Born and raised in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Jonathan Hebert has the kind of southern barbecue creds that no one can question.
He first started experimenting in the kitchen as a young child and discovered in his early teens that he had a real passion for cooking. But it was his introduction to outdoor cooking, fire management and survival techniques during his stint in the scouts that ultimately made ‘cue his calling.
Today, Hebert is helping Southern Arizonans to survive the drought of authentic Louisiana barbecue options by cruising around town in his food truck known as Mr. Cookman’s.
In preparation for my annual Labor Day weekend pilgrimage to Sparks, Nevada, to judge the Nugget Rib Cook-Off, where more than 500,000 people will tear through more than 250,000 pounds of ribs, I sat down with Hebert to get his perspectives on smoke, spice and the hotly contested issue of sauce.
“Smoke is the most important part of preparing the perfect ribs, along with controlling the temperature in a way that will allow the heat to produce the right amount of it,” said Hebert.
He smokes his ribs for six hours while maintaining a temperature between 215-245 degrees.
While there are many wood varieties available for the pitmaster’s pleasure, Hebert likes the way hickory and mesquite play together with pork, and he has developed what he thinks is the winning ratio for producing some righteous racks.
Though smoke is key, the spice is what sets Hebert’s ribs apart from others in the space. He draws on his bayou roots to create a rub that brings some heat, while integrating some other flavors from home that help to rein it in.
“We bring in more cayenne and more black pepper than you may have experienced with ribs before, which you can definitely feel on your lips and at the back of your throat, but adding Louisiana cane sugar helps to sweeten it just a bit,” he said.
To sauce or not to sauce? When it comes to its role in ribs, pitmasters have been stuck in the barbecue sauce debate for generations. And since Hebert has been making and perfecting his own barbecue sauce since he was a teenager, you may think you know where he stands.
“Good ribs don’t need sauce,” he declared, “in the same way that a good steak doesn’t need A-1.”
For the record, even a bad steak doesn’t need A-1 sauce, but that’s just me.
Hebert says too many people sauce up their ribs so much that it covers up the flavor of the ribs themselves. He believes that a sauce is at its best when used as a condiment on the side for dipping, but that’s it.
Hebert’s sauce isn’t available on retail shelves yet, but his spice rub can be purchased at Arizona Grill and Hearth, 1045 N. Jerrie Ave.
To find out where his food truck will be from day to day, check out the Mr. Cookman’s page on Facebook.
The smoke will soon be rising from the Nugget Casino Resort in Sparks. This will be my fifth year judging the world-class rib competition, and my recent visit with Hebert has my mouth watering with anticipation.
In the meantime, I say get ya mom’n’em over to Mr. Cookman’s for a taste of Nawlins’ Ninth Ward.
Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Russell is also the host of “On the Menu Live” that airs 4-5 p.m. Saturdays on KEVT Power Talk 1210-AM, as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030-AM.