“This is my office until 2 a.m.,” greets Burt Bakman, the man behind Trudy’s Underground Barbecue, then he returns with urgency to his smoker where 14 bulky slabs of beef brisket along with a couple of rib racks have been cooking via indirect heat fueled by logs of red and white oak since 6 in the morning. His Studio City backyard, could probably be any backyard across the vast San Fernando Valley, which is a good thing considering his barbecue enterprise is an illegal food operation where Bakman clandestinely hawks his smoked, tender beef, therefore a nondescript location is welcome — at least it is for keeping the authorities off his scent, so to speak. That scent, quite literally, is the distinct aroma of a well-tended barbecue permeating the air. “See, you get a good whiff once in a while,” he points out.
However, in actuality, Bakman began his process well before 6 a.m. He sourced his meat two days before setting the first brisket into his offset smoker. Then, the next day, he spent an hour and a half trimming the brisket. Today is when the real cooking happens.
“If you’re a painter standing in front of a blank canvas, you are sharing the same experience as all the great artists you can think of who painted on canvas,” explains Bakman who is also an artist; his medium of choice is paint. “Whether it’s Rothko, Basquiat, Cezanne, whoever it may be. They all at one point stood in front of a blank canvas. It’s kind of like time travel. It doesn’t matter your level of skill. When it’s blank, at least for that point, we’re all equal.”
“It’s the same with barbecue,” he expounds. “To cook like this, to go through the whole experience, is to be with everyone who has barbecued in the past and present.” Undoubtedly, this pitmaster views barbecuing beyond simply applying heat to meat. You can call it a spiritual activity, but for Bakman it’s more transportive, meditative, even democratizing. “Each person had to stand in front of the wood and fire. At that moment, we are the same. No matter where you are in the world.”
Bakman’s life wasn’t always deeply rooted in barbecue. The child of Russian-Jewish parents from Israel, he was born in 1976 in southern Africa in the unrecognized state of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). How he was born there is in and of itself a story worthy of a Hollywood screenplay.
Before Bakman’s birth, his mother’s brother, Miron Marcus, had immigrated to South Africa after he met a South African woman in a kibbutz, or farming community, where the family was staying in Israel. The two fell in love and moved to her home country. After relocating, he worked for her family’s business and, as part of his job, regularly piloted a small, single-engine plane over the southern Africa region. During one of these trips, Marcus’ plane was shot down over Mozambique. His passenger died in the ensuing crash but he survived and was captured by Mozambique authorities who accused him of espionage and sentenced him to death.
While the family was trying to win her brother’s freedom, Bakman’s mother, Miriam, traveled many times to Rhodesia. Back and forth from Israel to Rhodesia she went, hoping each time would mean the release of her brother. Sometimes she would receive dire news of his execution, then afterward, she’d learn he was still alive. Bakman’s father went along on some of these trips. During one of her extended visits, his mother gave birth to Bakman. “I still have my Rhodesian passport,” he shares.
At last, after years of negotiating led by Bakman’s grandmother and her political connections, his uncle was released in 1978. “She’s an amazing woman,” Bakman says of his grandmother. “We still have her. She’s 93.” The incident is documented, and his uncle’s mediated freedom was widely reported.
From South Africa, Bakman’s family moved to Heidelberg, Germany for a brief spell before his parents’ divorce. After the split, his mother returned to Israel with her son. Bakman remembers, “Israel has good barbecue. Haifa, where I lived, has really good barbecue. But that whole region, which, unfortunately, is known for a lot of fighting and violence, can also be known for culinary.”
Haifa is where Bakman’s curiosity for food began. Although he didn’t come from a food-centric or cooking household, his mother did have him take culinary classes when he was ten years old. “Unfortunately, I don’t remember much from the classes. I have two memories: seeing my instructor from afar and making a shredded carrot salad. I liked the classes. I thought it was amazing that I could make this thing and then I could eat it.”
Bakman also remembers his grandmother and Russian nanny cooking traditional Russian dishes, “My grandma used dill in everything and herring which I grew to love. Also, golubtsi, the little cabbage burritos stuffed with vegetables, meat and rice.” But, as a child, he didn’t like everything. For example, he describes a Russian aspic called holodets, “It’s a Jell-O made of sewage. It has fragments of egg, beef, chicken, scraps. First time I saw it as a kid I was traumatized. I don’t like tongue either.” However, Bakman has a good recipe from his grandma of which he’s very fond, “Borscht. I make good borscht. I just made some. Let me get you some.”
When Bakman comes back with a small bowl brimming with dark pink soup, he points to the wispy faint blue smoke streaming from the smokestack. His face lights up, “See the smoke? It’s perfect blue smoke. That means you have perfect clean heat and smoke.” For barbecue experts, this is the goal because it’s when the temperature is ideal for smoking brisket. He relaxes for a bit. “I need to check every 30 minutes. I set my alarm so I don’t forget, or if I take a nap.”
In 1989, three years after his first cooking lesson in Haifa, he and his mother moved to the U.S. settling in Southern California. Bakman recalls, “The first thing I bought in America was a two-liter Pepsi. The same day I rented the movie ‘Can’t Buy Me Love.’ It was amazing! Red cars, blonde girls, more than one T.V. channel. I remember my first smells: American garage, baseball pennants. It was good. It was different.” He compares, “In Israel, the smells were nature, construction, smog, traffic. Everyone’s trained in the army. Everyone has guns, ready for an attack. Missiles. There were always missiles falling.”
