Lace up your sneakers and join the Sneaker Soiree, Girls on the Run of Middle Tennessee’s fundraising event at Rocketown on October 19, 2017. A night of drinks and
Pat Martin believes there are no secrets in barbecue. He’ll tell you over and over again, likely because it’s the primary reason he’s where he is today. The owner of four Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joints and a massive new restaurant headed for downtown in early 2016 learned every trick of his trade because somebody else shared it with him.
Along the way, he’s shared what he knows right back and even established his own pitmaster training program in order to pass down his knowledge to a select group of up-and-coming hog handlers. His reason? He believes that West Tennessee whole hog barbecue—the style of barbecue that Martin came up around—is a dying art. Henderson, Tennessee, the town where Martin first discovered an entire pig in a pit, once had 12 whole hog joints. Today, he tells me, there are only two.
“I want to pass that on and keep it alive,” he says.
Not to mention, he’s not franchising. Growing, yes, but not without his hands on every part of every new store.
“So the only way I can grow is to teach these guys how to do it themselves,” he says. “It’s not recipe-driven. It’s a skill set.”
Walk into any of his four joints today (three in Tennessee and one in West Virginia) and the first thing you’ll feel is the smoke. In your eyes. Through your nostrils. Right down into the pit of your belly. It permeates everything it touches—even Martin’s mattress at home—thanks to each restaurant’s indoor pit, where the team fires up piles of hickory charcoal in order to cook whole hogs about once a day. Instead of hiding the pit at the back of the restaurant, Martin wanted it right up front near the dining room to give customers a front-row seat. And what they get is most certainly a show: When there’s hog on, which at the Belmont location is just about 24/7, a crowd gathers anytime the pitmasters open up the lid to feel the heat or, just at the start of lunch each day, when they take it off section by section before exhausting it, mixing up all the good bits, and putting in on the menu. Another pig gets put on the pit immediately afterward—and that’s a sight to see, too.
Martin is transparent about all of it. From his techniques to his recipes to where he sources his tomatoes, he’s a “what you see is what you get” kind of guy. At age 43 and six-feet tall, he’s a dominant force, an alpha male with a sturdy build and a near-permanent stubble. But he also carries himself with the softness of a guy who appreciates everything he has in life, including his family, his business, his skill set, and the people who have helped get him where he is. He has no trouble giving his restaurant team a hard time if they’re doing something wrong—but he’ll immediately jump in next to them to show how to do it right.
His restaurants exude the brand that is Pat Martin. The service is warm and the space is comfortable. The walls are chockablock with memorabilia like old license plates, framed photos, pig ephemera, and wrestling posters. The menus tout his “no freezers, no microwaves” mentality about barbecue—it’s made fresh every day, and sometimes they run out.
Martin’s path to whole hog barbecue started miles away, in Corinth, Mississippi, where his parents are from and he spent his high school years. Born in Memphis to a government bond trader, Martin lived up in the Northeast as a child but spent summers back in Mississippi on his grandfather’s farm. Eventually, the family moved back to Corinth when Martin was in his teens. Growing up, he was surrounded by strong cooks and grillers—his father taught him that there was only one way to light a grill, and that was with fire.
“All the men in my family were very masculine, but not in some tough kinda way,” says Martin. “They were just Southern men and they did things very methodically. You shine your shoes this way. You shave this way. You grill this way. You start your fire this way.”
While barbecue was part of his childhood (one of his first haunts was Gridley’s Bar-B-Que in Memphis), it was grilling that captured his imagination. In ninth grade, Martin used his own money to buy a book called The Thrill of the Grill by Boston chef Chris Schlesinger. Cooking with live fire became a serious hobby, but it wasn’t until he went to college at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson that he discovered smoke. It was at a spot called Thomas & Webb Barbeque (now occupied by a place called Bill’s) where an 18-year-old Martin first experienced the sight of a whole hog in a pit—a moment he still has a hard time putting into words.
“When you came up and ordered a sandwich, [pitmaster] Harold [Thomas] would turn around and lift the foil off of this box—they’d take the hog off with the grate and set it in this box. It would just be sitting there, and he’d lay foil over it to keep it warm,” he recalls. “I’d already cooked ribs and been doing steaks…but there was something about seeing the whole animal to me that was just like… ‘dang.’”
Captivated, Martin started asking questions. Still a freshman, he would sneak out after Freed-Hardeman’s midnight curfew and help shovel coals.
“I had this innate curiosity,” he explains. “There was no end game. I just thought it was really cool to be around it. And then inherently I just started picking it up.”
