John Rivers has answered a higher calling to bring Texas-style barbecue to Florida with 4 Rivers Smokehouse.
John Rivers is a man of the cloth — the apron cloth. He is also a man of ministry — the ministry of smoke and meat and fire. And he came to it much like Revelation — by way of persecution.
A Florida native, a former healthcare industry executive, and the owner of 4 Rivers Smokehouse, a small chain of barbecue joints in the Sunshine State, Rivers had never tasted brisket until a visit to his in-laws in Texas. As he recalls, his cousin-in-law Steven was skeptical of the smoked meat philistine.
“ ‘You’ve never had brisket?’ Steven asked bewilderedly. ‘What the [bleep] do you call barbecue in Florida?’ ‘Well, pulled pork and ribs, I suppose,’ I replied. ‘That ain’t real barbecue. That’s a bunch of sissy food,’ Steven retorted. Then the gloves came off, and the rest is history.”
First came decades of at-home experimentation and practical, in-the-field research — plus plenty of cross-country taste testing.
“I was fortunate enough to travel when I was in healthcare,” Rivers says. “Whenever my assistant was setting up trips, they always included visits to local barbecue joints. The pitmasters I talked to were always so kind with their time and in sharing their knowledge.”
And then came his calling when, in in 2004, his phone rang. “[A] woman called to offer her condolences, having heard that my 5-year-old daughter, Cameron, had been diagnosed with cancer,” Rivers recounts in his new collection of recipes, The Southern Cowboy Cookbook (Story Farm, 2013). “I told her it was a misunderstanding, then quickly hung up and called [my wife] Monica to confirm that it was indeed a case of mistaken identity. However, I was so shaken by the call and the thought of someone’s little girl facing this terrible disease that I set out to find the family and help them any way I could.”
Rivers eventually found the little girl, Meghan Joyce, and her family. The peculiar thing, he says, is that his family and the Joyces had no connection whatsoever: not school, not work, not church. “And to make it even more mysterious, to this day we don’t know who the caller was.”
No matter. Rivers wanted to help. So he organized a church barbecue, the first of many that became what he calls his Barbecue Ministry. Nearly 500 people showed up and started Rivers on his path to restaurateur.
Five years and scads of fundraisers later, the original 4 Rivers Smokehouse opened in a renovated 1,100-square-foot brakes repair shop in the Central Florida town of Winter Park. What was once a boarded-up concrete structure was transformed into a flat-roofed brick building with large wooden doors in place of the corrugated garage doors, evoking a Texas Hill Country sensibility. It’s not difficult to look at it and be reminded of Kreuz Market in Lockhart, which is no coincidence.
“I love the Texas style of cooking,” Rivers says, “especially around Austin in the Hill Country. It was among my earliest influences. Smitty’s is my favorite, with Kreuz, Louie Mueller’s, and Franklin’s being right up there.”
The day 4 Rivers opened for business — October 26, 2009 — within one hour, and with no advertising, the line of customers reached out into the parking lot. Since then, Rivers has been the recipient of a number of accolades, and has appeared at major food events like the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami.
“2010 was the first year we participated in the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, and it was somewhat surreal,” Rivers says. “The reality of cooking alongside of Bobby Flay and some of the country’s best chefs, such as Dean Fearing and Tim Love, was a crash course in cooking under pressure and in building confidence as a chef. The first year I went to Miami seeing myself as a spectator; however, I left with the realization that I was indeed a participant. Making the transition and stepping into that role was vital if I was going to be successful in this new adventure I found myself in.”
He attributes his success to a little help from above. “[A]s much as I would like to take credit for masterminding a brilliant growth strategy, the truth is that during the first 18 months we were open, my prayer was simply that we would make enough to pay the bills. Obviously someone above heard the prayers and had much more in mind for us.”
Several more 4 Rivers Smokehouse locations are soon scheduled to join the six existing ones in Florida. “The current plan is to keep expanding as long as folks are enjoying our food, and as long as the wheels are turning in the right direction,” Rivers says. “If all continues to go well, we’ll continue our strategy of opening three to four stores per year.” When asked if he has any plans to take his smokehouse across the Gulf of Mexico, he notes, “I can say with a tinge of trepidation and a lot of enthusiasm that I would like nothing more than to bring our model to Texas, which is where it all started. Nothing makes me happier than to see Texans come in and enjoy my brisket.”
