Brisket king pursues sausage dreams
Wandering Que stuffs artisanal meat in New Jersey
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
No liquid smoke, right?” An employee has just come into the lunchroom of the meat processing plant in the Ironbound section of Newark with the question. Ari White looks up and answers, “No. Hell no.” He stops for a moment, then stands up and calls out, once more for emphasis, “Yo, Hell no.”
The lesson: Never offer a Texas barbecue man artificial smoke.
Say what you want, but you can’t question White’s culinary prowess. Among other accolades, he won the coveted grand prize in the 2016 New York City Brisket King competition. And if you’ve waited on one of those lines that snake around a Wandering Que booth at a New York City street fair, or sampled the food at a West Orange pop-up, you already know.
Certified kosher by the Star-K, White, the Wandering Que pit boss, has been called the pioneer of kosher barbecue. He’s cooked brisket with Texas pit master Wayne Mueller for victims of Hurricane Harvey (“I never thought I’d be slinging 1,000 pounds of pork ribs and brisket”), and on the same trip, cooked and ate the only kosher brisket ever consumed at the famed Franklins Barbecue in Austin, Texas.
If it seems the El Paso-born and raised culinary Yid of the moment is blowing up, he said, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” The Riverdale resident just moved his Wandering Que headquarters across the river to Hackensack, and he plans to become more than just a Sunday pop-up shop phenomenon: He’s going to take his Wandering Que trailer on the road five days a week to synagogues, day schools, JCCs, festivals, and street fairs.
But that’s just the beginning. Now he’s pushing the frontier on kosher sausages. After all, he said, “The sausages on the market sucked.”
For the last year he’s been perfecting the packaged sausages, and the first six flavors hit grocery stores this fall, including New Jersey’s Seasons, Grand and Essex, Cedar Market, and New York’s Gourmet Glatt. He’s already selling 2,500 pounds a week and hopes to double that load, and soon he will close a deal at ShopRite. Once a smokehouse is installed at Prime Meat Processing in Newark, the co-packing plant, he’ll add nine more flavors.
He invited NJJN to join him for a recent production run at the plant, offering a tour, a taste, and what he believes sets his sausages apart from the pack. In a word? Control. He closely supervises every step of production and tastes every batch of every run. “Taste is quality control,” he said.
Another secret of his success, he said, is that during high school, he acknowledged going “a little off the derech,” and sampled some Texas barbeque that, to be sure, lacked proper rabbinic supervision. Our taste buds can thank those reckless years, when he fell in love with chorizo.
He will tell you that most sausages are figured on a 70 percent beef, 30 percent fat ratio. “Too lean will be a really hard dog. Too fatty, and it’s going to melt,” he said.
He calls his sausages “artisanal” due to the labor-intensive process. First, any cartilage or bone fragments must be cut from the meat and then ground. One thing he’s adamant about is that sausages are not glorified hot dogs. They should never be liquefied. Then, the spices get mixed in, and after that, the mixture is pumped into natural casings, not plastic. “Everyone else cooks in plastic. That is the polar opposite of what I am trying to do,” he said.
Regarding all the extra steps, he said, “I fully realize it will make me the most expensive guy on the shelf — and I’ll wear that like a badge of honor. I put a lot of love into these and I think it shows.”
White, who just turned 39, never imagined himself a purveyor of cooked flesh. He was “a finance guy,” successfully running West Coast sales for a music corporation.
Life sent a curveball in 2004 when he and his wife, whom he describes as a “militant vegetarian,” invested their wedding money in a kosher deli near Yeshiva University. The intention was for them to be silent backers, but when the individual who was supposed to be running day-to-day operations backed out at the last minute, White put on an apron and never looked back.
He left the restaurant when the first of his four children was born in 2007 to start Gemstone Catering; and in 2010 his barbecue took off, almost by accident. In response to investors urging him to open a restaurant, he said, “I capitulated and agreed to do a five-day barbecue pop-up.”
He sold out on day three and by the fifth day the number of customers tripled. He realized he had tapped a new market. Afterward, he said he sat with his wife, “just trying to wrap our heads around what had just transpired, and I knew at that point that I needed to run with this.” Now pulled brisket sliders are on every menu in the tri-state area.
Meanwhile, back at the plant, it’s time to hang the sausages for curing. He demonstrates by tossing the German bierwurst over a metal roller to be hung in a large metal, rectangular container. As he finishes the first, another is hung and then another. He pulls a grate to cover the bottom, just in case one falls, before the whole contraption moves into the cooking room. There, it will be heated gradually until temperature probes reveal the sausages have reached optimal temperature. At that point, they go into a freezer where the temperature is minus 40 degrees; the sausages cool instantaneously.
The bierwurst takes a simple approach to sausage, using as few ingredients as possible to showcase a single flavor. Some of his other sausages pack a bolder punch. As he describes his Italian sausages, “The fennel is way out there and there’s wine and oregano, and it comes out swinging.”
Upon sampling the bierwurst, the flavors hit your palate one at a time: first, the meat, and all those juices; then, pepper, mustard seed, cinnamon, and something sweet that White later identified as mace.
As White was cutting into the sausages, Altarek Cummings, who works in shipping and receiving at the plant, made his way into the kitchen. White coaxed him into trying some. “It’s nice and juicy and tender,” Cummings said. “When you bite into something and that juice hits your mouth, it says a lot.”