On Pork with Chef Sam Jones, Skylight Inn

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The preacher of pork; the porcine professor; the prince of barbecue—whatever you call him, Sam Jones makes some damn good Q: whole hog, no sauce, cooked open-pit over wood fire for hours and mixed with plenty of hand-chopped cracklin. His barbecue is one of the best history lessons you'll ever learn; his father and grandfather before him did it just the same way. His celebrated family-owned restaurant, Skylight Inn, dates back to 1946; but Sam reckons that his family’s history with barbecue began in the 1800s. His family’s recipe and their way of preparing pork put Eastern North Carolina barbecue on the map, when, in the late 1970s, National Geographic named Skylight Inn the best barbecue in the country. 
  
Not much has changed since 1965. The décor is as barebones now as it was then. The atmosphere is all about the hog. Meat cleavers on wood butcher blocks, slicing through delicate flesh and crispy skin, pungent with the aroma that only wood fire can provide—this greets customers as they walk in. Sam's and his family’s dedication to the traditional way of whole hog barbecue has not wavered, and their pride and commitment keeps the customers and the accolades coming.   
  
You were four years old when you announced that you wanted to be the prince of barbecue. What was it about the way your family’s business that resonated with you at such a young age?   Well you know, when you're that age you'll think whatever you're taught to think; my dad was the King of Barbecue and I wanted to be the Prince. When I was a teenager, I thought this place was the pits, quite literally. Whatever I could do to get out is what I wanted to do. While in college, I was given a writing assignment where I could write about anything I wanted to write about. In an effort to get out the easy way, I thought “well shoot, I’ll write about barbecue. I’ve got plenty of content.” In the course of writing that paper and speaking with my grandfather, I looked at the history behind Skylight Inn, and the history shed a different light on the work. I realized that this is not just a job for our family. It’s been a way of life for all these years. And if you look at it like that, you have to put on a different set of spectacles. When my grandfather’s health broke down in 2004, I was still in school, and it was basically left to me and my dad and my uncle to make this place function. I never went back to college; never went back, and here I am. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.    

You’ve gotten a lot of attention for your style of barbecue: whole hog, cooked over wood smoke. What do are the benefits of cooking this way? In my opinion, cooking over wood is the best way to cook any kind of meat. Because there is nothing else you can do to it that will get you that final result. I think Vivian would even agree that there are a lot of fine-dining establishments that are now cooking their meats over wood. It does something to the meat that you cannot replicate in any other way. And I have cooked pigs on everything you can imagine in your life, from New York to California, and there is nothing you can do that’s going to make it any better than with cooking with wood.    

Tell us about your membership in the Fat Back Collective, and what you all do.   The Fat Back Collective started when Nick Pihakis from Birmingham, AL, and a partner at Jim 'N Nick’s Bar-B-Q, put together a group of chefs—barbecue guys—and writers at a pig pickin' event in conjunction with Charleston Wine and Food Festival. Nobody in our family had ever done an event away from home, cooking on location, and so we were a little bit out of our element. But John T. Edge from the Southern Foodways Alliance invited me, so I went. SFA showed a film on us, and they had some all-star chefs cooking in the kitchen that night. The next night, Nick started naming off some names, looked straight at me and said, “I want you to be a part of this.” I had no clue what he was talking about at the time, but I said, “if you’re in, I’m in.”   

At first none of us knew why we were all there. But then we realized that we all used pigs that were raised the way they should be raised, and we cooked them the way they should be cooked. The first event we did was Memphis in May and we went there with the goal of saying a pig will give you the best product there is, we didn't rely on all the gimmicks that go along with big barbecue competitions. And we made a big ol’ splash at the competition. We took 3rd place in whole hog that year, which is pretty rare for first-timers who don’t know anything about competitions.   