By his sophomore year, he was cooking whole hogs on his own, with Harold helping him source the pigs. Martin practiced by cooking for social clubs and fraternities as well as his colleagues while interning at Merrill Lynch in Chicago. As he neared graduation, his rebellions caught up with him and he was expelled from Freed-Hardeman—but that led him to Nashville, where he enrolled at Lipscomb University and finished up his finance degree before taking his first job at Nations Bank in Charlotte.
Meanwhile, his love for cooking and making barbecue drove him like an itch. He’d gotten himself a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and continued whipping up feasts for his comrades.
“They always say the heart of a chef or a home cook or a pitmaster is that you love cooking because you’re making other people happy,” he says. “That’s the emotional fulfillment of it. So God knows how much money I spent cooking not because I wanted a slab of ribs but because I wanted to cook for my buddies.”
At one point, he even considered buying a barbecue rig. And then culinary school. Eventually, having made the decision to forgo Wall Street for a Southern life, Martin found himself back in Nashville, both divorced and done with bond trading altogether. At the time, he lived out in Arrington in a small house on just over four acres. He picked up a few odd jobs laying sod, and that quickly turned into a landscaping business. Weekends became marathon sessions of cooking and making barbecue. Soon, Martin reconnected with a woman named Martha Ann Neil whom he’d met at Lipscomb—they got married, and this time it stuck.
It was shortly after dawn one May morning in 2006 when his then-five-year-old landscaping company imploded. His team of employees had just gotten their trailer, which held various mowers and large pieces of lawn care equipment, on the road when it came unhinged. No one was hurt—but just about every last piece of Martin’s equipment was destroyed. His company, Harpeth Landscape, was officially closed for business.
By 10:30 that morning, Martin had met with his insurance rep, who handed him a check for the sum total of the damage. Afterward, Martin went for a drive. He suddenly had a hankering for brisket tacos and remembered this little Mexican place in Nolensville that smoked their own brisket.
“I’ll never forget, it was about 11:15 and I looked in and the chairs were still up on the tables. The sign said they were open Mondays at 11,” he recalls. He walked downstairs to the repair shop that sat below and asked what was up. “‘We evicted ’em this weekend for not paying their rent,’ the guy said. “And I don’t know what came over me, but it just flew out of my mouth. I told him, ‘I’ll take it.’”
And with that, Martin became the proud owner of a barbecue joint. He immediately called his wife.
“She downplays it now, but Martha totally had my back,” he says. “She wasn’t worried about what we were going to do about money—she was more concerned with what fulfilled me emotionally.”
Those early days of Martin’s Bar-B-Que were a zany, stress-inducing ride. Before opening on October 16, 2006, he hired his first employee, Bo Collier, a drummer who moonlighted as a line cook. They met one night at an East Nashville club when Martin was having a drink with a mutual friend and Collier’s band was playing. Martin hired him by shouting to him while he was still on stage. Collier accepted…and counted off the next song.
“The first time I ever had Pat’s barbecue, he’d had me over to his house for supper and was cooking on a Big Green Egg in the back,” says Collier. “I said, ‘You got a gold mine on your hands.’ Nobody’s done it that way in Middle Tennessee since I was a kid. And it took me right back to that time.”
While Collier supplied the mental and physical support, the neighbors supplied the morale. There were lines out the door on opening day and they quickly ran out of food. The crowds hung around those first few weeks, forcing Martin to enlist a few friends and make a few quick hires. Bill Darsinos, co-owner of Southside Grill on Nolensville Pike, found out about Martin’s from his Sysco rep.
“He said, ‘There’s this landscaper down the road trying to open a barbecue joint,’ and I had to go down and check it out,” says Darsinos. “I told him, ‘You’re not gonna last three weeks.’ Now look at him.”
Wearing his signature trucker hat and a Martin’s tee shirt, Pat Martin holds his hand over a pig that’s been cooking over hickory coals for about two hours at the Belmont restaurant. He holds it there for about two seconds. He’s been standing there, totally unfazed by the blanket of smoke that billows around him, talking a constant stream of chatter about how many shovels full of coal you need to get the heat just right. The trick is knowing when the belly and shoulders are done but not overdone, he says, and knowing exactly when to flip so that the connective tissue is still intact. For him, it’s all about the feel of the fire and the speed of the smoke—and he can tell you based on both how a pig’s going to turn out.
Being next to fire is where Martin is most comfortable. He’s cooked all over the country and beyond, bringing flame and smoke with him wherever he goes. Every June, he makes his way up to New York, hauling a massive rig loaded with smokers behind him, and cooks for thousands of Yankees at the Big Apple BBQ Block Party. In 2014, he took his craft to the James Beard House for a seated dinner—his crew cooked much of the food offsite and had to summon an Uber to get the spare ribs to the Beard House in time for the second course. Next month, you’ll find him at the center of the action during the Music City Food & Wine Festival, where he’ll set up a number of fire pits on the patio and invite dozens of celebrity chefs to cook on the pits alongside him.
