Checking out of the culinary pressure cooker, then finding fulfillment in a smoker by the highway.
By Warren Norstein as told to Chris Mohney
Warren Norstein trained alongside some of the most famous and successful chefs in New York before exiting the restaurant business to raise his kids. He got back in almost on a lark, to try his hand at a roadside barbecue stand—even though he’d never eaten barbecue, let alone cooked it. Almost two decades later, Big W’s Roadside BBQ is one of New York state’s most beloved smoked meat joints. During the pandemic, Big W customers must order by phone, then pick up their food on picnic tables out front, missing out on the usually mandatory social interaction with Norstein.
I grew up in Brooklyn, the youngest of five kids, in a lot of different neighborhoods. Started in the Ocean Parkway area, Midwood section. We moved from a very, very elderly Jewish neighborhood to the center of an Irish Catholic parish, where we felt like the only Jewish family in Flatbush. So I was welcomed with open arms. We lived there, thankfully, just two and a half, three years, and we moved to Canarsie. I spent most of my years there. Then I went to the High School of Music and Art in Harlem. I had the benefit of two worlds—I could go hang out with my friends in Brooklyn, and I could go hang out with my friends in Harlem.
I was about 6 foot 4 in junior high school, and I could see, every time I was in gym class, the football coach from Canarsie High School would come and hang out at the front and stare at me. Honestly, I had such a dislike for fitting into what everyone else wanted you to fit into, and I was terrified of the whole idea of going into a school and not having an identity. I’d heard that there was a school that kids could go to for drawing. I’d never heard of it before and immediately went ahead and did the test to get in, and they accepted me.
I was a terrible student at that high school. I was one of the worst. As a matter of fact, out of my graduating class of 505, I was ranked 470. I was almost at the bottom. But I’d become the president of the school, so I was very, very popular. I think I was terrified at the prospect of them leaving me back, or worse, expelling me for not passing. I didn’t even pass my exit exams. I graduated, and I actually got into an art college, the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. They got smart. They threw me out twice.
I ended up working as a busboy in the Catskills. I met my wife. She was my waitress. You’re learning stuff from a bunch of really old guys with very, very minimal instructions. You had Joe Z, who was your captain. Joe Z was a guy from Carbondale. A lot of these Pennsylvania types had put their kids through school, and they had worked at the steel mills and the coal mines, and they were ready to retire, and all of a sudden the steel mills shut down. They had second mortgages, and many of them had to go work in the Catskill Mountains for the people that they hated absolutely the most.
Underneath them were more people that they hated—young Jewish kids from Brooklyn, and black kids from other neighborhoods, and Hispanic kids. They were just not happy with it. They would give you the most minimal instructions you could get. You’d get stuff like, “Listen, my friend. You do the right thing, OK? You break my fucking dishes and then you go back to fucking college. That’s what you do. You do the right thing and then you go back. I don’t care. I don’t care.”
So you learned to do the right thing. Everything was broken down into its elements. What was the right thing to do? If you’re going to leave nothing for somebody else, it’s the wrong thing. If you’re going to do it in a sloppy way, in a lazy way, it’s not the right thing.
My wife and I did that for almost a year, and then we came back to Brooklyn. I was a truant officer, of sorts, for the Board of Education. At that time they really didn’t have truant officers. You didn’t carry a shield and a club, that kind of thing. You were an “attendance improvement dropout prevention counselor.” You know, this was the 70s. They plunked me down in the middle of East New York, Brownsville, with a bunch of kids that were from another world completely. You had 11-year-old prostitutes, and you had kids that were dealing drugs driving around in Fleetwood Broughams. They had to use telephone books underneath their asses so they could sit up in the seats.
I was driving cabs at night. And one of the cabbies came in wearing checks and whites. I was like, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m working in a deli. I make seven hundred bucks a week in cash.” I was like, “I could do that. It would be perfect.” We looked at the New York Restaurant School, which was a division of the New School for Social Research. They wanted five grand for an education in both culinary and pastry arts. I was like, “That’s a lot of money. It’s not going to happen.” My wife at the time, she was like, “What are you worried about?” I was like, “I’ll tell you what I’m worried about. You’re going to get pregnant, my car is going to get destroyed, and I will lose my job. And I’m going to have a $5,000 debt.” She did get pregnant. The car did get destroyed. But I didn’t lose my job.
