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Drinking With Brooklyn’s BBQ Guru Billy Durney

The insatiable restaurateur muses on McSorley's, his love affair with natural wines, properly roasted pepperoni and why he doesn't want to be called a pit master.

When Billy Durney walked into the cavernous former gymnasium that’s home to Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas, nearly a decade ago, he inhaled the pit smoke and ordered every item on the menu. “One step in—one fucking step in—and I said, ‘This is what I’m going to do for a living,'” says Durney.

When early backyard experiments on his Weber Smokey Mountain smoker didn’t pan out, he took a two-year pilgrimage to visit the great barbecue restaurants of America. Once he’d spent time with pit masters from Texas to North Carolina—and drained his bank account—he came back to Brooklyn knowing he didn’t want to replicate the famous regional styles, but to develop his own voice. Today, people line up for hours to try Durney’s heralded brontosaurus-sized beef rib at Hometown Bar-B-Que in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

On display at Hometown is a melding of the cultural influences Durney experienced growing up in Brooklyn: Korean sticky wings, Jamaican jerk baby back ribs, slabs of pastrami bacon and lamb belly banh mi. “So much of what I do at Hometown is trying to chase the memories of those smells, as a tribute,” says Durney. “That’s what keeps me inspired about barbecue—the chase.”

Despite his acclaim, Durney doesn’t consider himself a pit master. “I’m 46 years old, I haven’t mastered anything yet. I’m just a human being trying to cook food on wood fire.” Durney is still genuinely astonished at the attention and accolades he’s received—world-renowned chefs like Massimo Bottura and Alain Ducasse make their own pilgrimages to Red Hook to visit Durney in action—and his mantra “too blessed to be stressed” isn’t just a catch phrase.

On a recent Thursday, I meet Durney at McSorley’s Old Ale House, a legendary Irish tavern in the East Village. He’s seated at a large round table, decked head-to-toe in navy: Adidas Campus, dark jeans, long-sleeved Buxton Hall Barbecue shirt covering his tattooed arms, quilted vest and a Yankees cap worn low. There are two beers offered at McSorley’s—light (ale) and dark (porter)—served two per order in 8 1/2-ounce glass mugs. Durney has a pair of darks in front of him alongside a bowl of split pea soup. He’s just come from dropping off Oaxacan chicken tostadas to his friend Action Bronson, who is preparing for a show that evening.

Durney is drawn to places with history like Peter Luger Steak House, Pete’s Tavern, Bamonte’s and the White Horse Tavern, and he’s been coming to McSorley’s since he was south of the legal drinking age. “This bar is the perfect example of ‘If these walls could talk,'” says Durney. He closes his eyes for a moment to soak up the late afternoon sun spilling in through the front window. “This is when it’s at its finest. You can meditate in here and it would be the most beautiful meditation ever.” A bartender scoops up an armful of empty mugs and the reverie is broken. “Isn’t that just the best sound? I just want to order more beers so I can hear that sound again,” he says.

We split a round of darks and catch an Uber back to Brooklyn. The methodic rumbling of a passing subway accompanies us over the Manhattan Bridge. “Come on, this is a Brooklyn moment right here,” says Durney, pointing to the spot on the Brooklyn Bridge where he proposed to his wife. His gaze stays focused on the landmark, ignoring texts and calls on his constantly buzzing phone for a few more moments, just to enjoy the view.

When we arrive at Lucali, Mark Iacono’s intimate Carroll Gardens pizzeria, Durney carries two bottles tucked under his arm: a 2016 Alessandro Viola Sinfonia di Grillo from Sicily and a 2015 Domaine Roulot Meursault. “Mark and I are two peas in a pod,” says Durney. “We’re both born and raised here in Brooklyn. We talk the same language. We’ve been inseparable since the day we met.” Iacono is away, but the women working the floor greet Durney warmly and lead us to our table, swapping out the traditional glass tumblers for a pair of Zalto glasses. Roy Orbison’s “You Got It” plays as Durney pours me a glass of the grillo.

A well-done margarita pie is ordered along with a side of spicy tomato sauce made with wood-fired Italian long peppers. The server knows to add an order of pepperoni on the side for Durney. “They get crispier and curl up when they’re cooked on the sizzle plate right in the wood,” he says. “It’s almost like a potato chip.” When our food arrives, Durney encourages me to ladle a spoonful of hot marinara onto my slice. He pops the pepperoni straight into his mouth and I crumble mine up over the pizza, and I promise I’m not joking when I tell you that Eric Burdon & War’s “Spill the Wine” begins playing as he opens the Roulot.

Durney first tried Jean-Marc Roulot’s Meursault several years ago when he dined at the Michelin-starred restaurant Maaemo in Oslo. “It literally changed my life forever,” says Durney. “I never experienced that flavor, texture, elegance or depth in anything.” Since then, Durney has become a passionate student of natural wine, and at Hometown he has rolled out a program featuring a rotating lineup of producers and growers from Europe including Gut Oggau, Milan Nestarec and Christian Tschida.

Durney takes great care in sourcing the meat he serves at Hometown, and he finds parallels in the tenets of natural wine production, with small-scale makers practicing minimal intervention. Plus, he thinks barbecue is best paired with wine. “I believe something with high acid and great structure just cuts through the fat a lot better than something that’s smoky and spicy and woody,” says Durney. He delights in the element of surprise too; seeing 20 heavily allocated natural biodynamic wines at a honky-tonk barbecue joint does not play into expectations.

Durney likes drinking wine at The Four Horsemen in Williamsburg as well as at Franks Wine Bar and Popina in his own neighborhood. “Popina is probably the most underrated wine list in the city,” he says. “James O’Brien’s cellar list is unbelievable. He has more François Raveneau than anybody on the planet.” Soon, the opening of Durney’s own bar, Red Hook Tavern, will offer another Brooklyn outpost for obscure natural wines.

Located in an old liquor store a few blocks from Hometown, the 40-seat tavern has a white oak interior, antique glass features and the original 1890 “J”-arm lamps that once hung in the dining room at the now-closed Prime Meats. “I really wanted to own a tavern like the ones I grew up drinking in,” says Durney. He’ll offer wild-game charcuterie, chicken liver pâte with pickled cherries, warm crab dip with Ritz crackers and a dry-aged burger as an ode to Peter Luger’s. The centerpiece, though, will be his three-years-in-the-making fried chicken, inspired by Gus’s in Memphis and Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans.

After settling the tab, Durney invites the Lucali staff to enjoy the remainder of the Alessandro Viola and corks the Roulot to bring along with him. He’s off to see Action Bronson perform at Warsaw in Greenpoint. But first, he plans to stop by The Four Horsemen for one more glass of wine.

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