Since that time, we have redirected our focus. One of the guys said, “with all of the talent that makes up Fat Back Collective, why don’t we use our efforts for something good?’ Now we vote every year and do four main events to bring attention to causes we care about. This year we did Hogs for the Cause in New Orleans, which is a barbecue competition. We didn’t participate in the competition, but we organized a gala event that opening night and all of the proceeds went towards pediatric brain cancer research and to the families affected by the disease. We’ll be doing an event in Birmingham next month for a demonstration farm that works with underprivileged children, teaching them how to raise and cook food that comes from the ground, not the grocery store. We are still very involved in Southern Foodways Alliance. Fat Back Collective has grown to about 16 strong now, with chefs like Ashley Christiansen, Sean Brock, and Stephen Stryjewski. It’s pretty humbling to be part of such an all-star line up, but when we get together it’s like a family reunion.   

You said in an interview with the Southern Foodways Alliance that you don’t want your style of barbecue to become a historical artifact, but want it to be this living, breathing thing that people experience. Could you elaborate on that?   Barbecue is a geographical food. It changes by region, and in certain states even by community. My philosophy is that you start with the best food you can buy, and cook it the best way it can be cooked, which, in my opinion, is over wood. Even people who don’t cook their barbecue over wood, if they are honest with you and themselves, they would agree with me that this is the best way to prepare barbecue. A writer who’s going all over the United States visiting barbecue places told me that there are less than four or five places that cook their meat in the traditional way, over wood in pits; that's what he would say defines barbecue. But that’s not to say that people who don’t cook it that way don’t have good food. It's just that we have stuck with it, because we believe in this method. It certainly is not the most economical. The profit margin is not that great cooking whole hog and cooking with wood. Your yield is like 48% on whole hog, and cooking shoulders will bump your margin up 20% more, but at the same time, your flavor profile completely changes when you go from whole hog to just shoulder.    

We've tried to stay true to what barbecue is to us, to this side of I-95. Whole hog. People call it Eastern Carolina-style. I call it traditional whole hog barbecue.  It doesn’t have to be done in North Carolina to be done correctly, but I always want Skylight Inn to be a name that is synonymous with unwavering tradition. There was a time when restaurants, especially barbecue restaurants, were more concerned with profit margins than cooking good food. Everybody wanted to have good food, but sometimes that came at the expense of cutting corners, and we never did that. We’ve been fortunate enough to make a living being good at one thing. That’s not about me being arrogant so much as being grateful for being able to do that. 80% of second-generation businesses fail. 90% of third-generation businesses fail. My grandfather was fortunate enough to have family that was as passionate about barbecue as he was. My dad and my uncle are now part of the business and they’re just as excited as he was 65 years ago. The principles that made this business successful are still the gears that make it run now. 
 
That heart in it, that interest in doing things according to tradition, where does that come from?   When I wrote that paper, and I sat down with grandfather and he talked about family tradition and a way of life versus a job. Restaurant work is a way of life, some weeks you put in 90 hours. You can’t put that kind of time in something and not enjoy it. I’ve learned this with the people who work for us. If you give someone a job that they are not enjoying or not happy doing, they are not going to be productive.  Now, if someone is doing something that they are passionate about, that they enjoy and take pride it, they will work themselves to death trying to make it happen. My family, we've been passionate about traditional whole hog barbecue. And that’s why I never turn down opportunities. I look at myself as an evangelist of Skylight Inn. So if I get the opportunity to go preach that sermon somewhere and spread the gospel of whole hog barbecue, that’s what I will do.  I’ve seen the benefit of carrying your food to audiences that have never had it before.  
 
As someone from the outside world who enjoys food but doesn’t work in the industry, it feels like Southern food is having a moment, I don’t know if you call it a renaissance or a rediscovery. How would you describe it?   I was completely ignorant about the outside world, what people’s perception of food was, who cared about it, who didn’t care about it. Now being part of the Fat Back Collective, to work with some of the most rock star chefs in the country right now, and to see how they can appreciate some moron like me who can only cook whole hog barbecue, and put a fine dining spin on it, it’s just amazing.  Recently I was at the new Husk in Nashville and John Currence’s restaurant in Oxford, MS. If you ask them for the inspiration behind their food they’ll say “I’m inspired by what I ate growing up.” They’ll introduce it into fine dining and it’s making Southern foods popular again. It’s becoming trendy. People who always looked at the South as a group of rednecks who drank beer and drove pick-up trucks are viewing the South differently now, they come here for our fine-dining establishments. Doing these events away from home gave me a different pep in my step, when I see how people appreciate what we are doing. And that has translated into an increase in business over the last two years. Nobody likes to work and not see the fruit of your labor. And I feel blessed that I am seeing the fruits of my labor.    

