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Matt Horn On Gratitude, Humility, And The Diverse Future Of Barbecue

Struggling through setbacks, red tape, and the pandemic to finally open his Oakland smoker destination.

Matt Horn is pitmaster and owner of Horn Barbecue in Oakland. He is also the founder and CEO of Horn Hospitality Group, which is working to open Matty’s and Kowbird this year.

The very first popup that I did was in March of 2016. I did the farmers’ market in Tracy for about eight months. And 2017 is when we started doing the popups at the different breweries in Oakland and San Francisco.

There weren’t a lot of people there when we first started. But the word spread. It went from about 20 people to over 50 people, then over a hundred people. And then it grew to where it would be normal for us to bring in a few hundred people for a popup. It got so big that we had to move away from the breweries and started doing it at this airplane hangar—Hangar 1 Distillery. We were able to accommodate larger crowds upwards of a thousand people.

Then in August of 2019, I signed the lease on the restaurant space in Oakland. It was actually right up the street from an old service station where I had done popups. I had driven by the location a lot.

It took about 14 months to open up the restaurant. My original goal was to sign the lease, do the interior work, bring the smokers in, and be open within two to three months.

But we had to rebuild things and bring the building back to code. We had to educate the county in terms of our outdoor smoking. They didn’t want me to use the barbecue pits at all. So I had to fight them on that. The only solution they gave me was to put the smoker inside, so we have an 1,000-gallon offset smoker that’s under a really big hood indoors. But after going through all that, they finally allowed me to have smokers outdoors. I now have six smokers outside and one inside.

Photo: Courtesy Matt Horn.

We all have this idea in our minds where we’re going to go after something, and we’re going to accomplish it. And you know you’re going to face adversity and deal with setbacks. But I never imagined I would go through what I went through every single day. It became where I kind of dreaded going to the space. I was always getting negative information from the contractor.

But also, it was setback after setback dealing with the red tape and city politics. And on top of all this, the pandemic hits. We’re reading about restaurants closing and never reopening. You’re hearing about the restaurant industry being hit the hardest. It was tough to be optimistic.

I’m always preaching positivity. But I had to apologize to people who were driving over to Horn Barbecue. Some of them were road-tripping and had come from other states. People had heard about us and thought we were open. I had to smile and tell them, “I know, I’m sorry that you’ve traveled from Arizona or Los Angeles and we’re not open.” I had to apologize to people for a year.

Even though we weren’t open, I would still cook barbecue because there’s something about lighting a fire, and being around the fire, and the smoke and the wood and hearing the crackling of the wood. There’s a romance there. And I’ve always been connected to it, since my childhood. I made up my mind a long time ago that no matter what I come up against, I would have to persevere. I would always focus on the thing that created this, which is the barbecue. I had to hold on to that.

It was hard to do. It’s like, what do you do when you want to quit? What do you do when you’re mentally fatigued? I wasn’t spending enough time with my family. I wasn’t playing with my kids. I was stressed out, falling asleep on the couch or in the truck, just to get the restaurant open. I had to persevere.

Matt Horn and son Matty. Photo: Courtesy Matt Horn.

Horn Barbecue is Texas-inspired. What I mean by that is there are no shortcuts. I really respect that there’s a measure of patience you need to have. Cooking brisket is not as easy as putting hot dogs on the grill. It takes time. You have to be extremely intentional. If you trim a brisket to a quarter-inch of fat, and you rotate a brisket throughout the cooking period, and you spray the brisket to keep that surface temperature cool, and you manage the fire—there’s a lot that goes into it.

But it’s not just Texas at Horn Barbecue. I have to pay respect to those who have come before me, and I have to honor my Southern influences. It’s about my family being from the South, from Louisiana and Oklahoma, and preserving those different foodways. We’re doing smoked pork chops and oxtails, and I’m pouring my soul and my love into what I’m doing. That’s how we pay respect to the Black South.

I remember my mom making smothered oxtails and pork steaks and neck bones. She was making that stuff for us because that’s what she knew. That’s what her parents made for her. These were affordable cuts of meat, and you cook them over a long period of time.

I have memories from my childhood. I can close my eyes and see my grandfather standing by a burn barrel, holding a piece of meat over coals. My grandmother used to butcher hogs. My grandfather used to raise hogs. They would cook the hogs in the ground.

I feel honored to be able to be one of the people carrying the torch and ushering barbecue into a new generation. You look at the Jones sisters, Helen Turner, Rodney Scott, Ed Mitchell. You have these great names that are here now. But you look back, and you have Arthur Bryant, the Gates family, and Henry Perry and his influence on barbecue. I know that barbecue is broken up a lot into different regions, and everybody’s proud of their regional barbecue. But there are a lot of Black pitmasters who have been forgotten, or whose work isn’t acknowledged until they’ve passed on. It makes me emotional.

I told Rodney Scott, “Seeing you stand up, winning a James Beard Award and going up to accept that award on the stage, it made me cry.” I hadn’t met him when he won, but it made me cry. We text each other pretty often now. We talk a lot. He’s a wonderful guy. I’ve been blessed to meet him and a lot of other great people in barbecue.

I feel that the future of hospitality is diverse. It’s inclusive. It’s bold. That’s what it is with Horn Hospitality Group. I want to reimagine food. I also want to pay respect to the overlooked cultural foodways of the past. How do I do that? By giving different chefs from all walks of life opportunities to be able to create different concepts.

But then also, I’m very creative. If I’m not creating, I feel like I’m not living. We’re going to be rolling out Matty’s, which is our take on a classic burger, this year. And Kowbird, which is fried chicken, is going to be opening up this year as well.

My son Matty is 5, and my daughter Leilani is 4, and they’re growing every day. They’re learning every day. Something I’m noticing as a father is that they’re becoming more conscious and aware of the work I’m doing. They’re very familiar with barbecue. I want to create something that leaves a legacy for them.

I don’t want to force them to be part of the business, but I hope I can guide them and explain to them the importance of preserving culture. It would be a blessing if they’d be a part of it. I hope that they will.

During the pandemic, the thing that really gave me joy was the thought of cooking and giving to others. So I called my wife, Nina, and said, “Hey, I’m going to buy a bunch of meat and fire up the smoker, and I’m going to feed as many people as I can.” José Andrés is someone who really inspired me to just go out and respond.

We’ve served upward of 10,000 meals for different hospitals, servicemen and women, frontline workers. We recently partnered with the Golden State Warriors for a giveaway through their Home Court Assist program. It’s been really cool to feed the community. It’s definitely something we’re going to continue to do.

Going through everything we went through and finally getting the restaurant open and seeing the long lines, it gives me humility. The fact that we’re still in a pandemic and people are lining up, waiting hours—it makes me grateful. I bear the expectation and responsibility to deliver excellence to them day in and day out at Horn Barbecue.