When in New Jersey, you eat barbecue right? That wasn’t always the first thought in people’s minds until Brad and his brother Jeff launched Carolina Blue, an award-winning restaurant, with BBQ, great beer, and live music.
We sat down with the co-owner Brad to catch up on BBQ and all things beer.
HM: So who’s cooking the kitchen?
Brad: I love to cook, mostly grilling and BBQ, but I leave the actual cooking at Carolina Blue to my Chef and culinary team. I have a great relationship with Chef Randy. We collaborate daily. I’ll bring him concept ideas, particularly with the BBQ, but he’s got free reign to come up with specials and fresh ideas.
HM: So you opened in 2008 right? What gave you the idea for Carolina Blue, especially in New Jersey?
Brad: My brother Jeff and I had been working on the concept for years. The last piece of the puzzle for us was the BBQ. It went perfectly with our emphasis on this type of cuisine and beer. It’s an understatement to say this type of food was poorly represented in New Jersey. I mean eight years ago people thought we went insane when we described our beer program. When we mentioned BBQ, people scoffed and wished us luck. Today, they don’t think we’re crazy anymore!
HM: How long have you been a member of SJ Hot Chefs?
Brad: We joined a year after we opened. I know we matched their expectations, I just wanted to make sure we could handle restaurant week before jumping in. We love restaurant week, it’s unique for Carolina Blue. We also run our entire menu on top of theirs. It’s quite the challenge for our kitchen, but they love having the opportunity to experiment with new dishes and it really gives Chef Randy a creative outlet.
HM: What’s your take on Farm to Fork? How important is sustainability to you?
Brad: We love it. Using locally produced ingredients is paramount to Carolina Blue. We do our best to embrace farm-to-fork during restaurant week as-well-as our day-to-day menu selections. We also approach “local” in a different sense. We partnered with Oscar Blues Brewery from Colorado just this past year. Some of the best meat I’ve ever tasted has come from their sustainable farm. Their cattle and hogs feed on spent grains from the brewery and it’s to die for. This was a great picture of sustainability coming full circle, it also made for the ultimate beer pairing.
HM: Talk to us about your local peach wood and how it’s the secret to achieving your signature smoke flavor?
Brad: This is an awesome sustainability story. We found that many of the wood typically used to smoke meats (hickory, mesquite, etc.) were too strong for most peoples pallets in this area. Folks around here were used to their ribs being boiled or steamed, so when they got the real deal the smoke was a bit much for most. We decided to try peach and it was heavenly. Peach gives a subtle, almost sweet smoke flavor to the meat that isn’t overpowering, but gives a great smoke ring. As luck would have it we’re literally surrounded by awesome peach farmers such as Heilig. Instead of burning the old trees in the orchard like they used to, we use it for incredible BBQ!
HM: You’ve won a lot of awards for your ribs, how does that make you feel?
Brad: We smoke our ribs for around five to six hours. It’s great to get the awards, but BBQ judging can be a bit odd. It means the world when someone tries our ribs for the first time and they fall in love. I often laugh out loud and exclaim how much work goes into our ribs!
HM: It has to be great having your ribs way out in New Jersey, how long have you been cooking BBQ?
Brad: I got my first taste of real BBQ when I went to school in North Carolina. Like most people, I’d play around with a backyard smoker, but it wasn’t until we decided to go with the BBQ component that my brother and I got into it. We knew we’d have to make it legit if we were going to put such a focus on it. So, we researched, bought great equipment and kept cooking.
HM: Talk to us about the role Craft Beer plays in your restaurant?
Brad: Anyone can sell beer and BBQ, few do it well. You’ve got to be knowledgeable and incredibly passionate to sustain a great beer program. For us, it’s always quality over quantity, pure and simple. We do have a lot of beers, but we pride ourselves on being knowledgeable on every single one of them. We have a draft system second to none. We also use the proper glassware for every single beer and we arm our staff with all the knowledge they need. Breweries love our respect for their beers, so we often get the best kegs of the rarest brews they have. You know, we’ve got some remarkable breweries right in our own backyard. It makes Farm-to-Fork week a joy for us.
HM: What are your three current favorite brews?
