I got asked last night what wood I used. Man I live for these moments. It is one I can unleash my excited inner 5 year old to pick up all the notes along the 40 year journey forward until that moment where he can tell someone else what he knows because he is just excited to find a kindred soul and they can both share some fun and stories like kids show off their collection of baseball cards.
A characteristic of my food is to try use as few ingredients in a dish. "old" southern gets weighed down in heavy, masking spices. My style is more about getting that amazing meat and produce and let them speak for themselves. The goal is no more than 4 ingredients and one of them is always Kosher Salt and the other is the meat/veg so that leaves me with two more to pick from. My skillet chicken has 3 ingredients- chicken, salt, thyme. My Brisket has 4. Outside of the magic 4 is the 5th that is smoke. God I love smoke in my food. Ruhlman calls smoke "the exotic spice" and I have never heard smoke's impact described so well in so few words. Yeah, it is the exotic spice and it plays a pivotal role in a lot of my food.
I keep a collection of different woods for use in various forms like most people keep a spice drawer. Right now the current inventory is: white oak, plum, peach, mesquite, apple, cherry, alder, cedar, hickory and red oak. This does not even enter the realm of dried herbs that I might burn for releasing their smokey essences across meats, but there are lot of them too.
Converting my work to catering however means being consistent and giving the same great experience to you time and again. I don't get to pick one over the other anymore depending on my mood. Back to this guy's question, "what do you use?" I answer, it depends. Take the relationship between pork and fruit wood. Pork loves fruit wood and if you order from me, the spare ribs and pulled pork are smoked with apple wood mixed with a smaller proportion of the red and white oaks. At home the other fruit woods get used (if you never tried plum, I recommend it). Apple, oak and pig just go together and create some fun, cravable meats.
Beef cuts get the Texas touch. I had a hard time deciding because a lot of childhood barbecue experiences are ground in hickory and I love it. These days, however, mesquite reigns in Texas. I don't mind saying I use a blend where the majority is Mesquite, but a small proportion of the wood is hickory and cherry. These three together are a strong combination for deep flavor and a rich mahogany color.
Poultry gets apple all the way. I use pastured chickens that have a great flavor. I use apple just to kiss it while fires on an iron skillet. I don't want to overwhelm that bird. It was great when it started that is why I only add salt and thyme to it. The rest is apple smoke and technique.
Fish, I don't smoke. You heard me. If I make lox, that is a different story, but in my opinion if you have a beautiful fish loin only 1 day out of the water, I like nothing more than to cook it fast in a hot skillet over a wood fire. I use oak in this case, but that fish is not going to take a lot of smoke in that time.
Cheeses and mushrooms get oak. I like to keep these items hyper-local. Using the local white oak then is my preference and I recommend it.
There's me on smoke. My inner 5-year-old can now take his toys and put them away. He got to play.
Chris Black is described as a "very good cook" by his 7 year old son and that is all that really matters to him. Family opinions aside, Chris pursues bringing as many forms of Southern USA cuisine to San Francisco and enjoys every moment of it.