If the hills had also been alive with the smell of barbecue, I am sure I would like The Sound of Music more. Actually, I wouldn’t even hear the music. I would simply float across the hills like a cartoon character following a smoke trail to its woody, meaty source and stare like Forest Gump did at Lieutenant Dan’s legs as piles of brisket, ribs, pulled pork, and chicken wings draw closer. Magic meat.
Which is what I and tens of thousands of people do every year: float across the hills of Sturbridge to meat magician Brian Treitman’s B.T.’s Smokehouse.
It’s what Gordon Ramsay did in 2015 while filming an episode of “Hotel Hell.” When Brian introduced himself, Ramsay said, “I know all about you. You’re putting those lovely smells into the air” before devouring B.T.’s signature brisket.
It’s what Brian’s two kids do. They attend the elementary school atop the hill behind B.T.’s and the restaurant perfumes the air at recess, leading to unnaturally strong school-wide cravings for Mac and Cheese. “Both my kids want to work here,” says Brian. “My daughter is nine and she comes in, grabs a milk crate, and stands on it to work the register. My son is seven wants to wash dishes and hang with everyone in the back.”
It’s what Esquire magazine did when they named B.T.’s whole smoked chicken wings the best in the state, taking a particular shine to a version featuring the citrusy goodness of a sauce made with Tree House Brewery’s Julius IPA.
And it’s what none of us would be able to do if a sliding door moment had led Brian to be . . . a professional bowler? “I was cooking seven days a week in Clearwater, Florida at this country club.” Brian says. “The restaurant closed at 11 and the bowling alley closed at 2. So after work I bowled every night and played in leagues on my off nights. I bowled 150 strings a week and had a 248 average. When one of my buddies was approached by the PBA, he pointed at me and said, ‘He’s next.’”
It’s possible Brian would have been the next Earl Anthony if country club life had continued. “I was offered my own club by the owners, but I was beaten down by that life. We served people an average age of 62. I’d serve them roasted red smashed potatoes, and they’d say, ‘Why does it have to be lumpy?’ and ask for the stuff out of the box. So I offered an exchange of five years of service if they sent me to culinary school. They said no so I left Florida and went to the CIA.”
After culinary school, Brian worked the fine dining scene in Boston but grew frustrated by the opportunities and the commute and decided to invest more time in a little side project he had started: a barbecue trailer. “The trailer was just supposed to be a fun little side gig for the Brimfield Antique Fair. I had a couple of guys working on it with me, and I’d come home every day and see what the progress was. When it was all done, we had over 450lbs of brisket, and I said, ‘Just go.’”
That brisket, Brian admits, was not as tender or tasty as what he does today but the flavor was good. Still, he realized he had no idea what to do next: “I thought, ‘Oh crap, what do I do now?’ I had done fine dining before this. I was used to taking little pieces of protein from scratch, searing them in a pan, and serving them in a refined way. Here was this 17lb piece of meat. What do I do until I serve it?”
Lucky for us, he found his way. It took three days for him to get the process down and then another four months to actually figure out how to cook it to the perfection he serves today. Not that people immediately got it. While it might be hard to imagine on days when the line at B.T.’s makes the TSA checkpoint at Logan look manageable, ten years ago there was no real barbecue within 100 miles. Today, Brian looks out in his parking lot and sees license plates from a dozen different states. Back then, people wouldn’t drive five miles to Brimfield to try it. And when he finally got the trailer set up in Sturbridge, a lot of people didn’t understand it.
“That first week someone came up and ordered a St. Louis rack of ribs for $18. I gave it to him and he said, ‘Those aren’t ribs. That’s not barbecue. I can go down the street to Applebee’s and pay $9 for ribs.’ Right then I knew what I was up against. I told him you can go there, but you don’t know where those were cooked. They do a great job of reheating them in a microwave. Their rack has eight bones, mine’s 12 to 14. I know where my meat came from and I seasoned and cooked it myself. I encourage you to go there if that is what you are looking for. In fact, please go there because you won’t like this. I could tell it wasn’t what he expected: Dry rubbed and smoked, not covered in sauce. You want fall off the bone mush in your mouth? Biting into one of my ribs is not the same thing. He handed it back to me.”
Do some customers still not understand the low and slow ways of true barbecue? That the pink smoke ring from the cure does not mean your wings or rib is undercooked? That it’s not just throwing something on the grill and five minutes later you take it off and it’s done? That B.T.’s brisket cooks for 22-24 hours, the pulled pork goes for 16, pork ribs for six hours, and beef rib for 12? Of course. But Brian loves the opportunity to educate.
To keep things fun, he plays with specials that don’t look like anything on the regular menu like a grilled cheese and ham served on BirchTree bread. But he encourages newbies to get a platter off the traditional menu: “Don’t order the brisket reuben the first time you come in. That’s going to ruin you for everything else.” After that, he encourages customers to explore, though many just can’t get anything but their favorites. And that’s cool with Brian. What’s less cool is he just doesn’t have them time to hang and chat with people like he used to. When a busy Saturday can feed around 1,200 people, he’s lucky to get a few quality interactions at the counter. “We turn over every seat in here in 17 minutes,” he notes. “But we still know our regulars by name and that is never going to change. It is the reason we take people’s names [not numbers] at the register. Nobody is a number.”
And everybody is welcome. If there is any food that truly appeals to the masses it is barbecue, and Brian loves the fact that people come up to him and thank him all day long. It’s why after ten years, he may get tired of the smoked food and pour himself into the specials, but “it doesn’t mean that every day I’m here I don’t taste a slab of brisket or a rib or something. I’ll walk by and say, ‘Cut me one of those they look delicious.’” It’s only when he goes out that he stays far away from barbecue: “My roots are fine dining and French inspired cuisine. If there is a bistro around that is where I am going. If I go to a Sox game, I’m going to Eastern Standard or Island Creek Oyster Bar. If I’m in Worcester, it’s places like Armsby Abbey, deadhorse hill, and Volturno.”
With so many great options nearby and a booming dining scene, Brian is thinking about what’s next. He recently partnered with Worcester’s reigning best chef Bill Nemeroff, whom he has known for a decade, and there are ideas flying around but nothing definitive yet. But whatever it is, if it is, Brian wants it to be fun and take the best of what they do there and create something different conceptually.
“Bill and I have been friends for ten years now. We’ve been waiting for a chance to work together. What I want is a ten-year plan to figure it out. If we make B.T.’s run itself so that we walk in, oversee it, and then get to play golf at The International? That’s fine. For now, he’s taken a lot of the stress off of me. This place has gotten so big now that I need to be an owner. He kicked me off the line so I can worry about building the brand and hanging out with my family more. We are going to get through this summer and he is going to see what that is like. I don’t think he quite understands yet.”
He will. Like we all do. I’ve been going to B.T.’s since those early days at Brimfield, and today like everyone else I know what I am in for when I can barely fit the car the upper lot. I gladly stand on that line on a hot summer day breathing in the smoky deliciousness of passing platters, waiting as patiently as possible to place my order, giving my name, and listening for the counter to call me forward to claim my slices of Brian’s magic and say a heartfelt thank you.