The year 2020 might be characterized as a time of colossal change by people everywhere. The lives lost, businesses closed and jobs eliminated altered the daily existence so many of us took for granted. In Austin, Texas, a respected chef with almost two decades of fine-dining experience embraced a pandemic-driven need to go in a different direction.
“We had to let go of 95% of our kitchen staff and the same number of the front of house staff. When your revenue and margins shrink, what kind of quality can you do if you’re scrapping for every nickel?” says Damien Brockway, chef and owner of Distant Relatives. “Then you start seeing all these restaurants that you love and respect start closing around you rapidly. You see other people leaving the industry, the industry I’ve been in since I was a young man of 15.”
Brockway refused to let the restaurant industry’s financial setbacks turn him away from a profession he loves. He chose to pursue his craft with much lower overhead costs than those at Jester King Brewery, where he ran culinary operations and is still a partner.
Distant Relatives opened in February of this year on the parking lot of Leal’s Tire Shop in East Austin. The former fine-dining chef sold meats by the pound from his smokehouse and grill on wheels. “Going into a trailer is my way of doing something unique and hopefully inspirational for other folks who want to continue cooking. That was my motivation, representing our industry and coming out on the other side,” says the pitmaster.
In a matter of weeks, Distant Relatives attracted media attention and high praise from diners and reviewers. Brockway’s smoked meats and sides put it on Time Out’s list of 21 Best Restaurants in the World. In July, Eater Austin put the trailer on its list of Hottest New Restaurants. Matthew Odam, the restaurant critic for the Austin American-Statesman, called the smokehouse “one of the best and most interesting dining options” of 2021. “It’s definitely nice to get positive reviews. It definitely helps to keep the energy up, to keep pushing forward and maintain a certain level of quality and standards.”
The accolades tend to raise the expectations of customers, and Brockway never wants to disappoint them. He views Distant Relatives as an elevation of a rustic cooking style that replaced his fine-dining tweezers when he joined Jester King. “We started doing more of the old-school, open-pit kind of barbecue of whole goods. That was the most enjoyable for me. I loved working with wood and live fire and always have. It’s totally part of the story of what we are doing and what we are inspired by as well. It’s a cornerstone of it,” Brockway says.
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Surprisingly, the restaurateur shied away from calling Distant Relatives a barbecue restaurant. However, the chef-owner accepted that diners saw his food trailer as a place to buy some excellent barbecued meats. “It doesn’t say that in the name. It’s just built into the overarching genre that we were speaking to, and it kind of evolved into we’re selling meat by the pound with all the garnishes.”
Homework on Heritage
Chef Brockway spent considerable time around barbecue pits long before he opened Distant Relatives. He grew up cooking in a restaurant family. He laughs at the memory of the kitchen competitions that developed between his mother and grandmother. “I would always look forward to whenever she would be cooking because it would get my mother fired up and taking it seriously. She would not have grandma taking over her house for the day. I always enjoyed that, the smells and being a helper.”
The Connecticut native’s mother, Louise Brockway, went back to college at night when he was 12. “My father, I love him, but he’s a terrible cook. We made a deal that if he stopped at the grocery store on the way home, I would give him a list from the cookbooks or boxes of recipe cards, and I started cooking.”
The chef’s father, Andrew, suffered through some awful meals with his son but never complained. “He knew it made me happy, and he knew I just wanted to make him happy. So he was always supportive. He never would get mad at me if I burned it.”
A dishwashing job in a restaurant at age 15 set Brockway on the path to making his livelihood in professional kitchens. He trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. The chef sharpened his skills cooking at One Market Restaurant in San Francisco. He joined Uchiko in Austin before becoming the executive chef at Counter 3. Five.VII, which has closed.
Brockway’s culinary perspectives began to merge with a cultural journey in 2018. Following a conversation with a friend from Zimbabwe, the chef and pitmaster began researching his own genealogy. He discovered connections to ancestors from Nigeria, Mali and Cameroon.
“They are distant relatives, and I didn’t really know much about them. Now I’m starting to uncover this thread of how they got here and how I got to where I am,” he explains. “From that level, that is the meaning of Distant Relatives. I’m inspired by being an African-American, but also by looking back at our ancestors that came from these African countries.”
The restaurateur’s research eventually led him to award-winning Black food historians and authors such as Michael Twitty, Jessica B. Harris and Adrian Miller. He read about enslaved Africans establishing American barbecue methods in “Virginia Barbecue: A History” by Joseph R. Haynes.
The old recipes and techniques Brockway uncovered inspire his approach to what he describes as modern African-American cuisine. “Instead of black pepper, we’re using grains of paradise in most applications. We’re bringing in the flavors of nutmeg and allspice that came from the West Indies, as well as the African bird’s eye chilies,” he adds.
“We’re inspired by the flavors from the very, very old barbecue. And then we’re using a piece of equipment that is different than what would have been used originally. We had to change our techniques and applications of these flavors to get the desired results.”
The offset smoker used at Distant Relatives is a piece of equipment that first became popular in Texas back in the 1950s. The restaurant’s owner purposefully chooses to put pecan wood in his smoker, not the typical post oak. “We use pecan because it is a much lighter wood, but it is one of the historical hardwoods from the areas where barbecue originated in the United States. That lighter, sweeter smoke allows spices to shine through a little bit more. The post oak is very distinct and very strong,” says Brockway.
