Kentucky Living contributing writer Graham Shelby traveled around the state sampling barbecue restaurants for our main feature, which highlights a few of the state’s many terrific barbecue options. As a Louisvillian, Graham also wanted to share a few of his recommendations from the Derby City, including Momma’s Mustard, Pickles & BBQ, and Back Deck Bar-B-Que, whose story symbolizes the work and passion that pitmasters across Kentucky show for the craft of creating great ‘Q for their customers.
“I get up about 2:45a.m.,” says Chan Nelson, owner of Louisville’s Back Deck Bar-B-Que. “I’m normally here by 3:00.”
These are classic pitmaster’s hours, because the making good barbecue is both an art and a science, and it requires time. The brisket and pork at Back Deck are smoked for 8 hours, the ribs for 5-6, wings for 3-4. Back Deck’s barbecue dishes reflect multiple influences – Memphis dry rub, Texas heat, Kansas City sweetness – and the menu includes burnt ends as well as a robust selection of sides, some of which have gotten The Patriarch treatment, like smoked mac ‘n cheese, smoked corn on the cob and smokey beans.
That means to open by 11 a.m., Nelson must be up early lighting hickory and cherry wood in the guts of the giant smoker he’s christened “The Patriarch.”
Nelson, a former elementary school math teacher, started with a successful food truck then opened the restaurant in 2021. His business is built on customers like Steve Obst, who has been a regular since he first sampled Nelson’s pulled pork at a festival in 2016. “I took one bite and immediately ordered another sandwich.” Obst tells people, “If you want good barbecue, don’t go chains, go to Chan.”
Back Deck’s barbecue dishes reflect multiple influences, and the menu includes burnt ends as well as a robust selection of sides, some of which have gotten The Patriarch treatment, like smoked mac ‘n cheese, smoked corn on the cob and smokey beans.
Nelson’s son, Jarrell, 17, works with his dad, and says, “Even though it’s hard work, we’ve built a lot of memories,” preparing food at all hours and serving customers. Occasionally, that means explaining the nature of barbecue—sometimes restaurants will run out of some items before closing time. “You can’t just throw another brisket on the smoker,” Jarrell says. “It’s not a burger.”
Nelson says he loves bringing people together to share his food on the literal back deck of Back Deck Bar-B-Que. He also loves the sometimes-grueling process of preparing the food they enjoy. “There’s nothing like taking a piece of raw meat and putting it on the grate that’s not even close to the flame and seeing what the fire can do.” It’s tiring, yes, he says, “but that’s my favorite part.”