Saturday, December 8, 2007

BBQ Primer #2 - Rendezvous Restaurant, Memphis

Interview with Nick Vergo Conducted by Brian Fisher
16 October 2002

The people that have taken barbecue, the art of cooking barbecue or the skills of cooking barbecue in a sense commercial probably are restaurateurs, or people whose family had been in the restaurant business and may have had someone that helped in the family restaurant business that they liked to barbecue.

The Rendezvous is a perfect example. The Rendezvous never opened up to be a barbecue restaurant. My father had a vegetable meat and three place on Union Avenuecalled Wimpy's. He was partners with his brother in law and they were selling meat loaf and mashed potatoes and they had a hamburger. On the hamburger you could get mustard, pickle, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise, Durkees. You know, a thousand different things.

Right across the street from him was a Crystal. He was selling like ten hamburgers a day and, then, the Crystalthey were carrying ten out at a time and there were a thousand people. They were selling ten thousand hamburgers a day and he was selling ten and he was giving people all these options.

He and his brother in law didn't get along. Well, they got along they just had a difference of views. My father said "I'm going to open up: I'm going to bake hams and sell beer." Make a ham sandwich and sell beer. He went in the basement of the building where Wimpy's was and opened up the Rendezvous.

There was an elevator shaft in the building that was not used anymore so he built a smoker. He was buying his hams, cured hams, from Louis Feinberg, Feinberg Packing Company. So he started a fire, put the hams up and smoked his hams to give them a little more flavor. And, you could buy a small beer or a tall beer, a 10 oz. or 12 oz. beer. He said if "I open up my ham sandwich place, I'm not going to give people any options." You're going to get it on rye bread only and, your only options, there would be two options. You could either get it with cheese or without cheese or you could get it with mustard or without mustard and that was it. He served it with kosher pickles on the side and a couple peperonccinis. Or, he'd make you a plate. He'd slice the cheese up; make it into little sticks; put some ham on it, pickles and peppers; put it on the table and that was it.

Back then, downtown was the only shopping area of town. People were one car families. On Saturday's, during the week the people that worked downtown, the men that worked downtown, the window dressers, the sales clerks. They'd all come down to the Rendezvous, have a sandwich and a beer waiting for their wives to come pick them up in the only car in the family.

Eventually, it got to be a little bit nicer place. The wives would come down; they'd have a sandwich with them and that's all you could get, ham sandwich. He had ham, cheese, and salami. The same salami now is the same salami that we started with, made in St. Louis by the John Volpe Company. I'm not a big salami eater but I don't want to eat anybody else's salami cause this one is so good.

He was open just for dinner. It was a snack bar. Rendezvous Snack Bar was the original name of the restaurant. On Saturdays, it was shopping day. The husbands would drive the wives downtown. The wives would go shopping. The guys would go down to the Rendezvous and have a ham sandwich and a beer. Television wasn't hardly in. This was in the late forties and the early part of the fifties; wasn't television. Guys just sitting around, eating ham sandwiches and drinking beer waiting for their wives to get through shopping and go back home.

Mr. Feinberg said "you need to expand your menu a little bit." Dad said, "I know that but I don't really know what to do." So he got some chickens and baked chickens, cooked them on the grill. (He) did the same thing (as they do with ribs)- 18 inches off the fire. Cooked chickens on there. He couldn't give them away. Nobody wanted barbecue chicken, grilled chicken. He got oysters on the 1/2 shell. He said, "I think oysters are great." Our flower beds at our house, my parents house, the beds were made with those shells from the oysters. Lasted about a year. The oysters were just a pain. (He) Wasn't selling very many of them.

Mr. Feinberg said, "Well, I've got these ribs." He (Mr. Charlie Vergo) said, "I don't know very much about ribs." He had a guy that worked for him whose name was Little John. Little John, I don't know that he was barbecue man, or not, but he know how to cook ribs.

We cook our ribs over a very hot fire. We cook 18 inches off the fire and the fire is as hot as we can get it. We cool it down to keep it from catching fire. But we want it, generally, to be as hot as we can. We want to actually sear the ribs and keep the juiciness of them. We don't cook slow. We want to cook our ribs in an hour and fifteen minutes.

Other people talk about we cook them hours and hours and hours. Well, they're cooking at such low temperatures, if we left our ribs in there for that long, they'd just be charcoal when they got through.

My father's father was a restaurant man, made chili during the depression- chili dog with our cole slaw, the cole slaw that we have on the table, a mustard based slaw for a nickel. That was the same idea that my father had with the ham sandwich. He was going to sell you a hell of a ham sandwich and not really make very much on the ham sandwich. But, if you came in and had three or four beers with it, he'd kill you on the beer. He was going to make his money selling beer.

My grandfather was going to make his money selling Coca-Colas and pies. He was a baker by trade and just baked a hell of a pie. You'd come in a get a hot dog for a nickel, a foot long hot dog for a nickel, with chili and slaw. Cokes were a dime. Coke was more than the hot dog was. He made a penny a hot dog, but he made 3 or 4 cents on the coke. He was just selling hundreds and hundreds and thousands and thousands of hot dogs and lots of Cokes and the pie. .35 cents for a piece of pie, well the pie didn't' cost him but about a nickel to make. A slice of pie was only about a nickel. That was the same idea that my father had. Get them to come in for the sandwiches and sell them a beer or a Coca-Cola. He made money off the coke.
Burger King is a perfect example. They've got 11 items for .99 cents. You can go and get all 11 items and you're out 11 bucks, $10.89. You think, well god, I got 2 sacks of food for $11. For $11, if you got two of their combos which is let's say the double cheeseburger, a large coke, and a large fry, you get two of those, that's $10 dollars right there.

They're making their money off of the Cokes and the french fries is what it boils down to. Cokes and the french fries are where the money is. Coke cost them a dime or fifteen cents and they sell it for a dollar forty nine.

It was the same thought of my father. He said, I'm going to get them in here, get them to buy a sandwich and get them to buy a coke.

Mr. Feinberg came along, said "you need to try these ribs out. They're really good. They're loin ribs. They come off the pork chop." There're spare ribs that come off the belly and they're called back ribs because they come off the back. My father says "Well, I don't know very much about cooking ribs. But we're just going to put them on the grill and cook them just like we did the chicken. Get them done. Take them off and serve them."

Little John was a vinegar man. He said, "You need to have vinegar on your ribs because it makes them tender and it helps keep the fire down a little bit." He just knew. He'd been around. Probably been over to somebody else's house and said I like the way that barbecue tasted and I like it because of the vinegar. Our slaw is vinegar, mustard, and sugar.

My father said, all right, now we need to season it. Well, my grandfather made chili. Chili's got salt, pepper, bay leaf, cumin, chili powder, salt, pepper, and oregano. It's kind of a Greek chili. He said, "I'll mix that seasoning up, the same thing that we put in the chili, cause the chili tasted good. It tastes good because of the seasoning. The seasoning would good on the ribs." They put the seasoning on the ribs; tasted delicious. Served them to the table.

"Charlie, these ribs are delicious but you're calling them barbecue ribs and they're not red. They need to have that red." So he went and got a container of paprika and added it to it. Stirred it up. It was red and that's what we have today.

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