Sponsored by Ventura Foods
It’s been an unconventional journey to get Matt Horn where he is today. The path to becoming a renowned chef and pitmaster and author of the recently release Horn Barbecue Cookbook did not come without challenges and setbacks. But the forward-thinking chef doesn’t dwell on the adversity and trials that he has faced. Instead, he acknowledges that he has embraced them willingly.
Owner of Horn Barbecue in Oakland, Calif., and one of Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs in 2021, Horn is entirely self-taught. Where many neophytes might apprentice themselves to a senior pitmaster to learn the craft, once Horn decided to pursue the business, it was essential to him to have the results be organic. He did all his own experimentation, from testing different woods to exploring the full range of cook temperatures and timing. Unlike most chefs, the only restaurant he has ever worked in is his own. He was fully committed to developing his own flavor and style of the food he loves. He is often quoted as saying part of his decision to embark on this journey was that the only food he could ever imagine eating every single day was barbecue. That passion has not waned, despite following a path that was very different from most pitmaster and launching in an area not traditionally known for barbecue.
“I have learned from obstacles, and I continue to grow in this industry.” Horn says. “None of it has been easy and I still face challenges every day. It is all about how you respond to those challenges, and I approach them with grace and with class. There were other things that I wanted to do in life, but barbecue chose me. It found me. That is the beauty of barbecue and the connection that it has with people. I was touched and inspired by this wonderful genre of food, which has consumed me today, and I aim to have that same impact on our guests of the restaurant.”
He had his “aha!” moment tending a fire in his grandmother’s backyard. Watching the flames and smoke, the meditative nature of fire, the need to focus in on just one thing and let the food guide you on the path to its best self, and mostly the communal nature of how barbecue brings people together, that is what hooked him. “This job, more than any other, allows me to touch people and create memories through the food that we offer.” Horn says. “Barbecue is one of the older cooking methods in our culture, so anytime someone comes into the restaurant, we want them to create a new memory that connects them with the past.”
But barbecue can also be polarizing: every region thinks theirs is best, every pitmaster and backyard warrior believes in their process. To enter barbecue as a commercial enterprise takes a certain amount of personal fortitude. “I think for the industry as a whole, it can become difficult to live up to the expectations of the public’s perception of what a chef is, while also honoring the tradition of the ways of barbecue. Especially being in a region that isn’t particularly known for barbecue,” Horn admits.
Ultimately, he says, a lot of it comes down to communication: “I definitely have taken the necessary steps to try to educate our guests on the food that we are preparing, its history, and the intentions behind what we are doing. I have dealt with living up to the extractions of a chef by staying true to who I am. In a situation where I am faced with challenges, I try to go above and beyond for our guests and lead by example.”
Barbecue, by nature, is itself a demanding practice. Long hours, often overnight, careful watching, it is neither a fast process nor one that invites multi-tasking. And it, in many ways even more than some other areas of the culinary industry, takes an even greater toll on trying to find work-life balance. Self-care becomes even more essential, says Horn. “After a long day, I will usually listen to Andy Williams. There is something beautiful and timeless about his voice. It helps me re-center myself, while I enjoy a cigar and a glass of red wine. Being intentional about rest and finding peace in what you’re doing are important. In terms of work-life balance, I think the challenge is trying to find a way to make sure everything in your life works cohesively.”
When it comes to his menu, his greatest innovation is to know when not to innovate. “I try to stick with traditional dishes. Most restaurants have a seasonal menu. We do rotate some sides as well as our desserts, but in terms of our proteins, we try to stay true to our offering of smoked meats. I want to be the best at everything I do, and that is just the standard I hold myself to. With anything that is served here, it has to move me emotionally. I must be persuaded by emotion when deciding on a new menu item. One of the dishes I am most proud of is Granny’s Potatoes. The dish pays tribute to a very important woman in my life, and I love to honor the women who made me who I am today.”
Ultimately it is his passion and commitment to continuing to grow and develop as a person and a chef that he thinks serves him and his business best and is what allowed him to successfully navigate the challenges of the past couple of years. “I always strive for excellence and that translates into everything I do in life. It is a constant pursuit of perfection in an attempt to achieve greatness. Although our restaurant was open during the pandemic, we did our absolute best to make sure our guests felt safe and comfortable coming out. The pandemic impacted the industry as a whole, but we decided to keep our doors open, and I felt we were doing what was best for us and for our staff.”
The pandemic also activated his philanthropic side. “During that time, we focused on doing what we do, which is feeding people. We started Horn Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to food equity and social justice, creating food security for those in need in the Oakland community. In addition to raising money for the community, the Horn Initiative has served thousands of meals to first responders and community members in need, collaborating with the Golden State Warriors Home Court Assist Program.”
While Horn was able to stay focused during the pandemic, like most in the industry, he continues to feel the ramifications. “We are definitely short-staffed, and we feel that as a restaurant. But we stay focused on the people that want to be here and empower them, because they are the ones that want to show up every day and commit themselves to our vision and what we want to achieve as a restaurant.”
But despite everything, he still has tremendous hope for the industry. “What I hope to see more of in the industry is the improvement of how the staff are taken care of. My thing is connecting and taking care of people and being a vessel to be able to create opportunities for everyone in this industry. That has always been my mission, to put the community at the forefront. I feel like coming out of a pandemic, you can only go up, so I don’t think there are worries. In the spirit of continuing to move forward, people at my level share a responsibility to serve as role models and empower the next generation of chefs and restauranteurs to pursue their passion for cooking.”
All of his experiences have given Horn a bit of perspective when it comes to the next generation of people getting into the industry. “Put the blinders on and stay focused. Never forget where you started and make sure that you stay true to your vision. No matter what challenges you face in life, just keep moving forward because obstacles are inevitable, and they are going to come. Continue to move forward and remember the WHY behind what you are doing. When you are pursuing your purpose, adversity is irrelevant. I would take a second to close your eyes and think about what brings you joy and purpose. If it is cooking and feeding people, then I would say run after it.”
He has no regrets when it comes to pursuing his culinary dreams and hopes that the current climate doesn’t make other people hesitate to pursue theirs. “You need to be resilient, and you have to have tough skin in this industry. You have to be able to persevere, and you need patience. I am very passionate about what I do and whatever I commit myself and my time to. Tomorrow is not promised, and time is such a precious commodity. It should be only invested in where the heart lies. I love barbecue, and I love this industry, and I show that through the food I put out there.”
Matt Horn is the chef owner of Horn Barbecue in West Oakland, and the author of Horn Barbecue: Recipes and Techniques from a Master of the Art of BBQ. Horn Barbecue is nominated for a 2022 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant.
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