So I studied beef cuts while I was counseling these kids in my office. I had charts for all the different types of vegetables and all different types of identification systems. I graduated number one in the school. I worked like an animal because I was paying for it as I went. I was truly not in the same frame of mind as when I was a student. I was a consumer. I was then entitled to an apprenticeship. They said, “You can apprentice with any chef in New York City. We will arrange for it, because you had the number one position.” Only I didn’t know anybody in New York City. I wasn’t tuned into that stuff. I knew I wanted to be a deli cook like that guy who had the checks and the whites. So I said, “Andre Soltner.” And they said, “Well, Andre Soltner is very old, but there’s somebody else we’d like to arrange for.”.
They hooked me up in an area called Tribeca, which at that time nobody even knew what the hell Tribeca was. The chef was a young guy named David Bouley who had worked at Montratchet. I ended up doing an apprenticeship with Bouley. I never worked so many hours in my life. That was unbelievable. I spent from about 4:30 in the morning until about 7:30 or 8 o’clock at night. I did the fish station, and then I ended up working as a baker under Bill Yosses. And then I ended up doing the other stations in the kitchen.
It was like going from kindergarten into graduate school. You had absolutely no idea what you were doing. You did it because they told you to do it. There was nothing to compare it to. Because Bouley was so interesting as a chef, the guys there were not students—they were all chefs. They all glommed on to this guy because they thought this was going to be the next thing. He was a weird genius. He was like Tom Keller is now, for the brigade kitchen.
It was a weird form of chaos. You’ve got about 14 guys working, and that’s just lunch. You have about 18 or 19 guys working at night, and you have the family downstairs. You could have 10 or 11 dishes just yourself. You were integrated, so that some things were being done by somebody over on the fish station. If you were doing a lobster salad, you’d be building the salad and timing it to make sure that you were ready so that when the lobster got heated in the beurre blanc, it came over to you and you did your arrangement of it. Plus you did your terrines and things like that. The fish station was operating across the pass to the meat station, and they’re watching the routine because fish takes a split second to cook, but the meats take longer. This was all menú degustatión—it was all tasting menu. There was nobody in that dining room having one dish. They were having six, the minimum. More often than not, the chef didn’t even have to call the orders. He’d say a left and a right, one side of the menu and the other side of the menu.
You had an intense amount of focus on getting this stuff perfect, perfect, perfect, perfect, because the term that everybody used in the kitchen was “soigné.” And the way it was translated was not “as good as you can make it,” but “as good as it can be.” That’s elusive as hell, because as soon as you make it well, the next time it has to be better than that.
You’re pushing and pushing and pushing, and everybody’s pushing. There is no win. You don’t win. You’re constantly in competition with each other and with yourself. And then you have David, and David is kind of like dancing to his own rhythm. So you have dupes for the regular tables, and you have the VIP dupes, and at the time we were the number-one rated in Zagat. We were the number-one rated everywhere. They were coming from all different directions. You had leggy models from Elle magazine feeding long beans to David, and you had Japanese television cables running all over the kitchen, and you had Bill Cosby and his entourage coming in at 10 o’clock at night to start their degustatión. You had Danny Thomas with Phil Donahue, and you had the Michael Milken judge in one corner. Everyone was a VIP. That meant David had to be involved with every aspect of those dishes. You’re going ahead with your field of all the different things that you’re working on, and your mise en place is just perfect, and you’re trying to keep it so.
And then here comes David, and David’s going to try to spin every dish for the VIPs in a different way, because he doesn’t want it to come off looking like he just gave them the same thing that he gave them last time. The monger would come in with one filet of skipjack, not that thick. Why would you buy that? Because it was Hawaiian skipjack. It was gorgeous. David would take it and slice it into little fingers. And then all of a sudden he’d look at his VIP rack, and he’d pull some of them around and then he’d start sautéing these little tiny strips of skipjack, and then in a small saucepan he would take fresh green peas and a little bit of stock, and he’d make a sauce out of pure green peas and finish it with a little bit of herb. And then he would make these little discs of sauce and take these beautiful pieces of skipjack and a little bit of herb, and he’d send it out.
