The Art of Barbecue: A Conversation with Ruben Santana

Ruben Santana, owner, pitmaster, Bark Barbecue

Barbecue enthusiasts rejoice! Today, we delve into the world of Ruben Santana, the mastermind behind Bark Barbecue. This Texas-style barbecue pop-up, infused with Dominican Republic flavors, has captured the hearts and stomachs of many. Join me as we uncover the secrets behind Santana’s journey and his unique approach to the art of barbecuing.

A Journey Fueled by Passion

Ruben Santana, a Queens, New York native, discovered his love for barbecuing in his very own backyard. Previously an avid griller during family gatherings, it was a suggestion from a loved one that sparked his curiosity about the world of barbecue. Santana’s interest piqued when he learned about the renowned smoked Texas-style barbecue at Franklin’s Barbecue in Austin, Texas. What drew him in was the soul he felt in every bite, and he knew he had to bring that same flavor back to the Big Apple.

The Artistry of Bark Barbecue

Santana’s passion for barbecue extends beyond a simple hobby. With expertise in cooking various cuts of meat like brisket, pork ribs, beef ribs, turkey, and the beloved Dominican-style chicharron, Santana showcases his skills as both an owner and pit master. His secret? A special touch of hickory wood and traditional offset smokers. Every weekend, Santana prepares around 40 to 50 briskets, smoking an impressive 1,000 pounds of meat on his 1,000- and 500-gallon smokers.

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Recently, Santana had the opportunity to share his techniques and secrets with attendees at the SAS Explore conference. As a barbecue enthusiast myself, I was lucky enough to catch up with Santana after the event to learn more about his artistic approach to barbecuing.

“I believe cooking is an art form, and each dish is your painting.” – Ruben Santana, owner, pit master, Bark Barbecue

Texas vs. New York: A Battle of Barbecue Styles

Texas-style barbecue and New York-style barbecue may seem worlds apart. Santana highlights the stark contrast between the two styles. In New York, barbecue is often seen as high-end fast food, with assembly-line service and a focus on efficiency. Meanwhile, in Texas, barbecue is a way of life—a religion. Santana describes the difference as the soul found in Texas-style barbecue, rooted in authentic traditions and an unwavering passion. It’s an experience that cannot be replicated elsewhere.

More Than Barbecue

Beyond his barbecuing expertise, Santana’s life revolves around his role as a father to two children. Juggling the demands of his labor-intensive barbecue business and family life requires careful time management. Santana finds solace in various hobbies, such as reading, playing chess, hitting the gym, and even conquering the Rubik’s Cube.

From Pop-ups to Global Recognition

While Bark Barbecue is currently focused on pop-up events within New York City, Santana dreams of expanding his reach beyond the five boroughs. With a strong international following, guests from all over the world travel to taste his mouthwatering creations. Santana’s goals extend beyond Texas-inspired barbecue. He is open to incorporating new techniques and flavors into his menu, always seeking to enhance the food experience for his customers.

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Sustainability and Innovation

Despite Bark Barbecue’s capacity to handle large quantities of meat, Santana is committed to combating food waste. By understanding his customers’ preferences and utilizing tools for predictive order history, he strives to minimize waste. Leftover meats are skillfully repurposed into mouthwatering side dishes, ensuring nothing goes to waste. Santana’s innovative steps lie not in technological advancements, but in fostering a newfound appreciation for the quality and labor that goes into creating his culinary masterpieces.

A World Uniting Through Barbecue

For Santana, barbecue is not simply about food—it’s a powerful tool for bringing people together. He believes that sharing a meal transcends borders and allows individuals from different cultures and backgrounds to connect. Santana views each dish he creates as a blank canvas waiting to be filled with his unique flavors and artistic expression. His empty plate each morning serves as a reminder of the endless possibilities that the food industry offers.

Influencing the Future

When asked how he influences the next generation of pit masters, Santana humbly shares that he isn’t certain of his impact. However, if his passion can ignite creativity and inspire others to pursue their dreams fearlessly, that alone is a significant accomplishment for him.

As we conclude our chat with Ruben Santana, it’s clear that his dedication to the art and soul of barbecue is unmatched. From his humble beginnings in his own backyard to becoming a renowned pit master, Santana’s journey is an inspiration to barbecue enthusiasts and food lovers alike.

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