It’s been famously noted that you purposefully chop the skin into your BBQ. Can you talk a bit about that?   That’s a love it or hate it thing. Like it or not, that’s how Skylight Inn has always done their BBQ. When you have to flip a pig over in order to crisp the skin on it you’re walking a fine line between burning that skin and blistering it to perfection.  There is no way for me to properly describe it.  You can only get that with direct heat, cooking over a pit. What we do is blister that skin up and we chop it very fine into the meat – all of our meat his hand-chopped – so that with each bite there’s a little crunch there. It adds a whole different flavor profile and a different texture.  Now some people eat it and despise it. A lot of times people will eat it for the first time and their immediate reaction is that there is something in the food that shouldn’t be there. So there is a bit of education that needs to go along with our food and our way of doing it.    

I have to say though, that’s what got me. That crispy skin, that crunch factor. There is a whole mouth-feel to that sort of food. I love that you didn’t dumb down your barbecue because our expectations of food have become so sanitized that you don’t have to think about the bones or the skin.    That is one thing that is different about our restaurant – the point you made about  not typically seeing food preparation in a restaurant. When you walk into our place, our meat is cooked fresh on the pit outside, brought in and chopped right in front of the customers. So if you walk in, you are probably going to hear meat cleavers chopping on a wood board.  Now once you approach the counter, it’s just part of the spectacle and it’s almost like, you know how Krispy Kreme has the hot light when the hot donuts come up? That chopping board is our hot light. It’s so people know they are getting fresh food.    

Tell me about the sign on the door that says “No bones until 5 pm.”   We give our scraps away, all of our scrap bones, to people who have hunting dogs or dogs that they feed. It’s first come, first serve. And our kitchen staff starts cleaning up at 5, 5:30, so we told the people to come around then. One day we had two guys about ready to get into a fistfight over these bones. I walk out back and I said “really? I bet if I charged $5 bucks neither one of you would want them.” People were showing up at all hours for these bones, so finally we had to start keeping a list that allowed certain people to come up on certain days, but only after 5 o’clock.  We put that sign up on the door so that people would leave us alone.   

Where do you go for barbecue? When I’m out of town I like to go eat barbecue because I’m curious. It used to be that the last thing I wanted eat while on vacation was barbecue. But now, if I’m out of town I’m curious. I always eat local and I’m always a student; I’m watching. If the sign says BBQ and you don’t see any smoke, you probably ought to keep on driving.    

Can you talk a bit more about why you purposefully eat locally when you travel?   Yeah, well, the best food is local.  Our business has always instructed me to spend your money at home and now there is a big farm-to-fork movement. Obviously, we can’t afford to buy farm-raised pigs right now, pigs that were raised in dirt. That’s one of the long-term goals of the Fat Back Collective, what we call our Fat Back Pig Project. Right now there are 10 farmers growing in and around Birmingham, AL. Nick is trying to have all his pork come from farm-raised pork. We want to do that for all of the restaurants that make up the Fat Back Collective. But we still buy local. That’s where I like to spend my money. Take Vivian for example. I know she buys a lot of her produce from right around Lenoir County, and even what doesn’t come locally is sourced in the state. The families we buy our food from, we’ve been buying from them for 40 years. So when I am out of town, I always eat local because that’s what I want people to do when I’m home. It’s the best food you’ll get anywhere if it’s done like it ought to be done.           

Skylight Inn Barbecue
4618 S Lee St  
Ayden, NC 28513  
252.746.4113  
http://www.skylightinnbbq.com/ 
http://www.fatbackcollective.com    

Un Kyong Ho grew up in Cincinnati, OH and now lives in Cary, NC; she provides the pep in Markay Media's step. Follow her on Twitter (@unkyong53).

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