And they would go fucking nuts, because he was creating for them at their table. And he was, but he also recognized the value of doing this stuff. It was this fantastic way of marketing a premium. This was exactly what you do when you want to hook people and keep them interested. You make it personal.
They had a system called the ram, which was used at Bouley, and at Chanterelle where I worked later. The first waiter on the scene was the ram. They would look at how many plates were coming up to go out. And then they’d go to the edge of a blind space, the pass between the kitchen and the dining room, and they would make eye contact with a few different waiters. They needed three. They got three. No ovation. Nothing. No overture.
The waiters would come immediately to the pass, and then they would line up north to south on the table with their plates in front of them, making sure every plate was really, really gorgeous. The chef was probably doing a little bit of fresh picking of herbs and making it all gorgeous. And then everybody would take it up at the same time, go out, head to the table, north to south, come around, and they’d all look at each other. The hands would come out, and the plates would come down at exactly the same time.
This was a lot of drama and a lot of precision. That was not where it ended. The same group of hands—maybe not the same group, but an equal group of hands—would take the bussed dishes away from the table. But they didn’t go to the dishwasher, they went to the chef. He would go over the plates and see what they didn’t touch. He didn’t wait for the maître d’ to get a word from the waiter, and then pass it to him to the expediter that table 16 loved it, chef, or they didn’t care for it. He didn’t give a shit what they thought—it was all lies. The customers would lie. The waiter would lie. The captain would lie. Everyone is going to burnish it up because nobody wants to get a hassle, you know. You just look at the plates. If there was one asparagus spear left, David would eat it, wondering why. He wanted to see them literally lick the plates clean.
It reminds me how, a few years ago, I was sitting on the stone wall outside La Crémaillère down in Banksville with a student of mine, and he said, “How many pieces of salmon do you think you’ve cooked in this place?” And I did something stupid that I will never do ever again. I actually calculated how many pieces of fish I had cooked. It was in the tens of thousands.
But then I started to think—it’s really OK, because they were never the same piece of fish. It was always a different piece of fish. They always had a slightly different look. There was a different grain. There was a different color. It may sound like crap, but when you’re working—the fish is your patient. You’re doing this. This is your thing. It’s not how many you did. That’s the wrong way to look at it. Because, yeah, you’re working in a restaurant. You’re going to repeat the dish. But you’re not really repeating the dish. You’re doing the dish each and every time. It is as important in this moment, as it was in that one.
That was something very, very important you learned in that kind of setting at Bouley. And you had to be cognizant that you were being waited on by everyone else in the kitchen. They were all linked to one another. It made for a very high anxiety atmosphere. You ate terribly because the general rule was if it took more than 10 minutes to make a family meal, don’t do it. So you ate a lot of rolls. It wore you out, very, very definitely. Two years was the average lifespan of anyone in that kitchen.
I would find myself running to the customer’s bathroom, because it was nicer, and I’d sit in the stall and stare at my hands and try to get them to stop shaking. They would just vibrate, and you couldn’t get them to stop. There was a reason—you weren’t sleeping enough. You were working a ridiculous amount of hours. Everybody had the same incredibly puffy eyes and very red faces. A lot of guys were young and single, so they ended up going out for a drink or five or six after work. That was a big deal. I was married. I had a kid. So I was on a different game.
I went from Bouley to Chanterelle, another high-end French place. I stayed there for about two years, and then I went to La Crémaillère in Westchester. It’s been in the same family for 60 years. It’s very, very old-country French, linked to the early early days of French restaurants in New York City. When the initial group came over to do the World’s Fair in 1929, they had this thing called Le Pavillon, which was the World of Food. They were all largely blue collar, real hardcore guys. They were selling escargot and angel hair pasta with pistou and things like that. It seemed that Americans really dug the whole escargot thing.
