Neil Strawder: From Bank to Barbecue
Kevin Scanlon Neil Strawder
Like the best chefs, Neil Strawder commands his kitchen with confidence and ease, only his kitchen is a big-ass, brand-spanking-new trailer, a movable feast of barbecued ribs, rib tips, brisket, turkey and pastrami.
And he does not sell chicken. "Why do I need to do chicken?" he asks. "Everyone else is doing chicken."
The banker-turned-barbecuer built his reputation at local farmers markets under the moniker Bigmista's BBQ. Seven years ago, after watching Alton Brown cook barbecue in a flower pot, he bought a smoker from a hardware store and made his first foray. "I failed miserably," he says.
He had coated the ribs in a spice rub (fine), marinated them in Worcestershire sauce and malt liquor (uncommon), then baked them in the oven before briefly tossing them into the smoker. Rookie mistake. These days, Strawder would never treat the smoke as an afterthought. The smoke makes the meat, extracting every drop of animal essence and blending notes of spice and flesh into a sweet symphony.
After barbecuing on his balcony for two years, Strawder began competing with a team in barbecue contests. He learned tricks like finding the "money muscle," the most delectable section of the pork shoulder; including the proper ratio of "bark," the heavily seasoned outside pieces, in his pulled pork; and the Texas Crutch, a technique that involves wrapping a brisket in foil with its own juices when it has absorbed all the smoke it can take.
Strawder was competing in eight barbecue contests a year when his wife, Phyllis, told him he'd have to start selling dinners to pay for his hobby. He began selling meals to his co-workers. The enterprise quickly blossomed to 40 dinners per week, then a sideline catering business. Phyllis suggested he try farmers markets. "I wouldn't be doing this without her," Strawder says.
In 2007, Strawder began working the Saturday market in Watts. Others soon followed. Phyllis declared he could quit his job when his income from barbecue matched his income from the bank. He expected it to take a year. It took four months.
Bigmista's is a family affair. A year and a half ago, Phyllis left her job to manage the business. "I like to cook the beans, she likes to count 'em," Strawder quips. Phyllis' stepfather, Glenn, works the smoker and the slicing board. Her mother, Helen, occasionally bakes their desserts: sweet potato pie and peach cobbler.
Competing with crepe stands or kettle corn purveyors, the smoky tendrils of Bigmista's barbecue lure customers of all kinds. They line up, even at 9:30 on Tuesday morning, for piles of pulled pork and pink pastrami, for strips of brown-sugar-and-cayenne-coated bacon (aka "pig candy"). On Sunday, the line stretches out of the parking lot. Blame Strawder, an avuncular bear of a man, who loves talking to his customers.
Even if he were to open a restaurant -- the thought has crossed his mind -- Strawder can't imagine abandoning the farmers markets. "I would still be doing this," he says with a grin, "because I love being out here."
This story is from our current People Issue. To read more, see our cover story.