Brad: Glad you said current because my favorites are always changing. There are so many stellar breweries now so it’s tough to only name a few. Right now drinking I’m a lot of Straffe Hendrik, but I’m mostly partial to anything that comes from Belgium especially the triples.
As far as American craft beers go, “Lot #3” from Evolution has found its way to my hand quite often lately. Now that summer’s here, my fridge will be stocked with Lagunitas “Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ ale.” They are such a fantastic brewery. You also cannot go wrong with anything from Southern Tier. I could keep going, and going. [laughs]
HM: Let’s talk about grilling, for all the enthusiasts out there. Any dish you’d recommend?
Brad: London Broil and asparagus, no question. Prepare the asparagus ahead of the meat so your grill doesn’t get crowded. You can marinate the meat in pretty much anything and it feeds the whole family. The trick is not over-thinking.
HM: Is there an art to grilling?
Brad: I’ve got three steps I live by.
1. Don’t be afraid of high heat.
2. All grills are not created equally. Know where your hotspots are and how long it takes to heat up.
3. Timing is everything. Learn a few dishes that you know inside-out so when guests are over, you’re not stressing about undercooking a steak. There is nothing worse especially when you are trying to entertain guests. Experiment on your family, [laughs.] After awhile, you’ll stumble across great stuff, and when you make a mistake, just keep trying.
HM: Can you tell us the secret to a good BBQ sauce?
Brad: Balance of course! Truthfully, and more important, is to put something unexpected in your sauce to truly make it original.
HM: What beers would you recommend while grilling?
Brad: That’s always a personal preference but I would recommend ending the night with some sort of whiskey. Maybe a nice single malt scotch or small batch bourbon.
HM: When you’re not working, what are some of you favorite hobbies?
Brad: Spending as much time with the family as possible. I love playing with the kids in the yard and then relaxing a bit on the deck and enjoying a nice Belgian triple with my wife Erin. That’s my happy place for sure.
HM: Talk to us about the music scene at Carolina Blue.
Brad: It’s become a really important part of our business. Sundays are typically a tough day for restaurants, but we’ve been able to carve out a nice little niche in the summer on Sundays thanks to the size of our patio and the plethora of talented bands we are fortunate enough to have in this area.
HM: How important is good music with a good meal?
Brad: Incredibly important. Obviously live music creates a completely unique experience, but we really pay attention to the songs we select to play on our regular play list when we don’t have live music. It can’t be anything too hard and it certainly can’t be too relaxed either. We try to find songs that land in the middle that give energy to the place but doesn’t overpower your conversation.
HM: What’s your favorite type of music?
Brad: Like my beer preferences, I’m all over the map. For me, it really depends on what I’m doing. Mumford and Sons station on Pandora is playing at my house more often than not, but I actually had the most amazing radio experience the other day. I left my house to go to work and “Free Bird” came on which never happens. It was great. The song played for my entire commute to The Blue. It literally finished as I parked. Amazingly enough as I left later that night “Bat out of Hell” by Meatloaf came on when I got in my truck and that took me all the way home! Awesome songs that you never hear on the radio that just happened to be timed perfectly for my ride. I literally couldn’t have cued it up better if I had played it from my phone. I go in spurts though. I listen to Hits 1 on Sirius XM for a week then turn to Country the next week and I’m definitely not above screaming out some Disney songs with my kids! [laughs]
HM: Who’s your current favorite artist?
Brad: It’s a toss up between Mumford and Sons, Ed Sheeran, Imagine Dragons, and Fun.
HM: Do you have any good celebrity stories you’d like to share?
Brad: Ha! You’re trying to get me in trouble. It’s kind of like a “Fight Club” type of thing. The first rule of having celebrity customers is you never talk about celebrity customers! We do get a lot of local sports figures/personalities in which is cool. Maybe I’ll share a story or two with you one night after a few beers.
Carolina Blue is the kind of establishment you walk into and get goosebumps. You know that feeling that rushes over you when you know something amazing is about to happen? That’s the feeling you experience when you walk into The Blue.
It’s not just the ribs, or the great music and phenomenal beer, it’s every detail that makes this place so special.
Make sure to try a local Jersey beer, and say hi to Jeff and Brad when stop in for dinner.
You can see their updated beer and food menu at CarolinaBlueRestaurant.com.