HOTSEAT- BBQ gets Jinxed: Pig pro earns prominent props
James "Jinx" Kern may operate the smallest sit-down dining spot in town, but his Jinx's Pit's Top Barbecue restaurant on East Market Street has recently achieved the kind of national accolades usually reserved for larger purveyors of pulled pork.
"Do not miss Jinx's Barbecue," gushed the May 27 Wall Street Journal, hailing Jinx's for its "hickory smoked barbecue and some seriously down-home atmosphere that ranks with some of the country's best."
If that weren't enough, men's magazine Maxim took a break from drooling over women to drool over slow-cooked pig in its August annual food awards. After following its nose from sea to shining sea, Maxim found that Jinx's has the country's best pulled-pork sandwich.
"For a mere $4.50," says Maxim. "this juicy 'sammich' on Texas toast will transport your mouth to the Mississippi Delta."
While Kern quibbles with Maxim's geography ("It's actually in the Western Kentucky tradition"), he couldn't be more thrilled with the recognition.
"It's validation," he says. "I can look people in the eye and tell them that they'll never have better than this. Being able to be that honest about my food is something I've never had before in all my years in the restaurant business."
Kern is far from a typical barbecue man. Over the course of the Hook's interview with him, he name-checks Lord of the Rings creator J.R.R. Tolkien, French author Marcel Proust, and Brazilian samba star Carmen Miranda. And like his savory meats, the process by which Kern became a colossus of the coals has been a slow one– with lots of curing. After earning his master's in art history from the University of Virginia, Kern quickly became disenchanted with the possibility of a life in academia.
"I got cured of that pretty quickly," he says. "The one time I got to curate an exhibit, it took me about a year to put it together, with the centerpiece being a sculpture made of car bumpers. People got just outraged and said, 'That's not art!'"
So, with no other professional background, Kern returned home to Chicago and took a job as a cook at one of the Windy City's upscale restaurants, partly out of his love for the culinary arts, but mostly out of necessity.
"Living at home at age 35 without a job is not a good thing to do," he says.
By Kern's own admission, he bounced around between various four- and five-star restaurants and culinary schools for the better part of the next decade, until finally in 1998, at age 45, he had an epiphany.
"I had made the mistake of going out to California with a woman I'd met at a wedding to see if we could work it out, but we couldn't," he recalls. "So driving back from Palo Alto, I made the decision that I was going to go to Starnes Barbecue in Paducah, Kentucky, where I always went as a boy when I visited my grandparents, to see how they did it."
Not that the kind folks in Paducah were eager to show him anything.
"I called ahead, and they said that these were trade secrets and that they didn't want me within 100 feet of their pit," says Kern. "But when I finally got there 10 days later, it was teenagers who were running the place, and they were happy to show me."
While Kern says his precise methods are his own, what he saw that day became the cornerstone of his success.
"The problem with most barbecue is that they smoke it and they dry the hell out of it, so they have to put all kinds of slaw and sauce on it," he explains. "What I do is use indirect heat from a hickory fire to cook the meat so that the juices drop down onto the coals, so it stays tender."
Despite the recent acclaim, Kern keeps irregular hours and says he's in no hurry to expand. To make sure the quality of his product won't suffer, he seats only about a dozen people in his tiny space.
"It has to be this, or it can't be anything," he says. "But if someone with deep pockets makes me an offer and will let me do what I do, we have something to talk about."
Just don't ask him for slaw.
Why here? I grew up here, and I went to school here.
What's worst about living here? Traffic
Favorite hangout? Hamiltons'
Most overrated virtue? Being organized
People would be surprised to know: I'm a classically trained singer.
What would you change about yourself? I'd be more organized.
Proudest accomplishment? That mention in Maxim and the national recognition that comes with it. To be called the best in the country is pretty special.
People find most annoying about you: I can be a little bit flaky– well, more than a little flaky.
Whom do you admire? Garrison Keillor
Favorite book? The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher
Subject that causes you to rant? Ignorant people
Biggest 21st-century thrill? Thirty-five miles-per-gallon cars. Right now, that's making my life.
Biggest 21st-century creep out? Creationism
What do you drive? A Toyota Camry and a jalopy Mercedes
In your car CD player right now: The Voices of Ascension, a chorus and orchestra directed by Dennis Keene
Next journey? A second store
Most trouble you've ever gotten in? I wasn't convicted, but I went around a flagman on Route 340 and paid the consequences. Don't do that. I didn't know the drill, and man, did I get in trouble.
Regret: My significant other is a 20-pound cat.
Favorite comfort food: Very fresh corn on the cob or homegrown tomatoes
Always in your refrigerator: Some kind of cheese
Must-see TV: The West Wing
Describe a perfect day: Wake up a newlywed at the Greenbrier, spend all day in the spa, finish with dinner in the main dining room, a cigar, a glass of brandy, and The West Wing
Walter Mitty fantasy: I'd be a famous singer who didn't have to travel
Who'd play you in the movie? Jimmy Stewart
Most embarrassing moment? When I went around that flagman, I was in court in Augusta County, and in the courtroom was hanging a portrait of my great-great grandfather. He was right there looking down at me.
Best advice you ever got? To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night as the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.
Favorite bumper sticker? "All extremists should be shot."