John Rivers' path to the kitchen started with his first taste of brisket 25 years ago. "I'd never even heard of brisket until [Rivers' wife] Monica brought me to Sugarland, Texas, to meet her family," he says. It was there on a crisp November afternoon that Rivers enjoyed his first succulent and smoky slice of what he refers to as "benevolent bovine." Naturally, he took some Texas-style ribbing on his lack of barbecue acumen from his wife's cousins, so in an attempt to save face, he vowed to conquer the art of smoking a brisket, which he did after 18 years of trial and error. (Taste the results for yourself at 4 Rivers Smokehouse.)
By comparison, it only took Rivers a year to lock down his recipe for fried chicken, though he attacked it in a similarly obsessive manner, starting off with "research trips" that took him to various cities in the South, followed by months of testing brining times, batter seasonings and frying techniques. He settled on a three-day brine and an herbaceous buttermilk coating, and patrons of the Coop, his Winter Park deep dive into Southern cuisine classics, have been the beneficiaries since it opened last spring. Rivers' cooking prowess, be he smoking or frying, has come a long way in the last quarter-century – quite the accomplishment for a guy who ditched a lucrative career in the healthcare/pharmaceutical industry. "Oh, and those cousins," he adds, "I don't hear from them much."