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The BBQ Tour

So, having decided to take the the plunge I now needed to do some essential research so that I could refine my ideas for products, sales channels and marketing. This would undoubtedly require at least 5 weeks of eating the finest BBQ food in the the US, and hence defacto, the world. They say setting up a new business is not easy...but [sigh] someone has got to do it. I realise that to some people, the idea of this trip being anything but a glutinous holiday will never fly, but I may as well have a go at justifying it. The idea behind the BBQ Tour was firstly to try to re-calibrate what I thought was good BBQ food, to inspire me to see just how good it can be, and at the same time show how much I have to learn. BBQ means many different things to different people across the world, just think about Turkish, Agentinian, Brazilian and Korean interpretations to name but a few, but only in the US are there so many different styles that are so religiously upheld.

Despite my interest in the area, it soon became clear that what I thought of as a good barbecue (nice ribeye steak, charred on the outside, blushing rosey red in the middle, perfectly rendered fat etc) was not even considered 'barbecue' in the US. No, that my friends, is 'grilling', albeit over charcoal. I'll spare you with what each state, or region defines as 'real' barbecue, but I soon realised that in order to appreciate the diversity, and to see which influences I could harness back in the UK, I would have to go and see for myself.

As well as finding the best, most inspiring food, I would also be focussing on the techniques, cooking fuels (wood, for the most part), equipment and produce. With a better understanding of how each of these are utilised, I would hopefully be in position to create better food myself.

So the idea is to speak, cook, and eat with the best of 'em.

God Bless America

Posts below are in reverse chronological order

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Episode 7: North Carolina to NYC

Contrary to popular belief, the main aim of this trip was not to just eat loads of BBQ but to learn about what makes great BBQ. As I've said to many people over the last few weeks, there are diminishing returns when it comes to just learning-by-eating, unless that eating is paired with an insight into how the food has been produced. In this regard, my last few days in North Carolina were perhaps the most rich learning of the whole trip, thanks to a few select individuals.

The first of which was Chris Prieto owner of Prime BBQ, who offer a range of catering services as well as BBQ classes for professionals and competition BBQ'ers. Chris makes regular TV appearances on the food channels and has also just published a fantastic book (I have bought a lot of BBQ books, so trust me on this one). It was great to chew the fat with Chris over what makes great BBQ as he has an extremely good BBQ knowledge and has the perspective of competition BBQ as well as the catering side of things. He's been a high-achieving BBQ competitor since he was about 19, and has a thorough understanding of both Texas style (where he grew up) and North Carolina's two styles. What Chris doesn't know about BBQ probably isn't worth knowing. If BBQ was a famous TV quiz show, then he would most definitely be my number 1 'phone a friend' for when things got tricky.

Chris introduced me to GrillBillies BBQ supply shop owner Joe Pino, who was the second inspiration off my last week. Joe and his wife run the best BBQ shop I have ever been to, which does it a massive disservice as it may well be the only one I have ever been to. It is one off those shops (sorry, stores) where the people who work there seriously know their stuff, and they actually enjoy talking about it, take note British shop-workers. So often these days I am underwelmed with knowledge levels at specialist stores, not this time. Joe and I spent the best part of an hour discussing the perfect competition BBQ technique (fuels, meat trimming, injections, rubs, sauces, slicing, serving) and summarising the entire knowledge of smokers I had picked up over the last few weeks. I came away from the shop $100 poorer but unquantifiably richer in terms of knowledge. Only my baggage limit stopped me buying more.

Having visited some older, more traditional BBQ joins in North Carolina, I was eager to visit more smaller, newer enterprises which seemed to have taught me more over the last few weeks. Speaking to my kind hosts in Raleigh, I caught wind a a small but growing business called Southern Smoke, in Garland NC. This is a small family run venture headed up by Matt Register, a local Garland lad who is putting his very-small hometown on the BBQ map. Matt started off being 'the bbq guy' catering for his mates' parties or events, but as the requests grew in number and size, the couple decided to take the bold step and set up Southern Smoke. They now operate a restaurant 2 days a week and then do catering events the rest of the time. Matt's enthusiasm for quality and locality were contagious, and although I visited him when the restaurant was closed, I sensed that his team and his customers knew they had found a gem of a place to be. The restaurant had a cool garden area with a make-shift stage for live music, and in the best possible sense, it showed all the signs of a back-yard BBQ that had grown up. As fellow United supporters, Matt and I instantly connected and like our favoured team, I am sure the next year or two will be a glorious success for Southern Smoke; I certainly hope so.

