Ohio’s second-largest city. A cursory Google search turns up plenty of listicles touting the city’s "best" or "top 10" barbecue spots — but according to local dining editor and cookbook author Douglas Trattner, who’s been covering the local scene for 15 years, "we’ve never really had a good, honest barbecue culture in Cleveland." Many of the "barbecue" restaurants historically found in the city are what Trattner refers to as "chicken and rib joints," serving baked or grilled meats smothered in a sweet, tomato-based sauce — the kind made popular approximately 800 miles to the west in Kansas City.

But what does Cleveland-style barbecue actually mean? "You can't just create a barbecue style like that overnight, because you say it's so," Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn — who was actually born in Ohio — said by phone a day before he was slated to dine at Mabel's. "It's something that evolves. Is it really a style if nobody else does it?"

Part of creating a new barbecue style means drawing on the city's cultural heritage. The Mabel's menu is heavy on kielbasa, a garlicky sausage that's been a part of Cleveland culinary traditions since the city's first Polish immigrants began arriving in the mid-1800s. Meats are seasoned with what Symon refers to as "Eastern European" spices (think celery seed, coriander, and mustard seed) and every plate comes flanked with sauerkraut.

"We don’t do mac and cheese. We do spaetzle and cabbage."

Symon also relies on ingredients that are indigenous to Cleveland. Ohio has scores of fruit trees, so Symon stocks his custom-built, wood-burning offset smokers with apple and cherry wood. For the sauce, Symon riffs on South Carolina's beloved mustard-based sauce (served there alongside traditional "whole hog" barbecue) with one important distinction: Instead of yellow mustard, it's made with Bertman Ballpark Mustard, a brown mustard that's been produced in Cleveland since the 1920s. The sides reflect Cleveland, too: "We don't do mac and cheese," Symon says. "We're not a Southern restaurant. We do spaetzle and cabbage."

But while Symon is eager to trumpet his homegrown Cleveland-style barbecue, he's also quick to give credit where credit is due. Symon and his business partners had mulled over the idea of opening a barbecue joint for well over a decade, which should come as no surprise from a chef who describes his own cooking as "meat-centric." He's long identified as a barbecue junkie, and has a particular affinity for the time-honored style served in Central Texas, citing Dallas's Pecan Lodge and Austin's famed Franklin Barbecue among his favorites. "But I have no business trying to replicate Texas barbecue because I'm not from Texas, you know?" he says.

The barbecue world boasts a long history of borrowing and adapting from other styles. Look at Kansas City-style, which is basically considered a melting pot of other regional styles; Georgia, too, is steeped in barbecue tradition, despite the fact that it's never really developed its own signature style and instead leans heavily on its geographical neighbors.

"To create a new style of barbecue, you have to start somewhere, and much of Symon's barbecue has roots in Texas," Vaughn wrote following a recent visit to Mabel's. The brisket is undeniably Central Texan in style and comes from Creekstone Farms, the same Kansas-based purveyor that provides Franklin Barbecue with its hormone- and antibiotic-free product. That same brisket is chopped up into the baked beans for a side dish that would be at home on any Texas barbecue menu, and the giant beef ribs — though seasoned "pastrami-style" — are a Texan invention, too.

"When people come to Cleveland and eat barbecue, they should eat the style of barbecue that represents our city."

"Of course he's using techniques that the great Texas pitmasters have been using forever," Trattner says. "Of course he didn't invent brisket. Of course he didn't invent the beef rib. He's standing on the shoulders of giants, but he's putting it through his Cleveland lens."

Symon also says part of the desire to carve out a "new" barbecue style stemmed from the hope of avoiding comparisons. "Quite frankly another reason that we're doing what we're doing is I don't want people to come in and go, ‘This isn't Texas barbecue. I've had better Texas barbecue' or ‘This isn't true Kansas City-style because you didn't do this,'" Symon explains. "We didn't want to give people a direct point of reference to compare us to. We just wanted them to experience what we feel is great barbecue."

"‘Cleveland-style barbecue' — it's catchy, and I think people are always going to be critical of a new catchphrase, especially when it's coming from [a celebrity chef] like Mike Symon," Trattner says. "But when you actually take a minute and see what Cleveland-style barbecue means, it means doing things that make sense to us. It means using kielbasa instead of using something like Texas hot links. It means using ballpark mustard instead of a sweet tomato-based sauce, because we all grew up eating Bertman's ballpark mustard on our hot dogs at baseball games. The side dishes — things like broccoli salad, cucumber salad — these are things that we all had at our family barbecues."

Symon hopes that locally minded approach will catch on. "Our hope is that when new barbecue places open in Cleveland — or even ones that have been around — that they do sauces and rubs similar to ours, so this style can have more of a regional presence," he says.

And if anyone's going to be so bold as to declare the creation of Ohio's new regional barbecue style, there's perhaps no one better suited to the lofty task. "Nobody has done more to shine a light on the Cleveland food scene than Symon," Trattner says. "A million chefs have gone through his kitchens and gone on to start great new restaurants, and they do it here because they feel proud of Cleveland. He's been doing it for 20 years, and it's no coincidence that the last 20 years have been a complete renaissance for the local dining scene."

It will remain to be seen if smoked kielbasa, sauerkraut, and spaetzle ever join the ranks of dry-rubbed ribs, hot links, and cole slaw, but in the meantime, Symon has plenty of other vindication to feed on. A host of legendary pitmasters have made the trek up to Cleveland to sample Symon's barbecue; the chef rattles off a list of names that includes the family behind legendary Texas institution Black's Barbecue, as well as competitive barbecue legend Mike Mills and whole hog barbecue master Pat Martin.

"These are people that I've respected for a long, long time in this business," Symon says. "And when they think that we're going about things the right way — by trying to do our own thing and not trying to essentially replicate what they've been doing for decades — it makes me feel that I'm on the right path."

Vaughn, too, had to give credit where credit is due: While expressing skepticism at the very concept of Cleveland-style barbecue, his review for TMBBQ deemed Mabel's brisket something "to be proud of" and pronounced Symon's brown mustard sauce "a better pairing with the beef than any tomato-based barbecue sauce I've had."

With Mabel's already doing more than 1,000 covers on any given Saturday, it looks as if Cleveland has embraced the restaurant's home-grown point of view with open arms — and the city seemingly couldn't have a better ambassador than Symon. "We just felt like when people come to Cleveland and eat barbecue," he says, "they should eat the style of barbecue that represents our city."

Whitney Filloon is Eater's assistant news editor. Laura Watilo Blake is a photographer based in Cleveland.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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