Adam Perry Lang and the Metaphysics of Barbecue

Photo: Adam Perry Lang and the Metaphysics of Barbecue: For Memorial Day, Renowned Grill Master Talks About the Magic of a Meal Done RightPlayDavid Loftus
WATCH Chef Adam Perry Lang

We have an old habit of assigning powers to food that have nothing to do with calories. The lotus-eaters found paradise in the act of sustenance. The Greeks convened feasts to calm and exalt the gods. Buddhist gurus gorge on oranges to dissipate bad karma. And there was that one apple that blew it for everybody.

Chef Adam Perry Lang has his own ideas of the mystical power of food. He sees it as a kind of lingua franca, a magical instrument that allows him to understand and be understood, no matter whom he's feeding or where he's eating.

"One of the greatest things, which I've found, and I think I've figured it out later on in life, was that food is a great connector to people," Perry Lang said. "I'm very social and I love to meet people. I realize that if I get into it, I can literally talk to [them], whether it's an executive from Microsoft or it's just a home cook in Thailand. It levels the field completely.

Get the recipes Perry Lang shared with Nightline HERE.

"So I realize that I can literally bypass the whole process of the awkwardness of kind of meeting somebody and literally be right there with them. We can communicate, even if we don't speak the same language. For me, that was the greatest gift."

Best known as a virtuoso practitioner of the barbecue arts, Perry Lang distilled his expertise through a variety of culinary traditions. Of particular note is his training in French cuisine. He started under Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque in New York City while he was still a student at the Culinary Institute of America. From Le Cirque he went to Daniel, and then to the hallowed Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris.

Perry Lang became an urban barbecue pioneer with his first restaurant, Daisy May's BBQ in New York. Recent projects include Carnevino, with partner chef Mario Batali and restaurateur Joe Bastianich in Las Vegas; and Barbecoa, with partner British chef Jamie Oliver in London. Perry Lang is the author, most recently, of "BBQ 25: The World's Most Flavorful Recipes, Now Made Foolproof."

With the approach of Memorial Day and its promise of a hundred million American grillouts, "Nightline" sought out Perry Lang for his take on life, his thoughts on food and -- most importantly -- his tips for BBQ.

Adam Perry Lang: Youth and Food

Perry Lang was born in Brooklyn, reared on Long Island and exported to Wisconsin for college. The standout memories of food from his youth, he said, involve trips to a French bakery. He grows so animated with the memory it's as if he's back there, tasting it all again.

"What was interesting was Sunday morning breakfast. It was a ritual," Perry Lang said. "I would get up with my father, and we would go to a place called La Patisserie, which was on the Miracle Mile [on Long Island]. It was a little French place, and we would get éclairs, and it was exotic!

"I mean, that was exotic back then to get all those petits fours, and we'd make hash brown potatoes, and put them into a paper bag and shake them to take the oils out. It was just like a whole ritual, and I loved it! The Sundays were the thing. The food wasn't like over the top, but it was really a time where the family got together. It just was special."

Adam Perry Lang: 'Let's Start a Business!'

When the future chef eventually took matters in the kitchen into his own hands, it was to make the rather unlikely jump from breakfast cereal to drumsticks wrapped in Italian ham.

"Both my parents, at some point, were working, so I would come home, and I graduated from having bowls of cereal as a snack to actually getting into cooking myself," Perry Lang said.

"So I would sit there and I would get skinless drum sticks, and wrap them in prosciutto, and I would just make all these recipes. And it was just kind of crazy; I don't know why I would gravitate towards it.

"I'd have sleepovers and we would make cakes and things, and then we'd say 'Hey, let's start a business!' And then we would bake a cake, and we would cut slices and we'd sell it. I think those were really special times with friends, family."

As he came to the end of his University of Wisconsin years, Perry Lang toyed with the idea of adding an "Esq." to his name. To the good fortune of pulled-pork lovers everywhere, he thought better of it. Thus ensued, perhaps, one of the great miracles in the history of undergraduate career counseling. The young man went to the career counselor and found a career.

