‘I think, being Filipino, as children we develop a palette for, like, a variety of flavors – we understand, you know, what flavor is. But it’s not this academic thing, or like, a chef thing. It’s just what you learned to eat from your mom or dad or whatever. It’s very Filipino to understand food as not just a passion but, like, a way of life. We take that ethic with us every time we produce our barbecue.’
Chris Cave and John Valenton are the minds behind MAC BBQ. They’re not a restaurant, a pop-up, or a project. They’re ‘strictly a barbecue team,’ students of what they describe as the ‘dogmatic’ traditions of American barbecue that are ultimately rooted in the deep South. In this way, MAC BBQ might better be understood as a cooperative, culinary pursuit shared by two longtime friends, rather than a straight-up food business.
‘We’re constantly trying to find the perfect cook … sort of. It’s more like, we’re always constantly trying to work on and think about our craft and find something that sticks and that people like – especially us – and then share it with friends and family. That’s really the best description of what we do, or why MAC BBQ exists,’ Chris says.
Boasting an educated pedigree that counts some of the barbecue world’s most established names (and Grand Champions) as mentors, John and Chris understand that truly authentic and contest-tier barbecue experiences can only come from the artisanal hands of tested pitmasters. You can literally taste the pair’s respect for the methods and practices that define American barbecue culture. Still, John carefully points to his Filipino childhood as his earliest exposure to the essential craftsmanship and details of true home cooking.
‘My family is super Americanized. None of us spoke Tagalog. But of course, we still ate Filipino food at home. Back in the day, though, there were no Filipino food stores around us, my mom made everything from scratch. Lumpia wrapper from scratch. Bagoong from scratch, grinding up leftover shrimp shells into a paste. She had to do that all by herself. So that sort of became the tradition and the culture around food in my household. We were all just really well-versed in how to work with care and attention in the kitchen,’ John says.
Although MAC BBQ can sometimes be spotted serving its take on tocino – and both John and Chris are lifelong fans of Filipino BBQ – their identity lies distinctly within the realm of traditional, American barbecue competitions, regardless of how far they decide to express their identity as a restaurant. And as a traditional barbecue endeavor, they know that progress along either front will require doing things right, and doing them right very, very often, in order to sustain a culture of excellence – something John says he finds by staying rooted in Filipino culture.
‘My mom’s style of cooking is all about routine – a pinch of this, a pinch of that. It’s not precise, but it works because she’s following her routine. With barbecue, there are so many idiosyncrasies, so many things that can happen because you're working with wildfire. At every stage, there is a right way of doing something, and there's a wrong way. We pride ourselves on never taking shortcuts, on never wavering from our routine – at all. Everything that our patrons receive is basically the best you can get – from prime meats to the best wood to ideal methods. And I think that’s another way we express our Filipino heritage – we really want the best experience for people eating our food,’ John says.
Written by Paul Barrera. Photos from MAC BBQ.