I was saddened to hear that Nate Thurmond had passed away. The media focused on his basketball career, but I was mourning, it was Big Nate Thurmond, BBQ Pitmaster.
When I met him, I was a young chef trying to build my repertoire, chasing the hot trend of Rediscovered Southern Cuisine. One person after another pointed me to Big Nate’s South of Market on Folsom.
How hard could it be?
First time I saw him, he was wearing a rubber butcher’s apron meant to cover a man from chest to shoes. On him it finished right about the knees. He was checking the smokers with one of his cooks and giving instructions like an encouraging teacher, the same way he spoke to me as he went about his tasks prepping for lunch. On the back table were some resting smoked briskets. He demonstrated how he liked to separate the point from the flat, how he took off most of the burnt outer bark while the meat rested. I should have been taking notes.
We moved on to his office where he sketched out a menu to feed my staff of 40. Each item had a story or comment that went with it. The man was deep in his menu. I asked him about his Memphis pork sandwich and received a whole geography lesson about regional sauces.
“You have to fall in love with it”, that’s what Big Nate taught me. I’d underestimated what it would take to learn BBQ. Those people obsessed with it, they’re not hobbyists. They’re in love. I later learned that he famously didn’t like talking about his basketball career, but would talk BBQ all day long.
Me, I wasn’t in love. I just wanted a one night stand and bottle of sauce to take home. But I did learn to respect the integrity and art of the pitmaster, also the person who spends two days making pozole, the woman who makes her own fish sauce, the guy who has worked on his chili recipe his whole adult life.
With a Perspective I’m Christopher Skrocke.
Christopher Skrocke now teaches culinary arts and career skills to high school students in Newark.