"I was considering law school, wasn't really into it, wasn't passionate about it," he said. "So, it was recommended to me to go see the career counselor, who directed me to do this four-hour exam asking you all these questions. First thing that came up was chef. Then it was landscape architecture, advertising executive.

"And I was like, 'Chef, ha! That's something I could really get into.' And I really said, wow, I can, I can actually do this.

"Right from that point on, I went to go work at the best restaurant, which I was so fortunate, I was in Madison, Wisconsin, this place called L'Etoile, amazing, amazing place. Very seasonal, farmer-directed, amazing chef, pan sauces. I still remember the smells of that place, and [I] just walked in, I said, 'I'd like to work for you, you don't have to pay me.' I started doing desserts there, and whatever, and applied to Culinary Institute of America, and hit the ground running."

'I Didn't Have Any Role Models'

Perry Lang said becoming a chef broke with his expectations of what he might do.

"You know what it is, I think that why I didn't get it at first was because I didn't realize, and didn't give myself permission to do that," he said. ... "Being in the kitchen back then was not what it is today. I mean, it wasn't celebrated, I mean you would never see the chef.

"I didn't give myself permission to do it because basically no one around me was doing it. So I didn't have any role models within it. I couldn't imagine it would be possible. And the chef is not what it is today, in terms of being put out there in the spotlight.

"But I was still as passionate about it back then, as I am today, for none of the reasons of all the celebrity that kind of comes along with it. I mean it's great because it allows us to do things, but I just love to cook."

Adam Perry Lang: 'I Can't Believe I Got This Job!'

Many chefs speak with a kind of masochism of their love for the parts of the job that hurt: the cuts, the burns, the long hours, the frenzied service. Perry Lang is decidedly a member of this workaholic school.

"I was still going to school [the Culinary Institute of America] eight or nine hours a day, I was maybe two hours north of [New York] city, and I still wanted more," he said. "So, at the time, Le Cirque was the restaurant, so I decided to go down and visit the chef, Daniel Boulud. This was like 1991, and there was a whole line of people interviewing with him, and I walked in and I was like, 'Look I have no experience, but if you take me on board, by the time you hire me, I'll know where everything is and I'll be an asset. Don't pay me.' He actually looked up from his desk, and he's like, 'OK.'

"And I'm like, 'I can't believe it! I can't believe I got this job!' And there's just something about that kitchen, which I can't shake. I mean I feel as though there was just some magic, I don't know whether it was that it was actual magic happening at the time, which I think it was, or it was that, it was really this first, hard-core kitchen environment that I was now invited into, and I had to prove myself. So, I would go to culinary school, and then I would take the train down about three, four days a week and that's how I started with Daniel."

After working in the grand French kitchens of the day in New York -- Le Cirque, Daniel, Chanterelle -- Perry Lang got a work visa and traveled to Paris to work at the Michelin three-starred Guy Savoy.

"It wasn't so much to go learn a recipe in France, it was always like, when you're in these French kitchens with the other Frenchers, like, 'How could you possible understand? You're not French!'" he recalled. "And so it was like wow, I have to get there, and I have to work. So coming back it was the confidence that now I could cook toe-to-toe with anybody, and having that confidence now of just doing it, enjoying it, stepping back, not thinking about it, for me that was the greatest gift."

'Getting in That Zone'

Perry Lang said the allure of cooking for him has not faded even as the work he does on the business side intensifies.

"I was and I still am obsessed," he said. "I don't know what it is or what it is about it. I am obsessed with learning, knowledge, the addiction of the kitchen, the vibe, the buzz, everything about being in a restaurant kitchen. There's something about it. There's team-building, the camaraderie, the hardship, the hard work, its forging. It's a place of real comfort for me.

