The nation's barbecue aficionados snickered when Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group first broached the idea of opening a barbecue restaurant just off Park Avenue South in Manhattan. But Meyer put the project, Blue Smoke, in the hands of Ken Callaghan, who did such a bang-up job that he is now credited with sparking an urban barbecue movement both in New York City and across the country. Callaghan, a self-taught New Jersey native, cooked at the Helmsley Palace Hotel and the Russian Tea Room before joining Union Square Cafe in 1993, where he soon worked his way up to executive sous chef. His title now: executive chef, partner and pit master of both Blue Smoke and its downstairs sister operation, Jazz Standard, He lives with his wife and two sons in Bergen County, NJ.
That's one cool Fender Stratocaster. Do you get to play it much?
Quite a bit. I've got a nice studio in my basement, and a few of my buddies still come over to jam. We played out a lot back in the day, but we've all got too many responsibilities to do that now.
Were you in a band before you began to cook?
I was in a band while I cooked. Union cooking jobs in that era were just 35 hours a week. So we could play every Friday and Saturday night. In fact, I was in two bands at the same time; that's how I met my wife.
What was the name of your group?
Street Legal. We did Dylan and Dead covers. I played lead guitar and sang — backup vocals and harmonies, not lead vocal.
It looks your refrigerator is ready to rock, too. What's with all these condiments?
I like pickled anything, so I've got pickled garlic, pickled chanterelles, pickled peppers, regular pickle varieties — everything. Then there's truffle oil, both white and black, and all kinds of barbecue sauce. You'll find 10 types of cheeses in the cheese drawer.
Do you cook much for your family?
Mainly on weekends. The boys are eight and five, so I keep it simple. They love ribs, particularly mine, and we make pizza together. The two of them eat more bacon than any human should.
What's your commute like from here to the city?
I drive 35 miles into Manhattan every day. It takes a half hour on a good day, 90 minutes on a bad one. It's hectic; that commute wears on you. But with my schedule, I need to be mobile in the city.
You run a busy restaurant and oversee New York's premier jazz room. Where else do you go?
USHG's commissary over on the West Side, for one. And then we're getting ready to open a restaurant called Blue Smoke Chop House in Greenwich, CT, this summer. So I've been driving up there.
Another barbecue place?
Barbecue will play a minor role; it's more of an open flame, wood-fired, grilling and rotisserie approach. We're going for a high-end, chef- and seasonal ingredient-driven operation. We hope to open in June.
June? Aren't you busy running the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party in early June? 100,000 people attend.
Yes, I'm a co-founder. We have a big booth, too.
Sound like you're in for one intense month! Good thing you've got that rock and roll attitude.