The smell of the burning wood and smoking meats wafting from his late grandfather’s barbecue pit still permeates the childhood memories of a California pitmaster. As a boy playing in the backyard of Mose and Alice Horn’s Fresno home, he paid little attention to the barbecue craft producing the unforgettable aromas and tastes.
“He would be cooking, and I’d go over there and check out what he was doing. During that time, we were more focused on when the food would be ready versus the process,” says pitmaster Matt Horn. “I look back now and wish I had asked him about the influence of barbecue in his life.”
The artistry of live-fire barbecue and history of Black pitmasters now fuel Horn and his culinary ambitions. As the long-awaited opening of Horn Barbecue nears in West Oakland, he remains in love with the process. “Once the wood really catches, and you have that beautiful flame, and then you start to smell the scent of the oak wood and all these earthy flavors, that’s the thing that consumes me,” Horn says. “I’m a part of the process. I’m a part of the experience with the fire.”
His family’s barbecue traditions are rooted in the gatherings relatives held over the decades in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana and Alabama. In 2015, Horn started experimenting with techniques, temperatures and tastes on the barbecue pits in his grandmother’s backyard. He wanted to replace an unfulfilling job in retail with a true calling. Connecting people through his cooking turned into a labor of love. “That was five years ago, and I still feel the same way. I’ve learned a lot, but that love and desire for excellence in barbecue are still there. It always will be because I will always remain a student of the craft,” Horn says.
Birth of a BBQ Dream
The barbecue student was dating the woman he would later marry when he began making three and a half-hour weekend trips from Los Angeles to Fresno. His grandfather’s barbecue pits awaited Horn in his grandmother’s backyard. He found peace in the long hours spent tending the fire and sleepless nights patiently watching the meats. “I decided I was going to really dive in and learn the craft of barbecue. Throughout those cooks, that obsession for the craft started to develop. It wasn’t intentional. It was just something that kind of consumed my life. It’s something that chose me,” says Horn.
The journey toward becoming a celebrated pitmaster took Horn and his grandfather’s barbecue pit north to the Central Valley. He and his wife Nina moved into her parents’ home after the couple had their first child, Matthew Horn, Jr. A visit to a local farmers market presented Horn with his first opportunity to sell his barbecue to the public. He filled out paperwork and spent his last $300 getting a barbecue stand set up. “By the grace of God, I was able to get a tent, a small cooler and a six-foot table,” says Horn. “I bought some chickens, some ribs, a couple of sides and some white bread. That’s how I started.”
Horn was so grateful to be selling his food, it felt like winning the Super Bowl to him every time a customer came into his tent. When the season ended for the farmer’s market, he had a new idea for doing pop-ups in the Bay Area. The pitmaster wanted to allow people to experience his barbecue without competition from other food vendors. “I reached out to maybe 20 breweries throughout the Bay Area, and only one responded back. That was in Oakland at Ale Industries. That’s how we began that journey of pop-ups,” Horn says.
The 15 to 20 people showing up at the farmers market tent and the first pop-up soon became long lines of customers eager to taste Horn’s barbecue. A food blogger posted photos of his food and attracted 3,000 followers. Horn warned his wife to expect the fervor over his Central Texas and Southern-influenced smoked meats to taper off. It never did. The pop-ups drew as many as 1,000 people who waited up to four hours or more for Horn’s barbecue cooked over California oak. “It made me realize that all the work I put in has paid off,” says the Oakland pitmaster. “I knew at that point that my product is consistent, and this is why people are responding like this.”
Pop-Ups to a Permanent Place
The founder of Horn Barbecue hauled Lucille, his 500-gallon, offset custom smoker, around the Bay Area from 2016 to 2019, firing up excitement among customers and exclamations from critics. Crowds showed up when he hosted pop-ups in Georgia, Texas, Wyoming, and a few other places out-of-state. The San Francisco Chronicle named Horn a Rising Star Chef, and Forbes and the Robb Report published articles acknowledging his barbecue mastery. “Early on in my life when I was struggling and really having a tough time, those are the magazines I was reading. It would inspire me to keep pushing, so it’s like a full-circle moment.” A moment Horn admits stirred up deep emotions. “It brought me to tears because it’s been a tough journey to get to this point.”
