For the Love of BBQ – Pitmaster Joseph Whalen
From working on commercial fishing vessels to pitmaster – our very own Joseph Whalen turned his passion for backyard barbecue into becoming Pitmaster at the best Central Texas BBQ joint in the Pacific Northwest! Read about his journey and why he loves the art of smoking meat.
Where are you from originally?
I lived in the Central Valley in California up until about three or four years ago when I moved up here. I was working on the fishing boats up in Alaska and we would always sail out of Seattle. We were processing salmon in the summer and grey cod in the winter after fishing boats offloaded their catch to us.
When I wasn’t on the water, I spent some time exploring the area and saw what a beautiful place it was. It kind of reminded me of San Francisco but quite a bit cleaner. Then I met my wife and she kept me up here for good!
How did you get into the food business?
Well, kind of by luck actually. I’d been barbecuing all my life and was really passionate about it and I wanted to follow that passion. In California we grill a lot and I’d been doing it since I was a little kid. But on the west coast, we don’t know that grilling is much different than what people call BBQ in other parts of the country. For example, the Tri Tip is what people know as brisket – and most people have never even tried brisket that’s been smoked properly.
So, I just came down here to Jack’s one day thinking that I wanted to get into the industry. I spent a little time talking to the pitmaster at the time to learn about the job. He gave me a chance and taught me how to BBQ and when he took off Jack passed down the torch to me. It wasn’t until I met Jack that I learned the true art of BBQ.
Did you ever dream of being a pitmaster?
I always watched BBQ shows on TV like everyone else but I feel like it was something I’d always done. You know, for big events and stuff for friends and family and the like. I would do hundreds of pounds of meat at a time – but I’d never done it professionally. I worked on open pits the same size of these smokers (20-24′ long at Jack’s BBQ) – opened with the crank and full of ribs, chicken, tri tip. And in a way, it’s a lot harder because you’re cooking with real heat and flames and you have to be a lot faster.
Here it’s a little easier physically – you throw in the meat, work the fire, use great wood and 12 hours later, you come out with a great brisket. It’s just done on a much bigger scale here and done the right way – low, slow and with a much better flavor.
What are your normal hours?
No such thing as a normal day here. Sometimes I won’t sleep and I’ll stay overnight and work several days in a row. And sometimes I’ll come in a bit later when the rest of the crew might have shown up at 4 am.
But some days, if we have a big event the next day, I’ll come in at 1 or 2 am. The work is not something you can just stop – you need to see it through. Last summer, we had a gig with the University of Washington for 2,000 people and I was here 30 hours straight!
What makes Jack’s special to you?
I feel like my perception of BBQ has always been about the people you’re with, your friends and family, having a good time sitting around the pit, trying meat and feedin’ fires. That’s how I feel we are doing things here. We do it the old fashioned and right way. And it really has that family vibe.
I don’t feel like I’m working when I’m here. I feel like I’m fishing. I’m not tired, I just can’t wait to throw some meat down. It takes a low and slow attitude to BBQ this way. It’s all about that attitude.
What’s the secret to making a great brisket?
It all comes down to experience. The more you do it, the better you get, the more you understand the meat. We use imported wood from Texas, salt, pepper, and premium beef – simple and straightforward. I’m good at it because I’ve smoked over 10,000 briskets. The guy at home has done like 5.
Brisket is intimidating. But it shouldn’t be. People at home should keep doing it, practicing, and making adjustments as they learn. The real secret is experience.
If you could add to the menu here what would it be?
Maybe brisket tacos – corn tortilla soft shell tacos. Like street tacos. They dry out super fast so you have to eat them quickly but they are just so good.
What are your favorite places to eat in town?
What is your karaoke song?
I sing Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyrd because it’s the longest song ever and people get sick of it. And when I’m up again – I sing the exact same song just to piss people off. They yell get off the mic!