Jiggly meat and rocking beats — that’s the special sauce at Soulbelly BBQ, the latest barbecue joint downtown in the Gateway District. While dining on Flintstone-sized pastrami beef ribs, diners can hear the soundtrack of chef Bruce Kalman’s life. And it’s as much of a mash-up as his barbecue styles.
“I get emotional because this is my dream,” says the Paramus, New Jersey transplant. Growing up, his father Ron taught music at the local high school. Kalman played the guitar at age 7, the cello at 8, and the trumpet in the high school marching band. He started his first garage band at 13. The teens of Phoenix didn’t play great at first, but their tresses were on point. As they booked more gigs across New Jersey and New York, the hair band eventually opened for Meatloaf in front of thousands at Monmouth University in South Jersey.
“When you play at a club, you hear people clapping. In an arena, you hear a ‘shhhhhh’ sound. It was super rad. We went to the dressing room, and Jon Bon Jovi was there,” says Kalman, starry-eyed as he reminisces. The future Las Vegas restaurant owner did not know that one day he would meet another rock star who would change the course of his cooking career.
When Kalman helmed the rustic Italian kitchen at Union in Pasadena, California, in 2015, he met chef Duff Goldman, the Charm City Cakes owner and star of Food Network’s Ace of Cakes, at a party. Someone walked by and told them they looked like they should be in a band. “’I play bass,’ Goldman said. ‘I play guitar and sing,’ Kalman said. We looked at each other and said ‘F*** it, let’s start a band,’” says the former Top Chef contestant. Goldman asked food fans on Twitter for ideas to name the chef-led cover band. Replies included Oreo Speedwagon, Bread Zeppelin, Meat Sweats, and Flock of Meatballs, but the guys settled on Foie Grock “because everyone laughed.” The kitchen pros played sold-out shows across Los Angeles including an appearance at Hotel Café in Hollywood. It’s been a while since the band has played, but both original members are looking forward to a reunion at Soulbelly BBQ.
“Dude, I cannot wait to get the band back together. The stage at Soulbelly looks awesome,” says Goldman, host of the new show Duff’s Happy Fun Bake Time on the Food Network.
That 16- by 8-foot stage means as much to Kalman as the hand-selected meat. He looked across the street to Sonic Radio for help with the professional music set-up complete with subwoofers under the stage and a fancy light kit. “I just want this place to be a blast. Not that the food’s gonna’ suck, but even if the food sucked, you’re still gonna have a good time. Even if the band sucks, you’re still gonna have a good time.”
For Kalman, the connections between cooking and music have no bounds. “The chef is like the orchestra conductor. The menu is organized like an album. The way it reads is important. It’s like writing a song. It has to make sense.”
Grilling With Grohl
It was actually the Foo Fighters frontman, Dave Grohl, who influenced Kalman’s turn to barbecue life. After grilling with Grohl for the rocker’s catering company Backbeat BBQ, Kalman became obsessed with smoked meat culture. “It’s definitely weird. It’s more about who he is as a person. I get inspired by the way he treats people.”
Kalman recalled a crazy night in Atlanta when Backbeat BBQ was scheduled to cook the day before the Super Bowl for a livestream event. But the week before, Grohl fell off a stage in Las Vegas and tore his bicep. Instead of grilling, they grabbed dinner together and caught an Aerosmith concert. Back at their hotel, they found a guy sleeping on a small sofa in the lobby. The hotel clerk said he was a Foo Fighters fan hoping to get a glimpse of Grohl. “Dave hunches over him and starts tapping him. The guy wakes up. And Dave’s like, ‘wussssssssss uuuuuuup?’ He embraces everybody,” Kalman remembers laughing.
And Kalman believes that Las Vegas has embraced him. “I feel really at home here. I’ve never experienced it before. It’s been open arms from the restaurant community, the business community.”
Soulbelly BBQ Is Personal
The proud father commissioned a larger-than-life mural of his son Jude eating brisket just below the ceiling. He can look up and see his son while working long nights like so many chefs in the restaurant industry. “Jude’s got music in him because he can’t hear music without moving his little body. It’s the best thing in the world. He was dancing around here last night.”
Like father, like son, customers may see the pitmaster on any given night at Soulbelly BBQ taking the stage, shaking it up, and rocking the guitar. “I can’t resist the urge to get up and play,” Kalman says. “I’m way farther along in my music. I’ve been doing it so long. Music for me is muscle memory. Barbecue is not quite muscle memory yet. I have to do a lot of thought. I have to double-check myself.”
Jiggly meat refers to a perfectly cooked brisket. Kalman says that when you pull it off the smoker and pick it up in the middle, it should flop over your hands. At Soulbelly, diners get a former fine dining chef’s take on tender smoked meat. While Kalman offers his own spin on barbecue, he is humble enough to pay respect to the classic techniques of a food culture saturated in tradition. “I have a ton to learn still, but I think what we’re serving is exceptional.”
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