You’ve got to realize at that time in New York City, the fanciest thing you had was steakhouses. Then the French started with Le Pavillon and La Côte Basque and La Crémeillère. A lot of these were the same group of guys. They would open up these restaurants and stay within their group and bring over people that worked in France. Then they figured out that if they purchased a place in the country with a big enough storage area, they could get whole cargo boxes shipped over on the big ship liners—wines and canned goods that they couldn’t get here—and keep it cheaper so they really would make some money off of it. Family members would buy it in Europe and send it over here. They bought buildings in Westchester, which at the time was the country. So you had places like La Crémaillère a la Campagne in the country, and that was the first foray into those country places.
I stayed at La Crémaillère for almost seven years, and then I went back into Manhattan and we opened a place called Chez Louis. That was Tom Keller’s first spot when he came into the city. He went on to do his other things and that place closed, and we reopened it.
After that, I had a few things happen, like the loss of my mom. She was integral in keeping my house as sane as it could be. I had three kids at the time—four now. And there was no nanny that could make it normal. My wife and I both worked. We were both doing a lot of running around. My wife’s a nurse in a critical care unit in the city. So we humped it. There was no way to normalize everything, so I stayed at home. I did that for about four years. And it wasn’t terrible. I enjoyed being with my kids. They didn’t starve to death. We knew how to budget really carefully. I did all the shopping and the cooking. Then my youngest was going to kindergarten full-time, so it was a question of what I wanted to do. I wanted to cook.
We were living up here in Hopewell Junction by then. I could have gone back into Manhattan and done it all again. My friends in the business—it was not believable, from their point of view, that anybody would want to step out. I was a sous chef when I did, and we were opening restaurants. At that point you’ve amassed a certain amount of experience, and you know how to get things done quickly. These brigades give you a very, very strong foundation in how to do a kitchen.
This isn’t a big group of people. There are only so many high-rated restaurants. No one had the sense to walk away because this was also your social circle. These were the people who gave you the rationale for what you were doing. You partied with them, you had sex with them. This was a very inside group.
Whereas most people would go and put up their own restaurants, I went home and took care of my kids. It’s not normal, you know? But then again, most people were divorcing, or had already divorced, or had never got married. They weren’t seeing their kids. There were very few of us that had children. At Bouley, I knew of only three people in the whole operation that had kids.
They would say, “I got a spot for you.” And I’d say, “No, I’m good.” I remember working for David Liederman, who owned Chez Louis and David’s Cookies. We’re still very good friends. David had this fabulous office that looked down to 6th Avenue. We saw Radio City Music Hall across the way. We had two dining rooms, two kitchens. It was a busy, busy place. Matthew Tivy and I were running it.
David came in one afternoon and said, “I got a solution to all our problems.” I didn’t know what kind of problems we had. He said, “I got us a co-op two blocks away. So now we don’t even have to go home if we don’t want to.” I said, “We don’t have to go home if we don’t want to?” So I gave him notice. He laughed. He thought it was the funniest thing in the world that I was going to stop working. He threw a big party on the second floor with champagne and everything, giving me a fond farewell, laughing the whole way, saying, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” I said, “You’re not going to see me.”
I did come back—I redid their menu around Christmas and punched it up a little bit. But there was no way to really come back, because it only goes in one direction. It consumes. I could see it happening, just as I see it with my place now. Any kind of cooking deal where you’re pushing yourself into it, you’re in remiss somewhere.
When it came to barbecue, I had never eaten it before. Never tasted it in my life. My brother mentioned that people do barbecue on the street down south. I bumped into a sommelier I knew from Chanterelle, a guy named Taylor, who lives up here now. He was from Tennessee. He said, “We’ve got to get barbecue up here. We’ll do the smoker and the whole thing.” He pitched hard, and I said, “OK, let’s do it. We’re going to open it up together.”
My idea was to build the first smokers and see how it worked, and then he would get financing for the restaurant. I built the smokers with my brother and started playing with them. I knew what flavors were appealing to me, but I had never smoked anything in my life. I played around with the rubs, and I got exactly the flavors I wanted. Every time Taylor got somebody to potentially finance us, the guy’s wife would turn around and threaten to leave him if they got involved in a restaurant. So it kept going that way.
I started to think about it, and I realized I really don’t need a partner, and I don’t need the financing. I don’t need any of that. I have the ribs. Just do it out on the street. I mean, the smoker is really the whole thing. I don’t need a building. I went on eBay, and I started bidding on bread trucks. Every time I bid, the trucks would disappear. I’d get up to the nitty gritty, and then they’d pull the ad. It was a difficult thing.
