The lunch crowd is filing in at Mac’s Speed Shop and Kevin Kuruc is talking about his favorite subject, which also happens to be the favorite of his customers.
“I love barbecue,” says the head chef at Mac’s. “There’s nothing pretentious about it. It’s one of the most approachable foods in the U.S. It’s truly American and has a unique history. It’s really hard to do good barbecue. Everybody says, it’s just barbecue. But it’s an art form.”
Mac’s is a restaurant living in a converted transmission shop in the South End neighborhood in Charlotte. It’s one of the most popular spots in the city and most people come in for the barbecue, which is considered by most the best in town.
Barbecue is not a job; it’s a calling and Kuruc has come to realize that fact. He came to Mac’s nine years ago after 25 years of chef work at restaurants all along the east coast, many of which are fine dining.
That’s the opposite of what he found at Mac’s, which has seven locations scattered about the Carolinas.
If you set the over-under for silverware at Mac’s at three, you’d bet the under. Mac’s is not low-brow but it’s decidedly low-key. High, round tables and stools inside and picnic tables outside make Mac’s the ultimate in casual dining. But its clientele range from construction workers to folks who go to work in skirts and suits.
When Kuruc came to Mac’s he had to leave cuisine cooking and all its fancy sauces behind and figure out what to do with this delicacy called barbecue.
“I had eaten here before I came to work at Mac’s,” said Kuruc, who comes from western Pennsylvania. “For me, it’s about knowledge. It’s one of those cultural things, trying to figure out what makes great barbecue and the science behind it.
“Mostly, I was just curious to find out what makes barbecue so good. There’s a lot of chemistry in cooking and it’s just as complex, no matter what kind of food you’re going for. Barbecue is all about the tough cuts. I’ve been challenged with barbecue more than with foods I’ve prepared at other restaurants.
“Anybody can take a filet mignon or a strip steak, throw it on the grill and do well with it. It’s a tremendous product to begin with. To take the lesser cuts and do something with that takes a lot of work.”
Kuruc started looking at barbecue from a chef’s point of view instead of as a lifelong pit master.
“When I approached it as chemistry rather than sheer cooking, I had to go back to school to see how proteins react to heat. There were a lot of long hours with a thermometer in my hand and sticking my head in the smoker. It was homework.”
Kuruc had so much confidence in his method that he and his team at Mac’s started competing in one of the top barbecue cooking contests in the country – Memphis In May. In six years, they went from “not knowing what the hell we were doing” to second place in whole hog in 2017. Kuruc also uses the competition as research.
“There’s a network of barbecue people,” Kuruc said. “It’s a small group. Everybody who is in barbecue, they won’t give you every secret – they won’t tell you their rubs and sauces – but you pick up tidbits like what temperature they pull meat off the smoker.”
In the end, the proof is in the people who flock to Mac’s each day and night to sample what comes out of Kuruc’s smoker.
“Barbecue doesn’t wait for anybody,” he says. “It has it’s own timeline. It’s got its own thing going on. If I season it correctly and I smoke it correctly, it’s going to stand up against anything anyone else has.”
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C.