"I've made some of the best friends of my life in the kitchen because, you know, you're in there in the trenches and you're kind of fighting it out. It's not this glam thing where people talk about, and you see a lot of TV-type stuff with chefs, I mean which is cool, it's great, it has a whole... The thing I love most about it is getting in that zone, getting total stuff dumped on you, and just working your way out of it, and not only working your way out of it, but making things incredible."

Asked how he stayed motivated as a young chef, Perry Lang disclosed a secret ingredient: fear.

"You know, where I get my work ethic, I think out of fear," he said. "When I was going to high school, I was always a big dreamer, and I didn't do that well, and then I realized that -- I saw all my friends going to really great colleges, I said, 'Well, I don't really have the same choices.' And then from that point on I said, 'Wait a minute, you gotta get up.'

"And then it was really that moment of realization where the world doesn't do it for you, you have to do it, and I just snapped. And so it was almost like a fear -- fear is a tremendous motivator -- but it was kind of like a fear and passion that kind of drives me, I don't know. It was kind of a fear of just being able to do what I love to do.

"I've learned to embrace this feeling. This kind of, I call it fear, whenever I have, that gnawing pit in my stomach, instead of running from it, I embrace it. I know that right at that point, I'm about to experience something that's going to change my life and something different. I embrace it. Before I walk into a new kitchen -- and say 'Ugh I don't know anybody, can I do this, or do I know this?' -- instead of getting all immobilized by it, I kind of engage it, and I just kind of say I'm going to take that energy and redirect it. ...It's kind of like a fight-or-flight type of thing, and I choose to fight. It's just a pit in my stomach, whatever you want to call that, and that's my great motivator, I feel that pit and it just kind of drives me."

Adam Perry Lang: Shift to Barbeque

Perry Lang uses that word, "pit," as if unconscious of its echo in his field of expertise. He described how he came to BBQ.

"I have a great foundation from French tradition, classics, techniques, whatever you say. But you'd be surprised, even in these kitchens, what the cooks and the people and the chefs are looking for -- not fancy food, you're not eating lobster on your day off -- you learn, if you really get it, you learn to find beauty in just about everything, in everything you cook," Perry Lang said.

"I realized, later on, I needed a break. I had back surgery and I had to take some time off, so I worked as a private chef. Doing that took me to New Mexico, and I got to cook with cowboys. And modern-day cowboys, they're not just riding on horses -- which they do -- but they're like welding, doing fences, and four-by-fours, doing all sorts of cool stuff. And you say, 'Wow, you know, this is a cool life.' One of the cowboys had built one of these pits, he's from Texas, and I was like, 'Wow, that's so cool!' And I just got way into it. It was just crazy.

From Chef to Entrepreneur

Perry Lang said he could have gone into any number of specialties. The important thing was to start a business.

"And then somewhere along that line, I realized I'm an entrepreneur. I always wanted to go into business for myself. I knew that no matter how much I worked in French cuisine, I'd never be a great French chef. It just doesn't happen. I said how can I -- I am as passionate about Thai food, Italian food, French food, as I am about barbeque. Barbeque and beef, it's just, it's at hand.

"And that's what I've made my business out of, but the fact of the matter is that when it came time to say hey, what do you want to do as a business, I said well, I can create a real -- barbeque is something I can really work with, something I can do something with, something I can embrace.

Perry Lang said the way to get into serious cooking is to go your own way.

"What I would tell someone that's young and getting into it, I don't know -- it's their journey, it's their adventure," he said. "For me that's what I need to do, that's what makes me feel whole. My advice to anybody getting into it or doing it is to really just listen to their inner voice and let it take them, and to trust it. But I can't tell somebody else how their path should take them. For me I, need that. That makes me feel whole."

The chef is well-spoken. His preferred mode of communication, however, comes at the end of a fork.

"To me, food is this great communicator, this great bridge for me," he said. "So usually when I'm cooking, I'm kind of tasting, going along, and then after it's over, to cook, to eat the meal, it's like, 'It's done already?!' For me, I enjoy the taste of food and it's interesting to me, but I love food more for the process than I do the end result."