I finally found one in Blytheville, Arkansas. I called the guy up, and I said, “Look, I’m not screwing around. You want $7,000 or $8,000 for it?” This guy had purchased it for his wife. She was going to have a hot dog truck. He had ripped out the truck engine and put in a race car engine because he liked to tinker with cars. And I was like, “Fine, I’m going to come down there, and I will buy this thing from you.”
Me, my brother, and my son took a pickup truck and we drove down to Blytheville. I drove the bread truck back. It had no emergency brake. No gas gauge, no speedometer, no working odometer. Nothing worked. As a matter of fact, if I stood up with my seat belt on, the seat would come off of the tape that held it to the floor.
I got the truck home, and I got a smoker, and I parked it in front of a no-tell motel off of the main drag around here. I paid the motel owner 20 bucks a day. My objective was to go out of business as quickly as possible so I could say that I did this and got it over with.
But I did my homework. I tracked down guys who were too filthy to come into restaurants during the day, working stiffs. They’d come out of Taco Bell, and I’d say, “How much did you spend?” They were spending 20 bucks on garbage. I was pretty sure I could feed them really well. The only problem was that I had no idea that in the time it would take for me to cook the food, these guys would have been in bed by the time I got out there to sell it. That was what happened. By the time I got out, it was around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and they were gone.
But women came by who were buying for their house. They didn’t want a single order of ribs, and the only thing I was doing was ribs and some side dishes. They wanted full racks. They bought everything I had in a half hour. It was all gone.
So the next day, I doubled the amount and drove my Honda Accord over to distributors. Literally, I would schlep back and forth and get the meats. It was such an exponential increase every time. The car couldn’t do it anymore. The smoker was too small. I decided I was going to move it out onto the main drag.
I contacted a guy who had a collision shop. He was completely puzzled. He said, “You want to sell dinner on my front lawn? Give it a shot.” He made me get a lease with him. And I had to get insurance to do it legitimately. This was just to park on his front lawn. He used to come with his beach chair and fold it out and just shake his head and watch. Even my wife couldn’t believe that people were stopping. She said, “I wouldn’t buy food from you. What the hell is the attraction?”
I couldn’t figure it out. Nobody was doing that at the time. That was 19 years ago. There was no reason to know that that was the place. We had no signs. There was just a patch of dirt, and at 4 o’clock in the afternoon I would drive up with a lit smoker. It was two minutes away from my house, so the cops never found out. It was lit and full of food. And I would pull it with a truck that had no working linkage, no working speedometer, no gas gauge. It sounds romantic. It was not. It was stupid. It was really dumb, especially getting stuck halfway up our driveway with the smoker in the street.
I would pull out and get over to this collision shop, and there would be a line of people standing in the middle of the lawn with no reason to be there. It was absolutely surreal. I would pull in around them, lock it down, purge the smoke, put aluminum foil over the front where I was going to serve the food—because the biggest thing was that I didn’t want any chance of getting anyone sick. We would prep everything raw early in the morning, then completely, terminally clean everything down. Everything coming out of it was cooked, so I didn’t have to worry about squat. It was always going to be healthy.
The side dishes were done while the kids were at school. I’d pick up the kids from school, hitch up everything, pull out with my oldest until he quit or I fired him a million times. He would put everything in the bags and take the money from the people. That was the routine. I would do this every day, Wednesday to Sunday. Then we’d break down the whole thing. Or rather, I would, they didn’t. My kids were lazy shits.
I’d break it all down at night and start the whole process over again. And then a couple of months into it, pork shoulders started happening. Chicken was an accident. I would make chickens for my family so we could eat at home. The customers were like, “Is that a duck?” “No, that’s my dinner.” “How much you want for it?” So we would sell chickens, and it would just go on and on.
There were a lot of people that hung out late at night when it got dark. It was like the Algonquin Round Table. These were editors, like the original working editor for New York magazine, Jack Nessel. He opened it up with Milton Glaser. These were the heavyweights, but they were just hanging out late at night.