Smoked brisket is 4 Rivers’ cornerstone — and a litmus test for aficionados of Texas barbecue. But there is more to Rivers than a beloved cut of beef. Asked for his other favorites, the restaurateur confesses, “On the protein side, I (too often) enjoy our beef ribs, prime rib, and smoked chicken. On the creative side, one of my favorite dishes is the collard-infused cheese grits topped with smoked pork, onion rings, and a vinegar hot sauce. The combination of these flavors is awfully hard to beat.” The diversity, Rivers says, was part of the plan from the start.
“Flavor profiles are regionally based due to the specific immigrants that settled in a given region,” Rivers explains. “However, I hold firm that good barbecue can indeed transcend borders as long as it’s 1) not heavily seasoned toward one particular region’s flavor and 2) prepared properly. Brisket, which is the most difficult meat to smoke, is most often not prepared properly and comes out tough and dry. So, it’s not that folks in the Southeast wouldn’t enjoy brisket, it’s simply that most have had brisket that more closely resembles leather rather than the delicious piece of meat God intended it to be.”
The culinary geography is tied together with Rivers’ choice of wood. “My recipes represent barbecue styles from all over the country, and in order to pull this off I have to use a wood that doesn’t push a particular region’s flavor, such as mesquite or pecan. I’ve found that hickory consistently delivers a balance between hearty/smoky and sweeter flavors.”
House-made kolaches — the Czech Texan pastry that makes West, Texas, a required stop during drives between Austin and Dallas — share menu real estate with Rivers’ smoked meats. But, the pitmaster notes, they haven’t been as easy a sell as Texas-style brisket. “I sometimes have to talk folks into trying them.” The traditional kolaches on hand are filled with fruit, cream cheese, or, the top seller, sausage, cheese, and jalapeño.
Desserts get the limelight at The Sweet Shop, 4 Rivers’ in-house bakery at all but the Winter Garden location. It offers a full spectrum of delights from traditional favorites to a line of newly released specialty cakes. There are also oversize chocolate chip cookies, mile-high layer cakes, and freshly baked whoopie pies.
Last April, Rivers and company went beyond barbecue when they opened The Coop, a Southern-inspired, fast-casual joint in Winter Park, specializing in fried chicken served alongside from-scratch sides, vintage sodas, local craft beer, and their Sweetie Pies line of desserts, in 4 Rivers’ familiar cafeteria counter layout.
Despite the full plate, Rivers hasn’t forgotten his calling and where it began. “I stop by at least one location every day. I believe it’s important to taste the food every day, stay close to my team, and say thanks to our guests. I get to cook a couple times a week in our test kitchen located in our headquarters office, and then all day on Saturdays in our Longwood location, where most new dishes are created. Saturday is by far my favorite day. I still get so excited that sometimes I have trouble sleeping on Friday nights for more than three or four hours!”
He continues to cook at home, too. “The two cooking styles that have influenced me most — Southern, from my family’s roots in Charleston, South Carolina, to growing up in Florida, and the Texas/cowboy style of open cooking with smoke or over an open fire — are what I make when I’m at home in my backyard,” he says.
The Barbecue Ministry also endures. For Rivers, it has to. The idea of service and smoked meat are entwined at the most basic level. Rivers knows that his Barbecue Ministry is connected to food-centered church gatherings led by pastors and congregational elders. That history, he says, most certainly impacted his decision to go into barbecue professionally. “I found a joy that I hadn’t previously experienced at work the first time we did a barbecue fundraiser at the church. Something special happens when you combine your passion with helping others, be it at church or in the community. This joy ultimately fueled our start, and continues to be our focus to this day.”
To find a 4 Rivers Smokehouse location or to purchase The Southern Cowboy Cookbook or John Rivers’ signature barbecue rubs, visit www.4rsmokehouse.com.
From the July 2014 issue.