Chef Kale Thome is spotlighting his “Minnesota-style barbecue” all summer at Robbinsdale eatery
By LACI GAGLIANO
Most summer-worshipping omnivores can list off the heavy-hitters of the barbecue world by region: South Carolina, Texas, Kansas City, Memphis. Hawaiian and Korean. But Minnesota-style barbecue?
Perhaps it’s barbecue’s correlation with warmer climates that makes the idea of Minnesota barbecue sound like a Garrison Keillor riff on “A Prairie Home Companion,” but after a taste of Chef Kale Thome’s take on the beloved slow-cooked dish, diners may realize there was a barbecue-shaped hole in their hearts, waiting to be mended by Thome’s northern spin.
“We want to see what it means to be Minnesota barbecue, and see if we can put Minnesota on the map and establish a style,” the tattooed chef said while perched at a counter at the back of Travail, the destination restaurant in Robbinsdale that he co-founded along with Mike Brown, Bob Gerken and James Winberg. Travail is where Thome is launching his unique barbecue recipes as the restaurant’s summer spotlight installation, with a special separate menu just for his creations.
Thome is from Wichita, Kansas, and got his start in professional kitchens by taking a leap of faith. As a young, fairly inexperienced chef, he made the move, straight from six months of working a job after culinary school, into the bustling kitchen of Binkley’s, a high-end, well-known restaurant located at the time in Cave Creek, Arizona. It was there he met and worked alongside Brown and Gerken, with whom he would later move to Minnesota to open Travail.
His time at Binkley’s provided him with the level of experience he says he’d need to move forward with his entrepreneurial spirit.
“It was intense. At times, it was like all the stuff you see on TV, with all the yelling. That’s why I went there, to learn, and I did. It taught me how to respect food, respect the environment, how to respect it all,” he said.
Back at Travail, spread across the counter in front of him are several selections from his hearty spotlight menu: a massive, juicy barbecued beef rib, marbled with colors, smoked for approximately five hours and complemented by a simple salt and pepper combination; a couple of St. Louis-style pork ribs, dry rubbed with a flavorful blend of spices; a brisket sandwich piled high atop a toasted onion bun with salted and peppered slices of brisket smoked for 12 hours and accompanied by a saucer of his barbecue sauce, a stack of pickles, and a heap of thick, crisp housemade potato chips. Small side crocks of cold German potato salad, savory herbed shells and cheese, and fresh, tangy coleslaw balance the hearty meats.
Thome believes in less sauce, more flavor, which is why he opts for dry-rubbed over sauce-slathered ribs. The sauce he does use has more of a vinegar-based flavor, and it is offered sparingly.
“For me, fresh barbecue doesn’t need a lot of sauce. Just like the pickles or slaw we serve, having a little bit of that extra acid to cut through the richness of the meat – that’s the point of sauce for me,” he said. “You’re not trying to cover anything up, you’re just trying to add to it.”
What he prefers to focus on, more than a sauce recipe, is perfecting a crust, known to connoisseurs as a bark.
“You get this bark, this crunchy layer on the outside, and it’s met by really juicy meat on the inside. It creates almost a shell that locks everything in,” he explained.
The desired bark is created based on cooking temperature, he said. A mid-range temperature of around 275-285 degrees is how he’s able to achieve his bark while maintaining juicy, tender meat beneath the surface.
In keeping with the regional ambitions, Thome only sources meats and other products locally. He pulls a sleeve back to reveal a tattoo of a Mangalitsa, a particularly fatty heritage breed of domestic pig with Hungarian origins. His tattooed version of the pig reveals a butcher’s diagram.
Thome said he’s developed his barbecue for the past two or three years. While it’s been previewing at Travail, he’s simultaneously been planning the opening of his own restaurant in northeast Minneapolis, which he’s appropriately calling Minnesota Barbecue Company. While it’s been a work-in-progress, the plans are finally coming together.
“We’ve been dealing with a lot of zoning hurdles. We’re past that; we did our last zoning and planning commission meeting in the middle of this month,” he said, adding that the restaurant will open at an undetermined time next year, possibly by spring. He’ll likely work in coordination with some of the many breweries located around the restaurant’s future location near Central Avenue and Lowry Avenue, among them Bauhaus, Indeed and Fair State.
“All these breweries have taprooms with no food. Beer and barbecue, they were meant to be together,” he said.
He envisions a collaboration where there will be standing orders for food, delivered to each taproom. Eventually, he would like to do delivery orders for the area and even cater to other parts of the community.
“This restaurant’s going to be our first goal; hopefully, it’s the bread and butter. After that, I think (about) having a trailer and building more trailers, having the option of catering, and the option of opening up more spots,” he said.
To accommodate his recipe developments onsite at Travail, Thome and several others custom built an offset smoker, which is housed inside of a 12-foot trailer that can often be spotted in front of the restaurant on West Broadway. A friend who works as a mechanical engineer helped significantly, and the smoker was completed in just six days. It has three chambers that can accommodate three temperatures at once by adjusting the flue.
He said he prefers cooking with wood, foregoing additives like hickory or mesquite. Oak, especially white oak, is the wood of choice because of the purity of its flavor.
“We use as much oak as possible. I just like the way that it burns. It’s a harder wood, and it burns longer,” he added.
Pursuing barbecue seems like a natural branch-off from Thome’s longtime passion for culinary arts. He said he’s been cooking professionally for over 10 years, and enjoys the ability to make adjustments and tweak the details that barbecue has afforded him.
“For me, it’s always been about the idea of refining a craft. I enjoy changing one little variable each day and keep progressing in that way,” he said.
Harnessing a combination of knowledge and freedom to test the waters, he has used trial and error to experiment with temperatures and levels of smoke. What he’s previewing at Travail is the product of many different experiments and iterations, but he’s finally gotten it to a science.
Thome’s passion for good cuisine shows in the attention to detail he puts into the development of his barbecue.
“Barbecue for me is great. It’s so fantastic when it’s fresh. That’s something that I want to bring to this,” he said.
He’s also passionate about not compromising quality over quantity, which is made evident as he explains how to tell whether barbecue is fresh or has been reheated by looking for a smoke ring, the pink ring that forms along the edge of a piece of smoked meat. The effect is apparently the result of a reaction involving carbon dioxide.
“The importance of it is that any fresh barbecue will have it. Once you start reheating it, (the ring) starts to go away and everything starts to turn brown,” he said. “Our plan is to get fresh barbecue into people’s hands. I think that when people have that, it’s kind of like a drug, and there’s nothing that can replace it,” he said.
Thome said people interested in ordering can do so online at tempotickets.com/bbq. There is an in-house menu that has selections, but he said in either case, timing is everything.
We tell everybody it’ll be ready at 6 o’clock. It comes off the smokers at 5 o’clock, give or take. Early is best – coming at 5:30 or 6 p.m., that’s going to be the best meat,” he said.
The spotlight pop-up is scheduled to run at least through the end of August, according to Thome, with a brief break from the time of this story’s publication through July 19. He said if the building for his new restaurant is delayed, he’ll stay open an extra month or so. However, as soon as the building is ready, that’s where he’ll be putting his energy. That means for people wishing to taste the barbecue while it’s still in Robbinsdale, it’d be wise to act soon rather than later, he said.