Chef Brian Bruns was, understandably, anxious.
Two days before the polar vortex hit Chicago last January, his 3,000-pound, 17-foot-long custom smoker, newly arrived from Los Angeles, dangled precariously from a forklift above Fullerton Ave. in front of his future Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant, Flat & Point.
“It was 15 degrees outside, and we’d taken out one of the walls to get the smoker inside,” he recalls. “And I’m watching this thing get lifted over people’s cars — it was so nerve-wracking.”
Once it was safely on the ground, they quickly rolled it inside — where it fit by “literal inches” next to what would be an open-fire Argentine grill. They boarded the wall back up just in time for the temperature to plummet to negative 50 degrees.
The relief proved short-lived for Bruns and co-owner/wife Taylor Bruns, however, as the couple now had to contend with the final city inspection of an indoor smoker unlike any Chicago had seen. They’d already gotten the OK from their general contractor, lawyer, and the Logan Square fire chief.
“The inspector told us, ‘No way this is going to get certified,’” Brian Bruns says. “At this point, we’ve hired people, we’re getting restaurant set up and finishing decorations. Suddenly this one piece of equipment, the whole theme the restaurant is based on, is not usable.”
You may assume by now that said theme would be a counter-service barbecue joint featuring smoked ribs and sliced brisket, with grilled corn and potato salad on paper-lined trays. But Bruns, who started barbecuing as a hobby while he worked in fine-dining kitchens at Spiaggia and Tru, had different plans.
The Brunses had spent the summers of 2017 and 2018 rolling their first commercial-grade smoker — a modest 900-pound Lang — to the Lakefront Trail for a beachfront pop-up, slinging French onion brisket poutine and boudin with kimchi and pulled pork. It convinced them that Chicagoans were open to a different interpretation of barbecue.
For Bruns, smoke is seasoning, and he uses it to play up sweetness and subtlety in dishes. He blitzes the juice of smoked mushrooms and beets into an earthy vin rouge served beneath 12-hour-smoked brisket with blue cheese; he dollops jammy, burnished, slow-smoked onions and garlic into protein marinades or swirls them into sauces that “need a bit more smoke”; he slow-smokes his pork loin and belly porchetta before slicing and charring it to order on the Argentine grill; and he tops wintry sweet potato gnocchi with a sauce made from sweet, smoked butternut squash.
“The goal is for everything I make to pass through the smoker. It’s a flavor that can’t be replicated,” he says.
This style calls for the even, constant flow of smoke and low, steady heat produced by the offset cylindrical smokers made famous at Franklin BBQ in Austin, Texas. Unfortunately, no one in Illinois was making them when the Brunses started scouting locations for Flat & Point. The bigger names that supplied Texas barbecue joints and the competitive home-barbecue circuit had two- or three-year waitlists.
One day while scouring Instagram, Bruns came across a company called FatStack Smokers in Los Angeles. The owner, a welder named Eric Wech, was surprised by Bruns’s request, since he’d produced just a handful of smokers and amassed only 100 followers. It took him about eight months to build the smoker from repurposed propane tanks. When the Brunses asked for a rendering to present to their architect, Wech drew a picture on a napkin and snapped a shot of it with his phone.
“The architect was like, ‘Uh, can’t you get me anything more detailed?’” Bruns says.
The city inspector finally gave them the green light to open Flat & Point once the Brunses agreed to monthly hood cleanings and doubled up on fire suppressants. The restaurant debuted quietly at the end of March 2019, offering a smoke-kissed menu of pastas, meaty entrees, and house charcuterie, finessed with techniques Bruns honed during his fine-dining days.
Because barbecue was in Flat & Point’s opening tagline, it took time for diners to embrace the concept. Some griped directly to Bruns; others took to Yelp. Where are the rib tips? What about the grilled corn? Why is the brisket so expensive? And why isn’t it ready by lunchtime?
They shifted from walk-up ordering to full service, added a few cocktails and a biodynamic wine list, and went all in on seasonal sourcing and whole-animal butchery. “Wood-fired” replaced “barbecue” in the tagline. The surprise Bib Gourmand nod in September reassured them that they were on the right track, and they started seeing more regulars from the neighborhood.
Bruns’s mornings begin around 5 a.m., when he lights an oak-wood fire and cleans, butchers, and seasons brisket during the hour it takes the smoker — which they’ve named the Dude — to reach 275 degrees. After the briskets go in, Bruns feeds the fire every 30 to 45 minutes to maintain a constant temperature.
The day we’re talking, in late October, he’s smoked onions and garlic, along with housemade pork sausage, which will take a turn on the grill before topping autumnal spaetzle with apple butter, fennel, and brown butter. House ricotta will go in for a quick 45 minutes before topping a salad or pasta. Pulled pork will top lightly smoky, roasted delicata squash with Gruyère fondue for an indulgent small plate.
“Right now a lot of the menu is Alpine-inspired — Alpine smokehouse, as Taylor puts it,” he says.
He’ll stop feeding the wood box around 3 p.m., and once the Dude’s temperature drops to 175, he takes out the briskets to rest. When Flat & Point’s doors open at 5, a cheerful, crackling mesquite-wood fire is blazing once again, this time beneath the Argentine grill, on which Bruns likes to finish smoked items, countering their smoldering sweetness with bitter char.
The couple presides over the blazing grill and cooling Dude until close, when they make the 100-foot walk to their adjacent apartment, which Bruns is certain smells like smoke. They eventually collapse into bed — which definitely reeks of barbecue — before waking up to do it all again tomorrow.
“People always tell me how good it smells when they walk in here,” Bruns laughs. “I can’t even smell my own restaurant anymore. When you’re around smoke as much as we are, you don’t even notice it.”