It was a trip he took in 2011 that is inspiring his next foray into live fire cookery. Along with some other members of the Fatback Collective, a group of chefs, pitmasters, writers, and entrepreneurs, he traveled to Uruguay for a bit of a barbecue exchange.
The barbecue restaurant Martin will open downtown in the old Rutledge space early next year will be his new playground for live fire cooking. A standard Martin’s restaurant will sit up front, offering an indoor pit, counter service, and the same meat, sides, and atmosphere you’ve come to love at his other locations. But out back, he’ll put an addition on the building to create an open-air patio with enough space for four hog pits as well as a few other types of grills. He’ll use it as a place to cook what he likes to cook—from whole vegetables over coals to entire lambs—and invite other chefs to join him.
“There isn’t anything like it in America, that I’ve seen,” he chuckles.
It’s also where he’ll install a few of the young pitmasters who are currently in his training program. Right now, he has about eight guys who will cook hogs under his direction for 18 months, learning everything from how to source the meat, load and unload the pits, maintain the fires, and finally make the call on whether a hog is done. His hope is that they either stay on as pitmasters or move up to become general managers and open more Martin’s restaurants. Ross Yeatmin, a 28-year-old front of house manager at the Belmont location, says it was his boss’s knowledge and excitement for this type of barbecue that got him into the idea of working the pits.
“He’s a genius at it. So what if he comes by and gets on somebody for not slicing the brisket the right way or not weighing out the paprika? Those details go a really long way,” says Yeatmin. “The way that he cares about his product and takes the time to focus on those details makes me want to do it. And you don’t want to let him down.”
If there’s a thread to Martin’s haphazard journey from bond trader to pitmaster, it’s his ability to share information—gathering it from others and quickly passing it along. That attitude is what helped him connect with Michael Bodnar, a partner with Fresh Hospitality, which now has an equity stake in Martin’s Bar-B-Que. Bodnar started out as a customer in Nolensville, eating at the original space two times a week.
“One day he tells me, ‘I helped start Jim ’N Nick’s,’ and I realized I could trust this guy,” says Martin, who eventually installed an electronic POS system on Bodnar’s recommendation.
When Martin’s moved his original restaurant to a new location across the street, he asked Bodnar for advice on how to run a bigger space. After a number of discussions, the two decided to partner up. These days, he spends only about five percent of his time actually cooking hogs. The rest of the time, he’s training his team, overseeing a growing staff, running back and forth between locations, and constantly maintaining the engine of the Martin’s brand—which is why on Sundays, he cooks at home.
On a recent humid night, Martin hosted one of his regular gatherings at his family’s Oak Hill home. Originally owned by his wife’s family, the property has been parceled off—Martin’s father-in-law, Buzzy Neil lives in an adjacent home. On the Martin’s parcel, the house is surrounded by pear, peach, and chestnut trees and a large garden takes up a plot of the yard—it’s bursting with rows of tomatoes.
That night, Tandy Wilson, the chef at City House, was there with his wife and son. Chef Tyler Brown of the Capitol Grille came over with his wife and two kids. Bill Darsinos and his family were there, as was one of Martin’s longest employees, Raul “Chocho” Tovar, with his entire clan. Kids ran around the yard in packs while the adults mingled by the fire pits and around a long wooden table set with cloth napkins and mason jars filled with wild flowers. Nearby, the ripened tomato plants signaled that the restaurants were about to get fresh ’maters for cheeseburgers and salads. A makeshift smokehouse at the back of the yard, near the chicken coop, sat empty, but it’s where Martin and friends like Wilson, Sean Brock, and Will Uhlhorn hang their sausage-making projects through the winter.
Martin held court at the pits, a mason jar of rosé in his hand, in full command of the two different fires that smoldered near his feet. Every once in a while, he’d ask someone to jump in and cook. Darsinos flipped a pile of octopus until it was just tender and charred. Later, Wilson took over to toast up some bread.
Dinner was casual—sandwiches packed with flank steak and manchego cheese or freshly sliced ham and slivers of fresh tomato. Martin crafted each one, carefully layering in the fillings and then handing them out one by one. All the while, surrounded by his pals, he told stories and passed the wine. There was not a piece of pork or a lick of smoke nearby, but somehow, this felt like the essence of a barbecue life.
“Cooking, sitting around,” Martin smiled. “This is what it’s all about.”