Grant Carter told a small lie when asked by his classmate Hannah if he was doing well in a statistics class at the University of Montana. The white lie got him a study session with Hannah, but it didn't take long for them to realize that neither knew much about what was going on in class. Ten years later, Hannah and Grant Carter, a husband and wife team, opens Bitterroot BBQ in Seattle. Grant, Bitterroot's head chef, worked at restaurants in Chicago before coming to Seattle, and Hannah earned her Seattle food scene chops working at Quinn's Pub and Scott Staples Catering. Together, the two Montana transplants are defining Northwest-style barbecue, which includes throwing a good many things into Bitterroot's custom smoker.
Photo by Tiffany Ran
Grant: It really has to do with a lot of the places I've worked at. Barbecue was such a common thing that cooks want to eat at family meal. It just really came from what I wanted to eat, which for the last couple of years, we just loved eating barbecue. We got interested in it, really started working on it, and it sort of developed into what we're doing now. It wasn't something that started with a massive plan. Since we were in college, and over the last couple of years, we've talked about opening a restaurant, and there were a dozen concepts that we were convinced that we were going to open.
Hannah: When it came down to it, we were together for ten years, and we've been in this industry for more than that. When it came time to do our own thing with our own money, we wanted to open what we liked to eat. We're not going to try to guess what other people like to eat, we wanted to open what we like to eat and drink.
Were there challenges in trying to open a restaurant in Seattle as transplants?
Grant: We really did everything we could to draw on everybody in the last four years who said, "We want to help you build this." We tried to utilize all of our friends, and it helped out a ton. The time that Hannah spent at Quinn's was huge for us. We learned what it takes for businesses to be successful in Seattle, and just met so many people. The people who chef at Quinn's and the people we've met from there have been so helpful.
In your opinion, what does it take for businesses to be successful in Seattle?
Hannah: I really think that one thing unique to Seattle is that the design and feel of a restaurant is hugely important to their success. In some other places, it might just be like, if their product is kind of good, it's going to be successful. I feel like here, you need to pay attention to every aspect of the design and atmosphere, as long as it feels comfortable, approachable, and organic. You don't want to be too fancy, because everybody is rockin' out in their Danskos and stuff, so I think there is a certain feel that makes sense. You have to be approachable for what the people in the city of Seattle are looking for.
What's your barbecue favorite?
Grant: Ribs are always my favorite thing, but I think pulled pork and brisket are always kind of litmus test for a restaurant.
Hannah: ...and I'm a hot link girl. I love charcuterie and encased meats. So to me, if you can grind and case your hot link well, then we're talking. So that's what I usually go for.
Grant: I feel like our hot link has gotten really, really good. My sous chef John Connolly has gotten so good at making the hot links. It's been really impressive.
Barbecue can be very personal for some people. Do you have customers either commending you or complaining that your barbecue is not what they're accustomed to?
Grant: Yes. Especially in the beginning, there were a lot of people coming in saying that we weren't doing it the way they thought, or a lot of people coming in asking me, "What kind of barbecue do you do or what style?" I really don't have an answer for that except that we're trying to do what we like. We're not trying to go for one specific thing.
Hannah: We've kind of tossed around this idea of calling it Northwest-style because really, barbecue has to do with what's going on around the regions. For us, we smoke applewood from Eastern Washington, so we have a lot lighter, sweeter smoke on our meat than if you get the Mesquite or Hickory. All of our meats are Painted Hills beef and Carlton Farms pork, so all of those meats are coming from the region as well. All of those things are important to [barbecue], and then there's, "To sauce, or not to sauce?" And we don't sauce.
Based on your menu, it seems like you put some unconventional things in your smoker. Were some of these experiments or accidents?
Grant: A lot of experiments. We've done everything. We've smoked coconuts for Pina Coladas. We have smoked peach purée. We've smoked whiskey. Everything that we get, we want to throw it in the smoker to see if it'll work.
Is it challenging to run a restaurant together as a couple?
Grant: Absolutely. That's a challenge. I think it would be more of a challenge to open a restaurant if your partner was not involved, but your partner being involved is also a huge challenge.
Hannah: It's funny because you spend so much time with your partner at the same location, whether it's at your house or at your restaurant, you'll often feel like you never see your partner because you don't have that one-on-one time with your partner. It's weird that you log all these hours, but you still have to try hard all the time to make sure that you take time away from business to hang out with each other, or hang out with your best friends...
Hannah and Grant in unison: ...and not talk about work.
Grant: I think it's getting better. We're getting better and better at it.
Hannah: Grant and I met over ten years ago in Montana. We used to fly fish in the Bitterroot River. We lived in the Bitterroot Valley and mountain range. We spent the first five years of our relationship in Montana, so it's definitely something that is very close to our hearts. We actually opened almost ten years to the date of meeting. So it's a nice reference to where we started, and sort of the next ten years of our life as well because we have a ten year lease here.