As a teenage immigrant escaping conflict, Bakman’s attitude towards America was immediate gratitude for practically everything, no matter how seemingly trivial. “I’m in America! I’m going to American school. I’m going to have a locker,” he enthusiastically recalls. “I didn’t know about the worries in America, but I knew I left my worries.”
The food culture that welcomed Bakman made a big impression as well. “I left Russian and Israeli food. Now, I had Tony Roma’s, Denny’s, McDonald’s, Taco Bell. Everything was new. I came from a land of za’atar.” But, spiritually, he was still an artist. He explains, “I wasn’t into food. I was into art. Then at 20, I moved out and started to cook. Hot Pockets, at first.”
However, when he turned 25, a sandwich that Elvis Presley famously was obsessed with became a revelation for Bakman. “I saw a lady on Food Network making a sandwich. She took white bread, sprinkled sugar on it. She had peanut butter, banana, etc. I decided I’m going to make that Elvis sandwich, and I did.” He went to the grocery store, bought enough ingredients for ten sandwiches, made them and gave them to friends.
Suddenly, cooking was his thing, and he was feverish about it. “I started to challenge myself little by little. I sliced banana, then I moved to tomatoes. I’d begin with eight slices, and push myself with a sharp knife and made 40 slices. I cooked my grandma’s recipes.” Bakman advanced to learning from classic cookbooks by Escoffier and Bocuse. Food was now his life’s purpose.
Then, one day he went on a retreat for work in Austin, Texas. He and his colleagues visited the legendary Franklin Barbecue. He recalls, “I had this. I had that. It was amazing! You can only make this by smoking. So I said ‘I’m going to do it.’” After his first try, he discovered it wouldn’t be simple. “I thought it would be easy. How hard could it be compared to French cooking? I ruined my first briskets.”
Bakman asserts that barbecue keeps you humble. It’s about endurance. He suggests that barbecue should be an Olympic sport and considers Arron Franklin of the eponymous restaurant a role model. “Franklin is king. My dream is to have him in my backyard,” he pines.
Bakman walks over to his smoker and heaves open the heavy door, then pulls out a spray bottle filled with an apple cider vinegar-water mix and spritzes the brisket to keep it moist. “This is Tootsie,” referring to his industrial strength smoker, named after Tootsie Tomanetz, a rare female pitmaster who gained barbecue notoriety after the restaurant where she works, Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, Texas, was named “best barbecue joint in Texas” by Texas Monthly. “When it gets late, and I’m here alone, I think of Tootsie and know she’s doing what I’m doing right now,” he says.
Bakman pokes a thermometer into a brisket, piercing the deep black bark (the crust of the brisket), studies it and then walks over to the picnic table and jots down notes on butcher paper where he keeps meticulous records of times and temperatures. This particular batch of brisket and ribs is a special order for Jay-Z’s management team. “To cook for Jay-Z is unbelievable,” he beams.
How people hear about Bakman’s food is through his Instagram account under Trudy’s Underground Barbecue, which is now about 15,000-follower strong. “I let everyone come through at some point,” he says. Although, he admits patience is a virtue for his followers. “I used to use MySpace in the beginning.” As far as playing favorites, he admits, “I like creative types and artists. Interesting people who will add to my experience.” After all, his customers do actually come to his home to pick up orders.
“When I first started, I couldn’t eat all the meat, so I would give the briskets away. I made sandwiches and dropped them off at my friends’ offices,” Bakman reminisces. Now he sells out within two to three hours of announcing his finished products on Instagram. After a taste, it’s easy to see why. The meat is smoky, savory and succulent. A delightfully crusty bark encases a deep pink smoke ring which is the hallmark of a picture perfect barbecue brisket. It’s all there. It’s all good.
Bakman is aware there is a chance he can be shut down by the city. In fact, recently he even had the famous, former underground restaurateur Nguyen Tran of Starry Kitchen visit his backyard. Tran is a fellow Valley resident and no stranger to running an illegal restaurant and getting in trouble for it. “We traded stories. We talked about doing an underground restaurant summit,” he shares.
Furthermore, Bakman does have plans to go legit with an actual restaurant set to open in October. The name of the brick and mortar is Slab, located on 3rd Street in the Beverly Grove district.
At this point you may be wondering who the Trudy of Bakman’s underground barbecue is. It turns out she’s the mother of his good friend. He explains, “Trudy always made her Jewish oven brisket. Friends joked we should have a contest. Her oven brisket is baked for 3 hours.” He continues, “The joke I tell is Trudy cooks her brisket with love, and I cook mine with flavor. But that’s not true; I cook with love too.” And, he always loved the name, so he used it.
Because Bakman views barbecue culture through the lens of an immigrant, he appreciates barbecue from all over the world and is amused by the competition that seems inherently attached to the scene. “Everyone thinks they have the best barbecue: Argentinians, Brazilians, Israelis, Italians. My wife is Argentinian, so I know,” he says.
“But this Texas barbecue, Central Texas barbecue, is as American as it gets. I’m from another country. You’re from another country. But we’re eating this barbecue as Americans. We are now the same through this food from this country.” He pauses then asks, “Did you get a smell of that? That’s a good smell.”
Top Image: Trudy's brisket slices | Eddie Lin Trudy's Underground BBQ