Unique Comfort Food

Photo by Chris Casella

Hog Heaven

It’s hard to take celebrity chefs seriously—the rub is right there in the title.

They seem to be celebrities first, chefs as an afterthought. For every humble hero grinding it out in the kitchen, there’s a loudmouth huckster with frosted tips and Charlie Sheen’s wardrobe willing to slap his signature schlock on anything for a quick buck.

James Anderson of Ray Ray’s Hog Pit is the genuine article, not some farm-to-fork phony made of marketing flim-flam.

Crouched in his Carhartts, clanging on the drain of a hog trough, Anderson isn’t exactly the foreboding figure of local legend you might expect. I’d followed the waft of smoked meat up the hill to the barn of his Granville farm unnoticed. When I called out his name, he turned and stood with an outreached hand, his weathered features and unruly beard far from the face I first met more than a decade ago.

We’d originally met as work-a-day pixel pushers, each hungry for something more. Anderson was plying his photography background at a local design studio whose owner happened to hold a small stake in my long-since-defunct tech startup.

Those were the salad days and we looked the part, complete with button-down collars and khaki pants—back when we were both better acquainted with the business end of a razor. While I was proselytizing the inevitable pervasiveness of wireless Internet access, he was apparently plotting to put Columbus on the map as a credible barbeque destination.

Though neither of us got rich from our foresight, it’s safe to say finding reliable Wi-Fi in any given city is now a whole lot easier than finding reliable barbeque. Perhaps that’s the cornerstone of Ray Ray’s defiant allure in a digital age when damned near everything is a commodity. While the rest of the world is getting faster and more complicated, Anderson’s approach is still slow and simple.

“My dad was a barbeque guy his whole life. He died around the time I started cooking professionally,” Anderson explained. “I never got to cook with him, but I was always inspired by him. That’s actually what motivated me to pursue barbeque.”

Even those who rave about Ray Ray’s must admit Anderson is an enigma of culinary contradiction. The endgame of many food trucks is opening a restaurant. Anderson already did that—three times in fact—and hated it so much, he went back to the curb.

“We had decent sales, but the overhead was ridiculous—it was brutal. It was hell,” he said.

Before there was Ray Ray’s Hog Pit there was Smackie’s Smokehouse—a barbeque joint with the ease of Chipotle and an emphasis on America’s most notable comfort food. It also happened to be spitting distance from my neighborhood on the Northeast side. On a good day, if the wind blew just right, I could open my windows and fill the whole house with the smell of brisket. True story.

The build-out on the first Smackie’s near New Albany was costly. The rehabbed Bob Evans on Cleveland Avenue that followed was bigger, but no better. The strip mall spot that followed spelled the end. Meat isn’t the only thing that sometimes gets burned in the barbeque business.

“It was a bitter moment,” Anderson said. “People who only know Ray Ray’s and stand in line every week think I’ve always been this huge success, but I’ve tasted failure.”

From a sales standpoint, Smackie’s was hardly a failure—just painful, unintended market research. Luckily, Anderson refused to dwell on the downsides of running a traditional restaurant and refocused on what he loved most with a “one man, one smoker” concept at the intersection of Pacemont and High in Clintonville.

“With a food truck, there’s none of the brick-and-mortar bullshit,” Anderson said. “It was profitable from day one. By week two, I couldn’t do it all. ‘One man, one smoker’ lasted about one week.”

Anderson kept the food truck lean, and only the best sellers made the cut. With two hands, you can both count and eat everything he sells. Ray Ray’s really doesn’t have much of a menu, rather more like an abbreviated itinerary of essential eating.

Restaurants are also run on metrics, another difference in Ray Ray’s intuitive operation. Like his ribs, he relies on the expertise only afforded by experience. If everything sells out every day, he’s obviously doing it right. James Anderson is the Steve Jobs of swine. F*ck focus groups—he already understands what you want, even if you don’t know it yet.

But none of that was why I stand in a barn shaking hands with a guy whose food truck was parked nearly an hour away…

Or maybe it’s exactly why.

The spot where I stood was the epicenter of Anderson’s next series of unlikely endeavors. He still has the sense of a photographer, and if the truck was his close-up, then the farm is his wide shot.

“The barn was built in 1920 and was an old hog barn originally,” Anderson explained, pointing to the rafters salvaged from wooden, Prohibition-era road signs still bearing slivers of logos and brightly colored paint. “Eventually we’ll turn this into a venue to do harvest dinners, convert this commercial kitchen into a licensed kitchen, and put seating up here in the loft.”

Anderson anticipates bringing in a mix of local chefs and local breweries and distilleries, and he has the connections and credibility to pull it off. His livestock was recently featured on the menu at New York’s acclaimed James Beard House, an invitation-only honor and a first for Columbus. Anderson joined local chef Bill Glover from Gallerie Bar & Bistro to prepare the six-course feast celebrating the best of Ohio. (Anderson and Glover’s kinship extends beyond the kitchen. The pair are also hunting partners.)

