Now open! Chef Henry Besser-Rosenberg serves up Southern Smokehouse fare on the Preston Street strip.
Chef Henry Besser-Rosenberg is back! You may not have heard of him — yet — because he has been in Vancouver for the past few years, studying at the Pacific Culinary Arts Institute before making a name for himself as an expert in all things barbecue. The Ottawa native, who got his start in high school as a dishwasher at Absinthe, returned to his hometown this past summer to launch his own restaurant. The 35-seat Mason-Dixon kitchen + bar opened on Preston Street in late October, serving up Besser-Rosenberg’s take on all things smoked — from brisket to beets, and ribs to cheese.
City Bites Insider caught up with Chef Besser-Rosenberg and his general manager, Casey Walsh, to learn more about this smokehouse with the cool cocktail menu.
You two seem very chill and comfortable. Have you worked together before?
Casey: No! But we’ve known each other since Grade 7, when we met at Hopewell. We went to Glebe together, then parted ways. I went to Bishops; Henry went west to study at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts. Now we’re both back, which is great. Henry convinced me to work with him — as GM, I do the paperwork, but also front of house.
Give me a quick rundown of what you were both doing prior to Mason-Dixon kitchen + bar.
Henry: I started out working as a dishwasher at Absinthe in high school then started cooking, so Patrick Garland has been a huge mentor to me. He suggested that I go west to study at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts. I ended up getting into the barbecue scene, traveling around to competitions, and then working with smoke at restaurants in Vancouver.
Casey: I was working as a sales rep at Mill St. Brewery, but lost my job last June in a reorganization. That’s when I started working with Henry and it went from there.
Why Ottawa and why barbecue?
Henry: Ottawa because it’s affordable, but most importantly because it’s home. I’m close to family and the scene is familiar. Barbecue for so many reasons! A lot of my classmates were really into fine dining and classical French techniques — they wanted to do the same things. At the same time as they were doing that, I got really into barbecue. I like using smoke as a technique, so I began experimenting with smokers — not just classic smoked meats, but smoked cheese, smoked beets, smoked mushrooms…. I began figuring out smoked dishes based on seasonal and local ingredients — this is southern barbecue meets Canada.
What did the place look like when you got the keys?
Casey: It used to be Quan Viet Fusion and it was painted floor-to-ceiling purple. There was a lot of painting to be done!
Henry: When I got the keys, we redid the colours right away. And I shipped a smoker out from B.C.
You’ve been open a month. How’s business so far?
Henry: It has been great. We’ve been busy right away, and have had really good feedback. You feel like you have to prove yourself as “new kids” on the street, but it has been good stress. I’m just really happy to make my own food.
Casey: It’s a small staff, so everybody really cares. We definitely take the work home with us.
What dishes have been most popular?
Henry: The Nashville hot fried chicken and buttermilk waffle has been a huge hit. That’s one I can’t take off the menu.
Casey: One regular customer has been in and ordered that six or seven times in the last three weeks!
Henry: The smoked beef brisket has also been really popular, and the [hickory smoked St. Louis style] pork ribs. We plan to change some of the menu items with the seasons — things like the smoked beet salad and the smoked mushrooms, but some of the items will stay.
Right now you’re open for dinner till really late. Is that the plan for now?
Henry: We’re open till midnight Monday to Thursday, and till 2am on Friday and Saturday. We serve the full menu right up until closing so we’ve already had a lot of [restaurant] industry people come by after their shifts. That’s been really fun.
At this point, there’s no plan to start opening for lunch. It’s a really small kitchen and you can only make so much at a time in the smoker. For instance, the brisket takes 14 hours so you can’t just make a new batch instantly when it runs out. We’ll see how it goes.
Tell me about the cocktail list. It looks pretty neat.
Henry: Josh Roy helped us a lot with the cocktails. He has worked at Black Tomato and House of Targ.
Casey: Quite a few of the cocktails are bourbon-influenced. There’s a blue bourbon lemonade [with muddled blueberries, house lemonade, and bourbon] and a red bourbon sour [with bourbon, simple syrup, lemon, egg white, and red wine].
Henry: Our Caesar has been really big. It includes our house-smoked bacon and house-smoked cheddar.
One month in, how do you feel?
Henry: Tired but happy. It’s fun.