“I don’t have to have a restaurant to be a cook”
His throwback approach to barbecue has made giddy admirers of some of the top chefs in New Orleans, but don’t expect to see Dr. Howard Conyers slinging his South Carolina-style pulled pork in a restaurant anytime soon. That might require the 33-year-old to quit his day job – as a structural dynamicist at NASA. Yes, the maker of the best barbecue you’ve never heard of (yet) is a real-deal rocket scientist.
It is 2 a.m. in City Park, late March, and scattered plumes of smoke radiate skyward from beneath the live oaks like the aftermath of a Civil War skirmish. The battle here, however, has barely begun and the mood is considerably merrier. It is the night before the official cook-off for Hogs for the Cause – the city’s premier barbecue festival, which has raised millions of dollars for pediatric brain cancer research since 2009 – and Dr. Conyers, in the back of his “Carolina Q NOLA” team’s humble tent, has already been at it for three hours.
“What we do is labor intensive,” Conyers explains, as he shovels coals from his burn barrel into the homemade pit that contains his 81-pound hog. We, in this context, would be old-guard South Carolina whole hog pitmasters – “whole hog” meaning the entire animal, head to tail. As he tells it, a scarce few still follow the traditional pit-cooking methods that, in the black communities of South Carolina, have been passed down orally from one generation to the next. Conyers was taught barbecue by his father, a welder, who was taught by his father, a former sharecropper who bought the 50-acre Manning, South Carolina, farm on which his rocket scientist grandson would be raised.
Conyers was only 6 when he shoveled coals for the first time and 11 when he roasted his first hog. He can remember huge gatherings of family and neighbors, as many as 40 people mingling around rustic in-ground pits. In the meantime, he got a “hands on” education on the farm: He learned chemistry in the form of comparing and contrasting fertilizers; arithmetic in measurements of soy and corn and wheat yields; biology through observing the interplay of animals, plants, sun and sky. He would end up graduating at the top of his class at North Carolina A&T before going to Duke to get his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and material science.
His education took him from home, and from barbecue, and it wasn’t until after he accepted a position at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and moved with his wife, Kathryn, to New Orleans in 2009, that he realized how much he missed cooking. In fact, their move to the blight-scarred but culturally rich Central City neighborhood helped reignite his passion. “I’m really invested in this neighborhood,” says Conyers, who owns two homes in Central City, including the historic Queen Anne he and his wife live in and are renovating.
“Rebuilding the community here has a lot of similarities to the communal aspect of barbecue.”
Conyers’ modest camp in City Park has, likewise, been a gathering spot throughout the night for those awe-struck by his no-shortcuts craftsmanship. After 11 p.m., after the last of the revelers has shuffled out of the event’s Friday night party, the park gates shut to allow the cooks behind the 82 assembled teams time to get down to business. But many of them, hailing from every corner of Louisiana and beyond, have made a point of stopping here to talk shop and watch the young man many are already unabashedly calling “a legend” do his thing. Without a restaurant to his name, many know Conyers from his participation in the past two years of Hogs competition, but several more simply come on the recommendations of the kinds of people who choose what they recommend wisely.
Up walks Todd Pulsinelli, executive chef at John Besh’s James Beard Award-nominated August, and Chris Shortall, the executive chef at the popular French Quarter Tiki spot Latitude 29. “I just wanted to tell you,” Shortall says as he introduces himself to Conyers, “I really respect what you do.” The two chefs join a few other passers-by huddled around Conyers’ red-hot double burn barrel, as the temperatures of the small morning hours dip into the upper 40s.
What has made Conyers such an underground star in the New Orleans culinary scene? It might be the purity of his approach, his scientist’s ingenuity or his back-breaking adherence to authenticity. He makes his own charcoals with burn barrels he’s fashioned out of two 55-gallon oil drums. He inserts chunks of oak and hickory into the upper barrel, while metal bars he’s rigged near the bottom of the lower barrel hold the wood in place as it burns, until smoldering coals fall through to the bottom. For this competition, he cooks with two large rectangular pits. The pit he’s cooking chicken quarters on used to be a broken refrigerator, a quirk that got him a mention in a Times-Picayune preview of the event and would lead to more than one customer asking if he was “the refrigerator guy.” He made the other, slightly bigger pit, which is roasting his hog, out of scrap metal with his welder father. Just beneath the lids of each pit, wire harnesses hold the meat in place about two feet above the coals.
He cooks a whole hog in about 12 hours – low and slow in barbecue parlance, though he eschews thermometers and most other gadgetry (though he’s found a half-dozen uses for a pair of pliers). Ask him how he measures temperature and he’ll hold out his hand. He puts his engineering acumen to good use, certainly, but he insists that, “barbecue shouldn’t be rocket science.”
Perhaps more than anything, though, people are drawn to Conyers because of his disarming humility. He is genuinely taken aback by the buzz he’s generated, and when asked about it he takes a long pause before saying, “It’s kind of hard to process.” The next day, when customers pick his brain about his process, despite having not slept for 36 hours he’ll eagerly give them the tour while graciously thanking them for their interest.
Conyers admits he’s had people offer to back him financially if he ever wanted to open a restaurant, but says it’s not an ambition of his. “I don’t have to have a restaurant to be a cook,” he says. “The physical brick-and-mortar experience, that’s not me.”
That isn’t to say one can only sample Conyers’ barbecue once a year at Hogs for the Cause. He did a pop-up roast at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum’s Purloo restaurant last July, and did another at Dillard University in November, which he paired with a lecture on the history of pulled pork. He cooks around his busy NASA schedule – his current projects include developing a high-speed video camera system that could be used on planetary rovers – to say nothing of his home renovation, or his role on the boards of Grow Dat Youth Farm, the Warren Easton STEM Academy and as an advisor to the Preservation Resource Center. You will most likely find him cooking at events that emphasize education and community, but if you really want to know when the next roast is, the best bet is to follow him on Twitter @CarolinaQNola.
As for the barbecue, by about 1 p.m. after a long night of coal shoveling in the park, the pork was ready for pulling and Conyers made it look like the most effortless of surgeries. The pork is juicier than it has any right to be, and so delicately tender you want to rock it to sleep. His sauce, a 70-year-old secret family recipe, is light orange in color and has a mustardy-vinegary tanginess that almost defies description. As good as his pork is – to say nothing of the chicken – it’s this sauce, which he prepped at home, that has customers on the verge of speaking in tongues.
The official competition will follow later in the afternoon, with judges doing blind taste tests and awarding winners across a range of categories. Conyers, true to form, has little interest in that aspect of the event. “If it wins, great. If it doesn’t, great. As long as the people are happy.”
He wouldn’t ultimately take home any prizes (though the sauce earned seventh place), but when he asks a customer who identifies himself as a South Carolinian if the pork “passes the test,” he gets the only kind of feedback that really matters to him.
The man shuts his eyes to savor a bite, a silent prayer to the barbecue gods, and says, “It tastes like home.”