It was then time to head north to get back up to NYC for my return flight, but I had enough time for short stops at Washington DC, Wilmington DE and Philadelphia. There was just enough time to swing into Hometown BBQ in Brooklyn for one last taste of the good stuff. It had been a porky 2 weeks, and I was eager to see if I could get a final dose of beef and Hometown did not disappoint. Hometown was the best BBQ food I had ever eaten when I visited in 2014 when on an early research trip, and to that end was a huge inspiration to me. Billy Durney, the pitmaster/owner, is a lifelong BBQ enthusiast and is NOT from one of the BBQ states; just like me then I guess.

Episode 6: North Carolina continued

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After the '4th weekend', there was just about enough time to visit 12 Bones Smokehouse in Asheville before my temporary team mates left the tour. The place was busy for a Monday and there was plenty on offer. Unusually for North Carolina, all BBQ meats (beef, pork and chicken) were available with some interesting flavours...I tried some blueberry chipotle ribs: not bad at all. The brisket however, was nothing to compare with Texas which I should have known. It was being really badly hidden as well - thinly sliced, brushed with a glaze. I mean, you don't have to be a qualified BBQ judge to spot these things, but it sure helps.

My next BBQ took me to the town of Flat Rock near Hendersonville, to a place called the Flat Rock Wood Room, where I had some great ribs and sausage. Spoke to the owner Wayne Blessing who was a great guy. He and his wife Kim have won plenty of competitions in their time so it was really interesting to talk about contest tips and what does/doesn't translate to a restaurant environment. Wayne and Kim have a huge RV which they take to contests which also houses their 'gravity feed' smoker. It is a pretty cool way to spend 25 weekends a year, driving around the country in a pimp RV cooking BBQ, and hopefully winning some cash.

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After a quick trip to Tipton's Barbecue in Wilkesboro I decided to fast track the central Piedmont region of the state and get stuck into some Eastern style NC 'cue in and around Raleigh. One of the most famous NC barbecue joints is undoubtedly The Skylight Inn in Ayden and it was one of the first places I read about in Michael Polan's book Cooked. The place has been around since 1947 with the current pitmaster racking up 35 years at the last count. They cook 6-7 whole hogs a day and they cook over oak and pecan in brick smokehouse-style smokers. Nuff said.

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It reminded me of the meat market places of Lockhart, TX (see Episode 1: Austin and beyond) in that as well as being old and famous, it is really just a straight-up authentic BBQ joint. There's a guy on the service pass who stands over a butchers block with a meat cleaver in each hand and essentially batters the cooked pork like a rock and roll drummer. A local source told me he has a tattoo on his arm that reads: 'CHOPPER', not a guy to mess with I dare say. The manager, Chase, gave me a full tour of the pits bore the brunt of my questions. Fair to say that all the people I've met in North Carolina have been really friendly and Chase was no exception.

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Episode 5: North Carolina begins

Sad to leave Texas behind but looking forward to the next 2 weeks. First thoughts were: wow, great to be surrounded by some hills again and some greenery. It would be unfair to say that Texas/New Mexico was all desert, it rained too much for that to be the case, but North Carolina is a different kettle of fish. A few basics to note before this phase begins: North Carolina barbecue is very different to Texas.

Refresher/crash-course:

Texas specialises in dry rubs, mostly beef products (though pork is very available) and frowns upon sauce viewing it largely a cover-up for poor workmanship with seasoning and smoke. My experience was that most cooking in Texas was with oak, either post-oak (aka white oak) or 'live' oak.