Horn and Nina, his wife and partner, soon realized their business had outgrown the pop-up model. They started searching for a location to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. It took months to land a spot at 2534 Mandela Parkway, not far from 17th and Center Streets, where the barbecue pop-ups first began attracting buzz. Horn used to drive by the tan and brown building that once housed Tanya Holland’s relocated Brown Sugar Kitchen. “It was a turnkey location, and it was supposed to be a quick situation for us to get in there,” Horn says. The hope of opening what the San Francisco Chronicle called “the most anticipated barbecue restaurant in America” in a few months became an endurance marathon that lasted more than a year.
One Challenge After Another
The novice restaurateur ran into a series of obstacles transforming the site into his vision for Horn Barbecue. It took months to figure out recommended shortcuts would not work for him. Negotiating the use of wood-burning grills with the city of Oakland also took longer than expected. Then the pandemic hit. How has Horn managed the challenges? “I’ve been doing it literally with a smile. If I didn’t have the faith that I have, if I didn’t have the willingness to learn patience, even more, it probably would be one of the worst experiences I’ve ever dealt with in my life.”
After the COVID-19 crisis shutdown indoor dining, the Oakland pitmaster followed his heart and found a way to express love. He launched the Horn Initiative and used his barbecue expertise to bring comfort to others. “I started feeding the community, feeding first responders, feeding police officers, and servicemen and women. We walked the homeless camps,” says Horn. “Even though I didn’t make any money from doing that, it allowed me to touch people and be a blessing to people, and that was perfectly fine with me.”
The Horn Initiative served more than 10,000 meals through pop-ups and hospital drop-offs. The charitable effort raised more than $20,000 in two months to help frontline employees and families during the pandemic. Horn also focused on establishing procedures and protocols required to prevent the coronavirus from spreading at his new restaurant. “We have this really cool outdoor deck. People will be able to come in and enjoy Horn Barbecue safely. It’s going to be a challenge with a mask on near the smoker and 500-degree firebox, but we have to do what we have to do to keep staff and everybody safe until we’re kind of out of the winds of this thing.”
Black Lives Matter
As if the building delays and pandemic restrictions were not enough, Horn coped with additional challenges. He dealt with the emotional stress of George Floyd’s death and other evidence of racial injustice flooding social media platforms. “My focus is my business and what we are doing, but even in the midst of that, I’ll never turn my head to what is going on in our country. We all grew up with that,” Horn says.
The head of Horn Hospitality Group knows from both positive and negative experiences with police officers that they are not all racist or using excessive force. But the Los Angeles native once had a cop point his gun and threaten to kill him when Horn made the mistake of reaching for his phone during a routine traffic stop. The husband and father of two finds the stress from past and present racial violence exhausting. “I’m not doing okay because I look at my children. I have a son that is four. At what point does this innocent little kid become a threat to someone else? I have to deal with that as a parent.”
It bothers Horn that his mother feels she has to warn him to be careful despite his business success. That his wife Nina doesn’t know with certainty that police would never shoot him as Jacob Blake was shot in front of his children. He cannot avoid social media nor forget what Blacks have experienced for centuries. “My grandparents used to tell us stories. They didn’t have Instagram, where you see dead bodies on the streets. They saw the bodies hanging from the trees, men and women.”
Horn’s spirit is lifted by the many people and companies he sees trying to make a difference. He continues to push forward on opening the new Horn Barbecue on September 26. “I was taught by my grandparents and my family that whenever there is a storm, we don’t focus on the storm, we weather the storm. These are the same principles that I teach my children, you finish what you start.”
