In an Italian home, there is almost no more important culinary art than making “sauce”. It is an art, because in reality there is no set standard for what goes in it. Ask any Italian grandmother, “What’s in the sauce?” and the answer will range from ingredients, to technique, to process, and even to the cultural or personal history that led to the recipe. “What’s in the Sauce?” is a deeper question then it seems on the surface. When looking for a name for our restaurant/eatery profile series, we quickly realized we didn’t want to just write your standard review. We wanted to be able to discuss whatever attributes of a particular venue made it special, from the design, to the atmosphere, to the story behind it all, to, most obviously, the food. “What’s in the Sauce?” is our way of exploring some of our favorite restaurants, bars, and eateries and uncovering what about them makes them not just great, but unique. No two profiles will be done the same, because each venue’s story isn’t the same. However, just like making sauce, there is no one way to make it, the important part is what makes yours just a little bit different.
Welcome to our first “What’s in the Sauce?”, column featuring Pittmaster Hugh Mangum of NYC’s Mighty Quinn’s BBQ
by Pretty in Pistachio’s Justine Dungo
With a unique “quick service” style and an innovative approach to flavor profile, Mighty Quinn’s BBQ in the East Village has quickly established a name as one of the best BBQ joints in NYC. Our editor, Benny, had personally raved about this place for months, and thought it’d be a perfect spot for my first restaurant profile. So last weekend I headed down to find out what makes Mighty Quinn’s so amazing. Armed with pen and paper, I was ready to jot down a few notes about how the food was prepared, how the menu came to be etc., you know the basics. However, after I sat down with Hugh, the great pit master of the Mighty Quinn’s, I learned much more than I could have ever expected. I didn’t walk away with just a run down of their food, but rather a truly inspiring story that could easily be applied to some of my own life situations.
At some point in our lives we all have our backs up against the wall and are unsure if things will ever turn around. Whether it’s a financial struggle, an emotional burden, or a combination of the two, when you’re in that position it’s not always easy to see the light at the end of the tunnel. This very closely aligns with Chef Hugh’s journey.
Meet Hugh Mangum, Chef behind Mighty Quinn’s
From musician, to sous chef, to restaurateur Hugh’s path to Mighty Quinn’s was anything but linear. After speaking with Hugh, it became quite clear that he grew up “multicultural”, you could almost sum it up as raised in LA with Texan roots and a NY mind. Hugh decided to “settle” down in NY but his journey after moving to NY was ironically very “unsettling”. He was fresh out of culinary school, had three kids to feed, and a mortgage to pay, it was like a ton of bricks were hanging on Hugh’s shoulders. He was always under pressure to make ends meet and always had an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach, hoping that things would work out.
It wasn’t that he wasn’t landing great jobs in the culinary world, Hugh has worked for renowned chefs like Michael Symon and Jean-Georges Vongerchtin, it was that at the time these jobs weren’t enough to sustain a growing family. We all know, NY is not cheap and sometimes it really does test you to wits ends just to see how hard you’ll fight to keep things running. This was one of those times for Hugh. He was holding down 3 or 4 jobs just to bring in enough money to support his family. One of those jobs, interestingly enough, became running a small BBQ catering business out of his home. Armed with a smoker and roughly 10+ years experience learning BBQ’ing technique from his Texas roots, Hugh stayed up countless hours perfectly smoking meats after finishing his day job. However, it still wasn’t quite enough. He had no time to spend with his family and still wasn’t able to provide in the way he wanted to. He felt like he was failing his family, but he had no other choice but to keep powering through.
However, from all of this, one thing Hugh learned was that sometimes failure can be the best thing for us.
When you look back at all the great, truly successful figures and bright minds such as Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Walt Disney, they all had some taste of failure before going on to accomplish their successes. Along Hugh’s right arm is a tattoo that reads “Our greatest glory is not in never failing but in rising every time we fall”. When asked why the arrow, his response was, “When you get pulled back, you get launched even further forward”. In a sense, being down in the dirt gives can give you an even greater drive than you would have had before. It makes you hungrier to get back up, it gives you perspective on what’s important, and the humility to understand what it’s really going to take to going again. And the goal is not just get back to where you were, but to push the limits even further so as to never feel that low again.
After a little push from a friend that believed the world in Hugh’s talents, Hugh decided to test his skills by presenting his homemade Texas smoked BBQ to the organizers of Brooklyn Flea. He packed up a hotbox and drove down to do a tasting. Even though they liked it, they told him there was no room for him there as they already had someone doing barbecue. However, there was still a sliver of hope. They were about to launch the first ever Smorgasburg and were willing to take a chance on Hugh and have him as a vendor. Hugh graciously accepted.