Tim Zagat used to come in with his truck and his white tailored shirts and get completely crapped up in a split second with the sauce. Tim is an eating person. I met him when I was at Bouley. His son was doing a stage at Bocuse. He had no no experience at all. They stashed him by us for about a week so we could get him schooled a little bit. So I had a little bit of a connection to Tim from over there, but from the roadside days, he was just one of my older guys that had character and was fun to talk to.
And remember, it was in the dark. They’d have to pull up, turn on their brights to look into the smoker, because I’d open the doors to the smoker, and they’d go, “That one.” They would pick the ribs they wanted. And they wouldn’t go home. They would just hang out and bullshit. My son Joshua was 12, and he’d talk to these guys. They were like his surrogate grandparents.
We did that for about four years, and I was done with it. I didn’t want to do it anymore. It was exhausting. I was about ready to shut it down completely. That’s when the customers started whining. I had no desire to ever have a restaurant building. Never. And yet I ended up with a building. I rent here because it’s cheap. We kept everything at the restaurant as close to the roadside as I possibly could. The stuff is still done in the same kind of smokers. They’re much bigger. We roll them back and forth and back and forth, so the majority of the cooking is done outside in a shed. We do the side dishes in here.
We keep it as much as a joint as we possibly can, because I like the vibe where people really don’t have the expectations that they have at a restaurant. People have this routine, they’ve been trained for so long. They walk into a restaurant, and someone says, “Hi, I’m Vicky. I’m going to be your server today. Come with me.” You know they’re going to give you your menus, and you’re going to say, “I’d like two Sprites and a Coke.” Everything is so routine.
The roadside was not routine. They had to tune in. Here they tune in. We make them tune in. They get to pick out the food. They get to taste food. They get to talk about anything other than restaurant stuff. People like to talk about food, and that’s fine. But being able to get people to talk to one another—I make it happen as much as I can.
At the roadside, they opened up the smoker. They got the chance to talk to me about what was going on inside there. I’d take out the meat, cut it up for them, and hand it to them. I didn’t want to get rid of that. So I pushed as far as I possibly can. It’s almost like they have to sneak in through the door. They can’t get past me. People in the lines sometimes get frustrated, where they’ll come around if it’s very busy. Last year, I did have a kid cutting with me. He’s not particularly fast at doing it, but, you know … If we got somebody who was interested, I would bring them on and start teaching them how to do it. But I’m picky. There are some nuances.
What I began to really enjoy was having a group of people who were not just interested in getting their belly full. They wanted to hang out. That’s the only thing that’s sustained me so far. I mean, it’s now been 19 years. If I had to do this just to feed bellies, it would suck. It would really suck to stand up there and cut. Then it would be, how many ribs have you cut?
At this point, I know so much about the people that come in, mostly because they volunteer it. They want to have an exchange. They want to share. I’ve lost customers now. They’ve gotten older and sick and they’ve died. And I’ve watched their spouses hurt. I’ve watched their kids come in and tell how they weren’t the best kid in the world to their father. Why would you come in and tell me that?
When we used to do the roadside, there was an older couple—he was a caretaker for the golf course. A really tiny old guy and a tiny old lady that was his wife. I never cut a chicken at the roadside. Ribs I cut because they were neat. You cut up a chicken, it’s a fucking mess inside of a smoker. So I didn’t do it, except for them. They would come up and I’d cut up the chicken for them, and they would eat it in their car. Later, I had been sending him chicken to take to the nursing home because she had broken her hip. Then one day I had a line of people next to the smoker, and he stayed out by the cars. He wouldn’t come close. He looked very, very small.
I said, “What’s the matter, you don’t like me anymore?” And he looked at me and he said, “She’s gone.”
I was so blown away, and I said to my wife, “Why did he come to the roadside?” She said, “Where is he going to go? To the bank?”
The thing is, you don’t have places that you go to, to share, anymore. You don’t shop at your local butcher where you have a relationship with the butcher. I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve had with my customers, either in person or a quick call. They get how awkward it is calling somebody who, when they boil it down, is the guy who cuts up their meat for them. But that connection is undeniably there. You skip past the fact of the relationship. It is what it is. We know each other.