Local barbecue pitmaster brings an artist’s touch to the restaurant’s smoked meats
Listening to UT Craven — that’s short for “Uturrius” — rhapsodize over his meat-smoking expertise is like listening to an artist talk technique or a wine connoisseur discuss France’s finest vintages.
“The first time I walked into Edley’s, I could smell the white oak rolling through the building,” Craven says, reminiscing about his 2011 job interview. “That’s an alarm clock everyone should have.”
When Craven landed at Edley’s, he’d just helped a family friend launch a restaurant and was considering his next options.
“I’d done the fine dining experience, but I needed a spot to be me — just a good-ole country boy,” Craven says. “What drew me in was when I walked in and saw the atmosphere — that Amish barn wood — and heard the blues playing.” And that luscious smoke, of course.
White oak, Craven says, is the perfect wood for smoking meat ... as long as you know what you’re doing.
“Mesquite is too heavy. Cherry compliments any meat — turkey, chicken, fish — especially mixed with white oak, but you can’t let the oak overpower the meat,” he says.
A native of Lubbock, Texas, Craven started cooking at the age of nine and learned to hunt, barbecue and smoke meat from his daddy and granddad on the small farm the family owned. After a couple of years of college, Craven moved to Nashville and got a gig cooking at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, where he added to his culinary knowledge.
“Gaylord has great chefs, and I moved from restaurant to restaurant, picking up snippets from other people,” he says. “The thing about culinary work is you don’t ever stop learning.”
When the Edley’s team reached out to him, he recognized the owners had a similar passion for barbecue and smoked meats, and according to Craven’s co-worker Mark Harvey, the partnership has been a great fit. “UT is really the soul of Edley’s,” Harvey says. Craven isn’t only responsible for smoking the ribs, brisket and pork shoulder to perfection, he also creates the restaurants’ sauces.
“I like heat but not so hot it destroys your palate. Now, you will feel some heat and it’s going to hang around for about 30 minutes,” he says.
Craven describes a recent experiment for the 12South Festival with a sauce he named ‘Regret’ — “and I did regret it." His lips, he says, felt like they were being pricked by tiny razor blades. “One guy ate about 15 chicken wings with that and when I got there, he didn’t look too hot,” he says, shaking his head.
For Pitmaster UT, the bottom line is seeing satisfied diners, the people wiping their mouths with the back of their hands or nodding at him as he passes through the dining room, their mouths too full to do more than shoot him a thumbs up.
Craven is contemplating adding to the current Edley’s menu, and is experimenting with smoked salmon and smoked catfish. “If I think I can smoke it, I’ll smoke it. I don’t run from anything.”