The typical Aussie barbeque is still a source of bemusement to New Orleans native and manager of The Smoke BBQ, Philip Mullen. In Australia, the barbeque is “impromptu – you throw your meat on the grill and it’s cooked instantly”. Growing up in USA’s south, Mullen always accepted that whenever you invite someone to a barbeque, “you start working on the meal at least six hours before guests arrive”.
In the US, barbequed meat is an art-form prepared according to the “slow and low” cooking method. First, smoke the meat for ten to twelve hours using hickory wood; then cook it very slowly over a low heat. The fragrant wood adds flavour to the meat and the slow-cooking method makes it succulent and tender.
Every Southern family has their own closely guarded cooking secrets, says Mullen. Besides hickory, there are 45 alternatives of wood for smoking the meat; and the barbeque chef will quietly dollop or sprinkle some extra ingredients over the meat during the long cooking process. “You can say, ‘Wow, this is great – what am I tasting here?’ and you’ll never get a straight answer,” Mullen said. “They won’t tell you whether it’s Coca Cola or brown sugar. Nobody outside the family will ever know.”
The Smoke BBQ’s menu originates from the family recipes of US-born owner Stephen Johnson, who first arrived in Australia in 2004 and immediately recognised a space in the market for American barbeque. He opened the Blue Smoke in 2006, and after extensive renovations, changed the name of the restaurant to The Smoke BBQ in May 2010.
Johnson imported a smoker from the US, in order to prepare smoked meats according to the secrets he learnt from his parents and grandparents. All the menu items, including the salad dressings and sauces, are made onsite according to family recipes. “Nothing is imported,” says Mullen. “We make it all here.”
The restaurant’s customer demographic has shifted over the years. “Originally we hit the 18-35 age group and most of our customers were men – I think they were drawn to the concept of ‘manly’ food – but now our customer base has done a 180 degree turn and we’re seeing 50-50 men and women, and more families,” says Mullen. “We are a smart casual restaurant, so we cater to a wide range.”
Rather than buying expensive equipment for the restaurant, Johnson chose to offset expenses by hiring equipment from Silver Chef, the hospitality equipment funding business. Besides being cost-effective, Mullen says renting equipment has given them flexibility to experiment while discovering exactly what they need. “We’ve been doing this since 2006,” says Mullen. “It’s a fantastic option to rent equipment rather than buying, especially when you’re starting out and you don’t have much capital.”
The menu is also becoming more flexible as an Australian influence seeps into the US smoked meat. “We did try lamb ribs as well as pork ribs for Australia Day,” Mullen said. “The menu has stayed pretty much the same over the years, although we’ve dabbled in new types of ribs.”
Mullen’s favourite menu item remains unchanged. “The Texas beef short rib – it’s been a staple menu item – it has a beautiful rub on it before we put it in the smoker for twelve hours. And it is just fatty enough but not too much. Perfect – tender, flavoursome and a lot of it!” he says.