It was July 4th weekend when Hugh set up shop at Smorgasburg. He was feeling a bit anxious and still had those unsettling feelings in his stomach. Thoughts raced through his mind. He began to doubt himself, would he sell anything? Would people want his food? His loving and supportive wife stood by his side and gave him the confidence he needed. Besides, it was July 4th weekend and if they didn’t sell all that they made then at least they would be able to take it home and enjoy it with friends and family.
To their surprise, they sold out in 90 minutes flat. They received great press and in no time were selling food left and right. Hugh described it as a snowball effect, one thing lead to another and it felt as if they went from 0-50 mph in one night and then 50-200 mph the next. It was fantastic news, everything was finally paying off and things were going smoothly. “If something is meant to be things just start to happen and that’s what was happening with us,” Hugh said in our interview.
After a second successful year at Smorgasburg, they (Hugh and his two “Brother’s” Micha and Christos) decided it was time to expand to a brick and mortar establishment. They decided on an East Village location because it felt like home to Hugh. Hugh’s experience with the area was that most of his neighbors were old school, had been there for quite some time and it felt like there was a certain respect from neighbor to neighbor. If you were trying to start a family business, the people genuinely cared and rooted you on. Additionally, the East Village still had that cool young foot traffic, whereby if you served great food people would come.
Getting off the ground running however, was no easy task. It took time to get everything adjusted correctly, at one point the smoker was not throwing off the right temperature. Great BBQ is actually less about the sauce/seasoning and more about the cooking process. Getting exactly the right temperature, as Hugh had learned over thousands of hours of experience, was crucial to making great BBQ. With a faulty temperature gauge on the smoker, they had to line the interior with thermometers to make sure the settings were correct. The delicacy of getting the smoker and temperature just right, required someone to be onsite 24/7. So Hugh stayed at the restaurant for days on end. He would alternate between work and 30 minute naps. It was a combination of restlessness and anxiety and he felt like the cycle would never end. But, one night, Hugh’s Sous-Pittmaster (if you will), Alex left a simple note for Hugh on the Smoker. It just said… “It’s worth it.” The note still hangs in the restaurant to this day as a daily reminder that no matter the struggle it is always worth pushing through. Hugh’s passion and attention to detail, didn’t end with the food, it applied to all aspects of the restaurant.
He became involved with the Williamsburg furniture company Withers & Grain and created an interior that had a mix of old rustic woods and clean industrial seating. Bulbs dangle from the ceiling giving off a faint golden glow. The walls are lined with white subway tiles and signs are posted in black and white. There are no dancing pink pigs or cheesy photos hanging on the wall. No other barbecue joint in NY was giving off this vibe, Hugh was creating something new, something different.
The restaurant seats 55 and has a huge garage door front that is opened during the summers. Hugh implemented a line service style, as opposed to the traditional seated dining experience, based in part due to the success of the Chipotle model. However, he also saw the line service style as a chance to create an “experience.” Customers to be able to go down the line and as they choose their food they will be able to witness how fresh it is. He wants the customer to be able to see the brisket being sliced and the pork being pulled. The customer experience continues with the staff, who are all, in addition to their culinary skills, hired because of their engaging personalities and passion for real customer service.
Hugh continues to stick to his vision, even when others don’t agree.
Hugh’s take on BBQ, is just that, his take on BBQ. It’s a unique blend of Texas and Carolina cooking styles that took Hugh more than 10 years to perfect. For example he mentions that he uses finishing salt as the meat comes down the line, something that is not typical of traditional BBQ. However, it is what he feels fits his style and the vision of what he is trying to create and so he sticks with it. Sometimes when you feel that something is right you need to just go with it, even if the critics are telling you otherwise. Hugh’s earlier struggles in life have given him the courage and conviction to stick to his core values and stay in line with what he envisions.
Overall it took Hugh 10 years to figure out the right seasonings, temperature, timing, and technique for smoking meats. He attributes successful barbecuing not to the seasoning but to the patience of time. What can we as budding entrepreneurs and professionals learn from that? It takes care, patience, and practice and even a little bit of failure before you can launch yourself forward.
Learning to control your variables sets you up for better success.
Hugh says to learn to barbecue at home you should not set out to try and make a perfect brisket but first set out and learn to make a perfect fire. This concept can of course go beyond food. If you want to learn to master something it is important to first understand the foundation and build up from there. It will give you more creative freedom and you will be able to leverage these skills later on down the road.
For a run down of the food items and what to try if it’s your first time visiting, go to Pretty in Pistachio for the follow up article or click on any of the images in the gallery below to be directed to the site. Also, below is one quick tip from Hugh if you’re looking to try and emulate great BBQ’n techniques at home.