Smoking with the Master – Tips and Tricks of the Trade

“Matthew was born with BBQ sauce running through his veins,” said Matt Russo’s father in a comment on The Gambling Stick’s Facebook page, “He’s been in love with barbecue for as long as I can remember.”

The smoky love child of Matt Russo and Marshall Hamilton, The Gambling Stick is Nashville’s newest mobile BBQ joint that sits just outside of the east Porter Road Butcher shop. Russo, an employee of PRB for just shy of 3 years now, actually got his first real job working in a barbecue joint in his hometown of Louisville, KY when he was just 16 years old. He’s had smoke in his eyes ever since.

Not only did Russo get handed the position of “smokemaster” almost immediately due to his substantial smoking prowess—which came mainly a result of his love for sunny afternoons and sharing great food with great friends—but working at PRB he was afforded the opportunity to learn how to fully break down animals and quickly discovered the vast difference that high-quality meats make when it comes to cooking.

With his knowledge of whole animal butchery coupled with his classical training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY and even further aided by his southern roots and love of smoke, what Russo has done with The Gambling Stick is unparalleled by any other BBQ joint in town. Or in the region.

Loaded Smoker at The Gambling Stick | Porter Road Butcher

Both originality and tradition clearly play into the menu, and likely their most popular item is one that exudes both: the “pigsket.” The pigsket (or, pig brisket) from the Gambling Stick is sweet and smoky, full of flavor, not the least bit dry, and has clearly been on the smoker for just the right amount of time: a typically tougher cut of meat, Russo turns it into something incredibly juicy and tender. Of course, beef brisket is a fantastic staple on their menu as well.

Another Barbecue classic-turned-original, Russo and Hamilton have been playing around in the world of ribs, giving hungry meat-lovers entire 12- to 14-inch “whole slab ribs” (for which they are still trying to come up with a suitable name) instead of the traditional rib cuts like St. Louis style, spare ribs, or rib tips. James said, “After eating a whole rib, I was almost full. Those things are serious.”

Following years and years of experimenting, playing, and learning on the smoker and in the kitchen, Russo can pretty much do it with his eyes closed and his hands tied behind his back. It just ain’t no thang. Which is why he’s giving us (and you) tips and tricks of the trade:

Matt Russo of The Gambling Stick | Porter Road Butcher

Smoking Tips from the “Smokemaster,” Matt Russo

Pigsket Sandwich from The Gambling Stick | Porter Road Butcher1. Use Good Meat
And like, duh. Of course that’s going to taste better. But there’s actually a good reason as to why you should use high-quality meat when you’re planning to smoke it. As a muscle works, aka as an animal roams around, it develops connective tissue and flavor. So, if an animal uses their muscles a lot, meaning they are roaming out on the field with their piggy and beefy friends, they will develop more connective tissue and more flavor than those who lived their entire lives in a small crate where they couldn’t move. In the smoking technique, you generally go for a long time and at a low temperature, aka “slow and low,” so that it will break down those well-worked muscled filled with connective tissues and then turn those tissues into gelatin. That gelatin is the meaty tacky goodness that makes your lips stick together and makes you feel happy when you eat BBQ. So, by using a pasture raised animal, the meat will initially be tougher, but with the slow and low smoking process, it will become more tender and gelatinous and amazing.

2. NOT too HOT
As do most cooking processes, smoking meat elicits moisture. So when the temperature is high, more moisture will be drawn out from the meat, causing somewhat of a steaming effect and thus leaching moisture from the meat. Leaving you with dry meat. Nooo, gracias.

3. Pick Fruity Wood
“Fruity woods, like cherry, impart a sweeter smoke, whereas woody woods, like hickory or oak, impart less flavor and can sometimes leave you with an acrid or bitter flavor,” explains Russo. “When using good, sweet cherry wood you can smoke something for 16-18 hours and it will come off tasting sweet and smoky and delicious, but if you did the same with hickory the meat could become inedible.” Talk abut a waste of time.

4. You don’t need a smoker to be a smoker
Most people don’t have badass smokers like The Gambling Stick’s, but even without such a piece of equipment, you can still get great smoking results.
Gas grill – put wood into a small, shallow cast-iron pan on top of the grill’s heat source (on medium-low heat). Set your meat on the grill and then simply close the top and let ‘er go.
Charcoal grill – build a fire made of wood—not charcoal—on one side of the grill base and place your meat on the grill as far away from the heat as possible, so as to avoid direct heat, aka grilling. Close the top and smoke on.
Note: don’t wet the wood; instead keep it dry. That way you’ll get a better smoke on your meat instead of smouldering it.