“I’m trying to get a butcher shop in the North Market. They’re really pushing for fresh vendors, so I’d love to be in by March,” noted Anderson. “It will be Anderson Farms Heritage Breed Hogs and a charcuterie called The Hungarian Butcher. I’ll be selling them raw, but on the other side we’ll be selling salumi—lonza, guanciale, year-and-a-half-old prosciutto, different kinds of bacon,” he explained. “There really isn’t much in the way of charcuterie in Columbus. The demand is very high, but the supply is very low.”

After admiring the smell of the 100 or so racks of ribs rotating on his smoldering meat carousel, we hopped in a glorified golf cart and headed over the hill of the 15-acre farm to see the heritage hogs Anderson has been quietly acquiring for more than a year.

“My goal is to raise the best pork in the world, so I brought in all of these heritage breeds to do that,” Anderson explained as we drove through the meadow bottom overlooking a dozen different breeds of hogs spread across the open field. “There are tons of variables. I spent a year studying breeds and their characteristics before I even started buying. Within the year, I’ll have enough to breed all that I need myself.”

If there is the slightest glint of celebrity to be found in Anderson, it’s in the way he talks about his hogs. He describes their countries of origin, coloring, and distinguishing attributes—you could easily mistake him for a well-heeled auto enthusiast detailing the pedigree of his prized collection of exotic cars.

But there is no vanity here. Anderson has managed to assemble a sustainable hog farm from scratch with the precision of a racing team. Each breed has its own diet: a blend of grazing and grain “mash” locally sourced from Watershed, Seventh Son, and Lineage—leftovers from the distilling and brewing process that Anderson puts back into the food chain.

“This furry one over here is probably my specialty. It’s a Mangalitsa. These are the ones I’ll be raising for The Hungarian Butcher,” Anderson said. “I’m one of the only farms to have them in the Midwest. The best pig for salumi is a Mangalitsa because it has a 5-inch back fat and a 5-inch belly fat. It’s very marbled—perfect for charcuterie.”

The hogs receive a cocktail of dairy, sheep and goat milk, which also comes from the farm. Anderson credits this diverse diet with yielding the balance of fat and flavor top chefs seek but rarely find. The farm also raises “Buckeye” chickens and Champagne d’Argent rabbits, which are so highly coveted a single chef currently buys his entire stock.

His next project pulls his past, present, and future together literally under one roof: Ray Ray’s BBQ School at Anderson Farms.

Imagine a baseball fantasy camp, but for barbeque—and at the end of the weekend, everyone gets to eat their gloves. But this is so much more than simply playing catch with a major league has-been.

“It will be a very intense and personal experience,” he explained. “They’ll learn to make rubs, the science behind ingredients, which wood, how to cut it, how much bark to leave, whether to soak it, how long to smoke it.”

“We’ll have some individual classes bringing in experts in various farm fields. Then there will be a three-day course—which is BBQ camp—where guests can stay in the farmhouse Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” he continued. “There will also be a masters course, which is eight five-hour classes over eight straight weeks offering an even deeper understanding of the fundamentals of barbeque.”

Anderson launched an online campaign through Barnraiser.com to cover the necessary renovations to the farmhouse and overall improvements to the property.

“It’s the only farm-based crowdfunding site, so it’s tough,” he admitted. “It’s not really a fundraiser. We were just trying to get people to pre-book their classes.” Anderson takes the struggle in stride, just as he always has. “We’re going to fund it through a small business loan instead. The details will be different, but the goal is the same.”

But none of this probably would have happened if not for Ray Ray’s success and the ability to pull back to the origins of barbeque—the farm itself.

“I’ve waited for the right staff, until I felt I had people who have barbeque culture in their blood,” he explained. “I’ve had lots of opportunities to grow Ray Ray’s—people in my face wanting me to add more trucks or open a restaurant again.

“I hand-select my employees from my customers. They’re passionate about barbeque,” Anderson revealed. “I can teach them the technical side, but I can’t teach them personality and character. And that’s why I hire them. Almost everyone I hire has zero food service experience.”

Derek Obuchowski is an exception, though his apprenticeship under Anderson at the smoker is an outdoor art far from formal kitchen craft. Alex Hagerty and Emma McCarron have also allowed Anderson to focus on the farm by managing operations at the food truck with the same steady hand that built the brand.

“The only advertising we have is word of mouth. I want to hand you something delicious and start a conversation,” Anderson said. Ray Ray’s doesn’t do discounts through Groupon or Living Social, fearing it would also undermine the brand. (Sorry, coupon carnivores.) He recalled once hearing about a Craigslist rental ad that listed among the amenities “walking distance to Ray Ray’s Hog Pit.” That’s one way to know you’ve found the right spot.

“For food trucks, no one has a lot of parking,” explained Anderson. “Ace of Cups has 47 parking spots, craft beer, and indoor seating. I love Clintonville, and Ray Ray’s will probably be there forever. But the farm is still home.”

“I’m a city kid newly planted in the country,” Anderson admitted. “With barbeque, there’s a lot of equipment—trailers, smokers, big stacks of wood. I looked like a hillbilly living in the middle of the city and it just didn’t work.

“Our house is at the farm. Our office is at the farm. Our kids work on the farm,” Anderson said with conviction. “Now, it’s all connected.”

For more on hours, new limited-time menu items, or BBQ School, visit rayrayshogpit.com.

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