At Harvard, even the meat smoker is smart

Marketplace Contributor May 25, 2015

At Harvard, even the meat smoker is smart

Marketplace Contributor May 25, 2015

On a quest to invent a smart smoker, a junior-year Harvard engineering class partnering with Williams-Sonoma has smoked more than 200 pounds of brisket over the last few months

It isn’t hard to find the class — the mesquite aroma leads right to teaching assistant Peyton Nesmith. The Alabama native is tending a 300-pound, black hour-glass-shaped ceramic smoker. The contraption is covered with wires, gadgets and gizmos.

An up-close look at the brisket Nesmith is cooking. (Eliza Grinnell/Harvard SEAS

“This brisket’s been cooking since 3 a.m.,” Nesmith says. “We probably have a few hours left on it. This is our typical routine. Our cadence of our battle rhythm as our adviser would say.”

That adviser is professor Kevin Kit Parker. He’s not just an academic. He’s a towering Army lieutenant colonel in the reserves with, he says, a Southerner’s passion for barbecue.

“I was walking around the parking lot of the Memphis Liberty Bowl looking at all these contraptions that people were smoking barbecue in. And I’m thinking, ‘None of these things looks the same.’ And that means we haven’t reduced our knowledge of barbecue down to a fundamental set of laws about how to do barbecue right.”

Parker proudly displays the Harvard smoker. (Eliza Grinnell/Harvard SEAS)

Parker says he vetted his ideas with culinary experts. 

“I talked to some classically trained chefs. They said no one’s done this. No one’s ever taken a scientific approach to barbecue, to smoking.”

Parker teaches bioengineering and applied physics at Harvard. So he decided to give his students a real-world assignment. First, he introduced them to a client, the high-end consumer retailer Williams-Sonoma. The job: come up with the perfect smoker. After five long, snowy months, the data is in. It’s game day.

Students present the design and physics of the Harvard smoker to class-client Williams-Sonoma. (Eliza Grinnell/Harvard SEAS)

The students work up to the last minute to showcase the final product. A parade of guests checks it out in a fancy auditorium in one of Harvard’s engineering buildings. Professors, chefs and top brass from Williams-Sonoma pack the room. 

The students rock. 

All 16 play a part in explaining the smoker’s intricacies, from the unusual shape of the smoker to a smartphone app that tells you meat temperature, using Parker’s mantra: design, build and test. As he chews, Pat Connolly, Williams-Sonoma executive vice president, rates the Harvard smoker against others.

“If you look at the color, you get a much more consistent color here. If you look at the moisture, the moisture is fantastic compared to the competition.”

Connolly says the trademarked, patent-pending, app-wielding, BBIQ smart smoker just might have the right stuff and make the leap from the classroom to a future Memorial Day celebration.

Members of the Harvard community, representatives from Williams-Sonoma and local celebrity chefs enjoy brisket prepared in the Harvard smoker by students of the class “Engineering Problem Solving and Design Project.” (Eliza Grinnell/Harvard SEAS)

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