Words Eddie Brannan Images Michael Mundy
Steve Mutter is tall and lean with a surfer’s laid-back, loosey-goosey mien and a ready smile. He sports a dirty blond mustache with a long soul patch that extends down to his chin—a beach-bum version of the Anonymous mask—and he’s wearing a floppy but stylish sunhat, loose shorts and a baggy orange T-shirt that bears the logo of the 12 Bones Smokehouse barbecue restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina, where he learned the pit-master’s trade. When he changes into a chef’s jacket and checkered pants for a photo, he remains barefooted. He has a roguish, boyish charm and, even with a couple of missing upper front teeth, he’s undeniably a handsome guy. He looks 40 years old, though he’s probably closer to 60.
We meet where he’s currently living, a neat grey-painted timber frame house that overlooks Callicoon Creek, near the town of North Branch, New York. Present is his daughter Caitlin, who exudes the kind of striking capability acquired by one who has had to be a rock in turbulent waters. She’s with her husband, an affable, bearded young man also called Steve who works in the excavation business, and their two children, a sweet and gregarious four-year-old tyke named Jace and his younger sister Lydia, a charmingly serious toddler. Since the plan is for Steve Sr. to barbecue for this magazine’s photo shoot, he has determined to make a day of it and have family over. It’s an idyllic, storybook setting—three generations seated around sturdy yard tables under a shade tree, while a squat rectangular smoker sits front and center, emitting white wafts of smoke and appetizing aromas. A folding table to one side bears an array of dishes containing all the requisite fixin’s for a North Carolina barbecue: collard greens, baked beans, corn pudding and a jug of iced sweet tea. All this in a trim and tidy roadside yard in Yankee Delaware County, while eagles and blue herons glide between the trees along the creek in back and a raucous crow sees off the buzzards making periodic incursions into its territory.
Barbecue is, of course, a slow process. If you aim to eat at the laid-back hour of four pm then your meat needed to be in the smoker somewhere around two in the morning. While there isn’t a huge amount to do over the ensuing 14 hours, it’s by no means a set-it-and-forget-it operation. The temperature and the moisture within the smoker both need to be carefully maintained, and there’s no rushing the meat. If your butt or shoulder or picnic or brisket chooses to take its own sweet time to come up the final five degrees to temperature, there’s nothing to do about it but sit back on a lawn chair, open another beer, and chew the fat with whomever has dropped by while you wait. This we did, and so I came to hear Steve’s story.
Like many, it began with a spell in the armed forces. “I did five years in the Navy,” he says. “I was 19 when I went in, saw 22 different countries. I wasn’t cooking—I was a machinist’s mate—and when I got out, I stuck in that line of work, worked in shipyards for a while.” But then he started traveling and came up north, to New York State.
Mutter had a brief spell in the Delaware Valley almost three decades ago, working in a kitchen, but he wasn’t yet cooking. “I was at the Villa Roma in the late ’80s,” he says, referring to a well-known resort just outside of Callicoon, NY, where he held a variety of kitchen maintenance positions. He got married; he had a daughter.
A divorce followed and he left town with a girlfriend to live in a Volkswagen bus. “We spent six months on South Padre Island, Texas, helping a guy build beach buggies and then we rented ’em out. We made decent money, we lived on the beach in our bus.”
The relationship with the girl did not last, but the one with South Padre Island did. “I went to Colorado on a road trip and that’s where it ended,” he explains. “She shit-canned me, so I went back to South Padre and stayed there for 14 years total. I waited tables at a restaurant that was voted one of the top 500 in the country.”
“I did five years in the Navy. I was 19 when I went in, saw 22 different countries. I wasn’t cooking—I was a machinist’s mate—and when I got out, I stuck in that line of work, worked in shipyards for a while.”
Eventually Mutter moved back to North Carolina and, needing work, applied for a vacant position at the Asheville Barbecue Company. “Their pit master had just walked out one day, and didn’t leave any recipes written down,” he explains, so with supreme confidence he applied for the job, despite knowing very little about the art of barbecue. Improvisation was the order of the day, according to Mutter. “I took my ideas from what they had before and added my own twist to it, and just went from there.”Mutter’s relationship with barbecue took a significant turn when he joined the staff of the new 12 Bones Smokehouse in Asheville, NC. Neither of 12 Bones’ owners, Thomas Montgomery and Sabra Kelley, come from a barbecue tradition, nor were they originally from North Carolina. They were both graduates of New England Culinary Institute (NECI), and came to Asheville after pursuing careers as chefs around the country. “We got tired of driving to Memphis for ribs,” Thomas has said of their initial motivation. Despite their lack of history, or perhaps because of their willingness to explore non-traditional ingredients and techniques—so-called “progressive ’cue”—12 Bones became enormously successful, opening several locations and publishing the very popular 12 Bones Smokehouse, A Mountain BBQ Cookbook. “They just liked eating good southern food,” says Mutter of the owners’ motivation. “When we started we had no idea it would blow up the way it did.” 12 Bones’ original location, where Mutter manned the pit, became a favorite of President Obama, who visited every time the business of running the country took him to Asheville. I mention that he’s like Freddy, the pit master of the eponymous restaurant/confessional favored by Frank Underwood in House Of Cards, and Mutter is tickled pink, although he makes it clear that the POTUS simply came to eat his food, not to seek his counsel.
“Their pit master had just walked out one day, and didn’t leave any recipes written down. I took my ideas from what they had before and added my own twist to it, and just went from there.”
In time, the pressures of running a thriving restaurant business became too much for Montgomery and Kelley, and in 2012 they sold out. Mutter, itinerant by nature, came north, and rebuilt the relationship with his daughter that had foundered during his journeyman years. He is currently serving up his eye-openingly good ribs and smoked wings at Bubba’s in White Lake, NY.
Life hasn’t always been easy for Steve Mutter. He is candid about a prison sentence he served for failing to pay child support, and makes the old joke that goes “I did cocaine once…for two years” and isn’t joking, but that’s just how things are with Steve Mutter. That’s what brings him to a sunny yard with his daughter, a brook burbling in back and two delightful grandkids burbling in front. It’s ups and downs; things getting wrong before they get right. We talk long and slow beforehand, as the nature of barbecue demands, then we eat and talk again, to digest and to contemplate. Steve Mutter drinks a beer and smokes a cigarette and takes in his surroundings. “Just because the recipe says it’s so many hours, it doesn’t matter,” he muses quietly, perhaps talking about barbecue, perhaps not. “It’s ready when it’s ready, no matter how long that takes.”