North Carolina (NC) specialises in pork, but they don't call it pork, they actually call the product 'barbecue', that is to say it is a noun, not a verb. Here they specialise in 'whole hog barbecue' which usually involves cooking a whole pig over coals and or wood, instead of just a large joint or smaller cuts. The challenge is obviously cooking a serious amount of meat without overcooking exposed parts or undercooking the inner parts. Here, they like sauce; lots of it....sometimes up to 6 different sauces are on offer. Within NC, there are 2 sub-styles: 'Lexington style', which favours pork (sliced, chopped or pulled) with red, ketchup-based sauce, or 'East NC style' which is whole-hog and is sauced with thin, vinegar based condiments with no tomato. The woods vary a bit more, I've found that oak, hickory, cherry, and pecan are used with the trade-off being price, heat and smoke/flavour. Price is usually correlated to how close and plentiful the supply is; heat is a property of the hardness of the wood (hickory is hard and therefore gives good heat); and smoke/flavour is basically a choice of how much smokiness the meat can take, such that it has a kiss of smoke without tasting bitter.

The barbecue definition usually brings an interesting conversation, that I have had many times, when people ask "do you have barbecue in the UK?" My initial answer when I arrived in the US would be, "yes" or "sure man", but I've come to a more pragmatic answer of "we do, but you wouldn't call it that, we really just do grilling over charcoal". What follows is usally a blank expression which I have come to assume means "well, if I wouldn't call it that, then it probably isn't barbecue!"

I was joined for the first few days in NC with some British friends, including bro Max, and Team Porter (Dan, Soph, li'l Audrey) which was great. Eating shed loads of delicious BBQ food is one thing, but sharing it with great company is a whole lot better. We ate some 'barbecue' on 4th July at Buxton Hall BBQ in Asheville, which was a pop-up hosted by a microbrewery (Catawba Brewing). Very different flavours and side dishes to Texas, and although I was dissapointed that they'd sold out of ribs, it was great to have some BBQ pork crackling known as 'skin' over here. Basically the worlds best pork scratchings. The guys at Buxton Hall seem to be getting a lot of people excited and are due to open a restaurant in September, which is currently under construction and looks big. Look forward to seeing how they get on. Photo below is Catawba beer flight, with Buxton Hall's whole hog BBQ

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Episode 4: Back to Austin

During my first stint in Austin, I managed to organise a few days 'working' with the highly regarded, up-and-coming Mickelthwait Craft Meats, a BBQ food truck in East Austin. The owner, Tom, kindly agreed to letting me hang out for a few days to see how they cook their meats and generally handle service during busy lunchtime. It's an impressive operation which involves 4-5 guys dishing out 150-250 covers of top nosh from an old caravan. wpid-wp-1436219407438.jpeg wpid-20150629_154223.jpg  wpid-20150630_132009.jpg

The first two days I spent the mornings (6.30am start) with the early guy, Matt, making sure all the meat was ready for lunch at 11am. As I am someone who enjoys a large breakfast and therefore a later lunch, I have struggled to understand why Texan's seem to prefer lunch at 11am, but at Mickelthwait's I started to understand. It gets pretty hot in Texas after midday, so when your dining table is an outdoor picnic table, with a little shade if you are lucky, it pays to get it done and dusted before the hottest part of the day. It was a pleasure to watch and learn as Matt, methodically and precisely prepared and then served the meats. As much as I'm easily impressed by fast knife-work and sauté skills in busy kitchens, there's something equally admirable about calm and consistent chef-work like Matt seemed to show.

The next two days, I was with Pat, the night guy, making sure all the meat that needed to go on for a long time (beef brisket and ribs, pork shoulder) was ticking over nicely. Pat, who liked to listen to loud heavy metal music whilst working, was also the sausage maker. It seems there are a few small elements which tend to separate a good BBQ joint from a great one. My view, thanks to those who I've worked with and spoken to, is that a 'good one' is one that recognises and upholds traditional Texas BBQ values and has some good meats (preferably brisket) some of the time. A 'great one' is one that does all meats very well, but also makes its own sides, sundries and bread from scratch and dares to create innovative menu items too. Mickelthwait definitely tick this box, and their ever-changing sausage recipes, made fresh every day, are a good example.

My first night shift (4pm-Midnight) coincided with the end of 'Beer Wednesday', a rolling weekly tradition where Mickelthwait trade some BBQ food for some beers with one of Austin's many craft breweries. This means free beer for customers and staff alike. Good times...until the cooler box of beers got raided by a tramp who couldn't believe his luck when he saw free, cold, unclaimed beers.

And with that, the Texas phase of my adventure was complete. So much learned, so much eaten and so much to try out for myself. Next stop, North Carolina.

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