A combination of spices and cooking traditions from the African diaspora and American South give Distant Relatives’ smoked beef, pork, lamb and chicken complex layered flavors. All the sauces are based on the old-school mops made with butter, vinegar and spices. Enslaved Africans and African Americans slathered the slurry on their pit barbecue. “We go with the dry rub on all the meat that gets smoked with pecan. Then we took the flavor of what the mop should be and put it on the side. When the barbecue is finished, then you dip it in the mop.”
Brockway adds that his restaurant’s sides are creative takes on past traditions, whether from his family or African ancestors. An example is the burnt ends and black-eyed peas. “One of the favorite things my mother, grandmother and great aunt used to make was obviously the black-eyed peas. They used to make it very classic with the ham hocks. But at the trailer, we use our spice blend, and then it has onions, tomatoes, ginger and garlic. We use brisket burnt ends instead of ham hocks, and we cook it all down in the drippings from the pork shoulders.”
The chef-owner relies on local farms for the seasonal produce he uses for the sides. Pickled vegetables such as green tomatoes and okra often arrive as garnishes on sandwiches and sides. Fresh corn grits are a new addition to the menu. “We have this fresh corn pulp basically, and we cook it down with a little bit of coconut milk until all the starches start to congeal and the flavors meld together. You end up with this sweet, savory dish that has the texture of grits but is made from fresh corn,” Brockway explains. “Now you see why we call it modern African American food. It’s these really old things that are getting elevated with these subtle nuances, touches and layers.”
Making a Move
The rapid rise in the popularity of dishes Distant Relatives features created a dilemma for the chef-owner. Fans of the food filled up the lot at the tire shop, making it difficult for people to park. Although Brockway is grateful for the support he got from Leal’s, including daily lunch orders from the shop’s employees, he moved the smokehouse to a new location. In July, the chef and his team started serving customers from the trailer’s spot in the outside food court of Meanwhile Brewing Company in southeast Austin. “Moving to the brewery and actually having covered seating, access to coffee, tea and cocktails definitely brought more people because it is a little less austere to eat there.”
New patrons are joining Distant Relatives’ loyal regulars at Meanwhile Brewing. “Why wouldn’t they love access to sitting inside or outside if they want? There’s a playground for children, and dogs are allowed. It’s like a park setting with lots of trees,” Brockway says.
Three other people work with the chef and contribute to the uniqueness of the menu offerings. His wife Kornpawee Brockway runs the window and takes orders as the service coordinator. Her Thailand heritage influenced the slaw made from green mangoes that food critics adored. The pitmaster describes how it is made. “To make this slaw, we apply this Thai technique of taking under-ripe fruit, shredding it, pounding it and then adding traditional slaw things. We use onion, garlic, coconut vinegar, a light chili sauce with the spice blend and a little salt. That’s what we put on our barbecued pork sandwich, and it’s also a side.”
Brockway’s junior sous chef Wesley Robinson lived in Saudi Arabia and North Africa as a child. The golden rice porridge on the menu is an heirloom recipe Robinson’s mother used to commemorate Juneteenth. Brockway describes the dish. “The rice is cooked down with brown sugar caramel. Then we add tamarind paste to that and layer coconut milk in it and has an African bird chili and mango relish that goes on top.”
Assistant pitmaster Omari Mackey helps Brockway flip perceptions about what barbecue can be in Texas. “So we put the brisket on. It gets treated with the grains of paradise and salt. We sprits it with white vinegar and Worcestershire sauce, which is classic and part of the story,” says Brockway.
Distant Relatives’ new location generates about 700 transactions a week compared to around 250 a week before the move. The biggest sellers are the brisket, pulled pork sandwich, spareribs and chicken. Almost everyone orders the black-eyed peas, porridge, smoked peanuts and pickles.
Committed to Cooking, Culture and Community
Browsing through the Austin restaurant’s website provides some additional insights into Brockway’s passion for the culinary history of African Americans and the African diaspora. He discusses how his commitment to cooking, culture and community are all part of the story he tells through food. A quote from a renowned African American scientist and inventor reveals more:
“There is probably no subject more important than the study of food.” -George Washington Carver
“I devoted my entire life to foodservice, not that I don’t know anything else. I feel that nutrition and food are the backbones of society. We all know George Washington Carver felt the same way,” Brockway adds.
The Austin chef sees community outreach as part of his responsibility. He and his team have participated in several projects meant to improve people’s lives. A fundraiser with Casa Marianella benefitted immigrants needing shelter and support services. The NAACP’s Education & Legal Defense Fund received proceeds from a pop-up event. The ACLU got help from money raised at Suerte, an award-winning Mexican restaurant. Merchandise sales on the Distant Relatives barbecue truck supports fellow chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph’s scholarship program.
For several reasons, Brockway encountered significant challenges trying to raise funds for his food trailer business in 2020. Lenders wanted no part of a new food and beverage venture. He also could not qualify for government stimulus funds because Distant Relatives opened about one year after the pandemic struck. “Everything that we did to finance it, I had to go off my own personal creditworthiness. We did one personal loan. We did get a grant from a local food and beverage organization called The Austin Food & Wine Alliance,” he says.
The $5,000 grant was backed by Tito’s Handmade Vodka, a local company. The restaurateur hopes to get more financial support when he is ready to open Distant Relatives in a building. “My dream is to get into a building where we can start doing more composed dishes. We can start having it served on artisanal pottery made by a community person.” And continue the creativity already demonstrated. “I feel the trailer aspect is building the baseline with people trusting and starting to understand what we are trying to do.”
Now that Distant Relatives is in the black and paying off debts, Brockway can focus on doing what he loves. That is, making people happy and getting them excited about African American cuisine past and present. “We’re shooting for Black excellence in celebrating and being proud of our contributions to the food community in the United States and all around the world.”