5. Be on top of it but also be flexible
“It’s important to keep an eye on the temperature and try to keep it consistent,” advises Russo. A good range is 225o to 275o but that range can vary depending on what you’re smoking and how you want it to turn out. “With chicken I like to smoke it a little higher at first to get the skin nice and crispy, and then turn it down to finish it,” he says. But remember – recipes and rules are always subject to change when it comes to cooking. “You’ve got to keep an eye on things so that you can change strategies if you need to: turn up the heat, turn it down, or even taking the meat off the smoker way before or way after you’d initially planned. Just like grilling, after a while you’ll begin to get the hang of it.”

6. Don’t limit yourself
Smoking is not just for meats. Fish, like trout and salmon, are both excellent on the smoker. Smoking things like vegetables, particularly in a vegetarian setting, can add a sort of meaty characteristic to a dish that would be otherwise without. And even using smoked goods in baking—smoked lard, smoked salt, smoked fruits—can add in a little umami to what would otherwise be a traditional sweet!

The Gambling Stick is open Thursdays – Sundays from 11am until they run out. They are located at Porter Road Butcher East, 501 Gallatin Ave, and are available for catering events as well. Follow them on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

The Gambling Stick’s Barbeque Saturdays at PRB East

Ever heard of a “gambling stick?” Neither had we. It sounds like something we really want to get into, but should probably staunchly avoid—for the sanity and security of our wives and girlfriends and significant others.

But when our own Matt Russo told us that The Gambling Stick has absolutely nothing to do with casinos, and has everything to do with pork barbecue, we were like, “All in.”

Ribs n Greens from The Gambling StickRusso had more or less had it with the upscale restaurant scene when he left his job as Chef d’ Cuisine for Nashville’s historic Merchant’s Restaurant nearly two years ago: all the stuffiness, all the politics, and all the bologna that he’d come to accept as normal in a more high-brow environment had simply worn him out. But he wasn’t ready to give up the culinary world all together. He still loved the food; he loved to cook; and he had an idea.

Since then he’s been working on and developing his vision, and it’s finally about to come to fruition. We’re psyched.

As a chef with plenty of experience in the kitchen and ample experience on the butcher block (plus, a southern background and upbringing to boot) it only makes sense that Russo would be a bomb-diggity barbequer. And we’re confident that his soon-to-be BBQ joint called The Gambling Stick is going to be the best in town. Plus, they’re gonna be using PRB pig…hello?

So what is a Gambling Stick, you ask? Quite simply, it is a piece of wood that was used in butchering pigs way back in the day: for ease of both mechanics and cleaning, pigs were slaughtered while hanging upside down from a stick that was threaded through its feet. Mechanically it made sense as the pig was easy to rinse out and all of the Mmmm Fried Chickeninnards were visible and easily accessible, but physically this tool wasn’t always successful; it was a gamble as to whether said stick would be able to bare the weight of the pig or if it would break, leaving the animal to crash to the earth. Hence, The Gambling Stick.

We just think it’s a killer name that rolls off the tongue nicely: “Honey, I’m too tired to cook. Let’s grab dinner at The Gambling Stick” or “Man, I’m craving a beer and some brisket… Gambling Stick?”

It flows.

Regardless of the origin of the name, the origins of the establishment are a couple that we know quite well: Matt Russo and Porter Road Butcher. And those origins will actually be originating this coming Saturday, March 22nd at 11 in the morn’.


The Gambling Stick will offer a fixed menu plate, loaded with a heap of delicious food for just $14:

  • Pork Brisket (which they fondly refer to as Pigsket)
  • Spare Ribs
  • Greens with PRB Ham Hock
  • Baked Beans
  • Cornbread
  • Special house-made sauce, on the side

Smokin Pork Butts from The Gambling Stick with Porter Road Butcher meatSince Barbeque Saturdays will be going on each and every week, rain or shine, they are planning to offer different scratch-made sides and barbequed pig varieties as time goes on, generating even more excitement and buzz about The Gambling Stick. “We’re really excited to use Porter Road Butcher meat and also want to focus on using local and seasonal ingredients whenever possible,” Russo said. “We’re hoping we can work a deal out with PRB in the future so we can continue to use the best and freshest products.”

The Gambling Stick has future plans to feature a house-made porchetta (pork loin wrapped in bacon, seasoned with herbs, spit roasted, and then sliced in rounds), slow-roasted pulled pork, and smoked and sliced ham, among other piggy delicacies.

So although the weather may provide a bit of a gamble—particularly with this menopausal year we’ve been experiencing—we’re willing to wager that, no matter what the elements throw at us, people will be lining up to throw down their dollars and score big with The Gambling Stick BBQ; amazing food ain’t no gamble here.

The Gambling Stick

Check out The Gambling Stick on Facebook and Instagram @thegamblingstick