According to Matt Russo, “a gambling stick is an old Appalachian name for a stick used to hang a pig from the limb of a tree. Threaded through the heels of the pig, the stick supports its weight while the animal is harvested.” The gamble, and hope, is the stick can handle the pig’s weight, and the animal will not come tumbling down.
In a parking lot in trendy East Nashville, you will find a different sort of Gambling Stick. Serving barbecued beef, chicken, and pork – and cornbread bowls too – out of a trailer, Matt’s barbecue operation is simple, fresh, and totally delicious.
Raising the lid of the smoker he designed, a former 250-gallon water tank, Matt covers the first lesson of the day. What is the difference between barbecuing and grilling? When you barbecue or smoke, Matt explains, the charcoal or wood fire never touches the meat. You cook low and slow – Matt’s ribs, briskets, and sausages are on the smoker by 7:30 each morning – and the indirect heat infuses the meat with a wonderful smoky flavor.
I notice the pork and beef briskets, “the tougher, more worked, shoulder portions of the animal,” are coated generously with seasonings – much heavier than the light sprinkling I add to my meats at home. Matt pats a special concoction of spices and salt and pepper onto his meats. He doesn’t use an oil – it’s a dry rub. “Shake off all the excess so it’s not heavy,” he instructs. Smiling, he adds, “Of course I can’t give away all my secrets.
After 12-16 hours of slow smoking over the cherry wood fire, at a “pretty constant 250 degrees,” the briskets come off the grates and rest for several minutes. “Resting helps the meat retains its juices,” he says.
Sitting down to my pork brisket (“pigsket” Matt laughingly calls it) sandwich, I question the absence of a sauce. Matt always offers his unique, and absolutely delectable, vinaigrette-type sauce on the side. “The meat should speak for itself,” he believes, and not be drowned in a sauce. After he confesses to adding rendered pork fat (basically purified fat-not nearly as bad as it sounds!) to his smoked onion sauce as a thickening agent, I understand why it tastes so good.
Seemingly quiet and reserved, I laugh when Matt describes himself as someone who’s “always liked to work with fire.” Growing up in Louisville, one of his first jobs was smoking the meats and maintaining the fires at a bbq joint. Back then, Matt already knew he wanted a career working with food and, someday, his own barbecue restaurant.
Matt credits his grandfather for encouraging him to turn his passion into a way to earn a living. After the older gentleman suggested “food can definitely be an educational option,” Matt headed off to upstate New York and the Culinary Institute of America. The famous school, overlooking the Cascade Mountains, prepared him for various chef roles at Michelin-starred restaurants in New York City.
After managing cold foods and salads as the garde manger (“keeper of the food” in French) in an elegant restaurant, Matt “sidetracked into the cheese world for a bit.” “I am always curious about how things work,” he explains with his boyish grin, “and I wanted to learn as much as I could about the restaurant business.” Besides handling the stylish restaurant’s famous table-side cheese cart, he learned how to properly age and store cheeses in the “cheese caves.”
Taking a break from the fine dining scene, Matt landed in a butcher shop in hip East Nashville. The “hands-on kind of guy” figured learning how to “break down the whole animal” might also come in handy in the food business.
Thanks to Matt Russo for this photograph
Nowadays, that same butcher shop supplies all the pasture-raised beef, pork, and chicken AND the parking lot for The Gambling Stick. Matt is proud of his initial step into the restaurant business and, for now he’s taking it slow, a little at a time. “I can’t afford to pay a lot of people, so I’ve learned to do whatever necessary to make things work,” he says.
Unlike a traditional restaurant, Matt gets to see who he is serving from his perch in the trailer. He enjoys interacting with his customers and watching their happy reactions to his plates and sandwiches and cornbread bowls. Continually developing and tweaking his “super seasonal sides,” the offerings today include heirloom tomato and cucumber salad, collard greens, apple slaw, and baked beans. I sampled – and recommend – them all.
I can’t wait for this hard working, likable guy to open his next venture – I am definitely rooting for him. In the meantime, I’m happy he is doing what he loves – working with fire – and turning out some of the best barbecue this Texas girl has eaten.
Tags: bbq, business, food, Nashville, The Gambling Stick, Travel
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