Honoring Black Pitmasters
A photo of Matty Jr. and his dad in front of a barbecue smoker represents another lesson Horn wants to pass on to his son and daughter. That is the historical contributions of Black pitmasters. His research reinforced his knowledge of barbecue and the traditions of smoking meat dating back to slavery in the U.S. and the Caribbean. “I have a responsibility to do my part and tell the stories that aren’t being told. I have a production company we are starting for that purpose.” Horn’s No Art Form Company will carry the torch for Black barbecue pioneers such as Kansas City’s Henry Perry and Gates family and modern masters Rodney Scott, a James Beard Best Chef: Southeast Howard Conyers and the Jones sisters of Jones Bar-B-Q in Kansas.
Food scholars Adrian Miller and Michael Twitty are leaders in efforts to preserve and promote what Black pitmasters contributed to American barbecue. In an article for The Guardian, Twitty wrote, “If America is about people creating new worlds based on rebellion against oppression and slavery, then barbecue is the ideal dish. It was made by enslaved Africans with inspiration and contributions from Native Americans struggling to maintain their independence.”
The Barbecue Hall of Fame has inducted a few Blacks. In 2020, Desiree Robinson became the first African-American woman to be honored as the matriarch of the legendary Cozy Corner in Memphis. John Bishop and Christopher Stubbfield were inducted posthumously in 2019. Some writers and competition judges recognize that Black people made barbecue cool long before white chefs opened urban BBQ joints, which Horn appreciates. “I have noticed a lot more stories being told, which is important. Anytime I do an interview or anything like that, I’m grateful for myself. But I want to help give opportunities to other people who look like me.”
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Horn plans to promote Black barbecue traditions in his restaurant with cooking and conversations. His menu will offer slow-cooked, from-scratch specialties inspired by influences from Texas, the South and the Bay Area. The tender beef brisket, homemade hot links, spareribs, chicken, lamb, whole hog and smoked oxtails that built his reputation will be served. Customers will want to add some Southern sides, including mac-and-cheese, collard greens, black-eyed peas, potato salad, coleslaw and cornbread as well as his wife Nina’s banana pudding and other desserts. “The way I’m cooking BBQ, we don’t use gas. We’re not using ovens. We don’t use microwaves and that sort of stuff. It’s just wood, fire and it’s me. It’s a labor of love,” Horn adds. “I never claim to have the best barbecue. But one thing I do know is that my attention to detail and my process are second to none.”
Building a Legacy
Giving credit to the team of staff and supporters who helped Horn become a Bay Area sensation is one way the pitmaster expresses his gratitude. He stays humble while he works on expanding his vision with his partners in the Horn Hospitality Group. One of the new concepts slated for next year is KowBird. More than 200 people showed up when Horn tested the chicken sandwich concept at a pop-up in Oakland. “It’s because of a love of chicken, Southern chicken. It’s bringing people back to their grandmother’s kitchen table or the food their mother prepared for them. It’s a tribute to that.”
With two concepts in the works, Horn is well on his way to fulfilling a hospitality mission he defines as more than good food. “Hospitality is the ability to provide an unexpected experience while transporting guests into an ethos of comfort through love. I want to give people an experience every time they eat my food,” Horn says.
Building a business to pass on matters more to Horn than merely making money. “I want, of course, to leave a long-lasting legacy with Horn Barbecue. When young boys and girls and even adults look at what I’m doing, I can inspire them and maybe the next generation of pitmasters.” And he hopes that the next generation of barbecue masters will include his son Matthew and daughter Leilani. “I want to bring them up in the business, groom them in the business so they can have an appreciation for the hard work that went into it and what has been built. If they have a desire to carry on the legacy, that’s a beautiful thing.”
If his children choose different careers, Horn hopes someone else within his family will take over the effort to build generational wealth someday. For now, the Oakland pitmaster is determined to never take his customers for granted. “I have responsibility day in and day out to give them my absolute best, and that’s what I’m committed to doing. They won’t get any less from me. In my eyes, I’m not just giving people barbecue. What I’m giving them is an expression of my love, and they’re getting a piece of that with every bite that they take.”