You can’t talk about UK barbecue without mentioning Samantha Evans and Shauna Guinn. The pair have become synonymous with celebrating all things outdoor cooking. They started taking their cooking to the masses in 2013 following a six month pilgrimage to the southern United States to learn the art and science of ‘slow and low’ American barbecue.
Following the popularity of consistently sold-out kitchen takeovers or street food events, they went on to win BBC Food & Farming Awards ‘Best Street Food’ in 2015. That year they wrote their first cook book about their adventures in the US, divulging the secrets behind perfect American BBQ. In 2017 they opened their first restaurant, Hang Fire Southern Kitchen, in Barry, Wales, which has been a fully booked restaurant for three years. In October 2018 they won the coveted ‘Observer Food Monthly Best Restaurant’ award and the Great British Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Wales and the South West. They also have three series of their own cookery show on BBC One Wales called ‘Sam & Shauna’s Big Cookout,’ celebrating communities of volunteers through a big outdoor cooking party.
We didn’t grow up slathering whole hogs with vinegar, or operating a pulley pit in Texas wilds. We ate burnt burgers from disposable grills and our idea of saucing meats was solely reserved to ketchup. So what can a couple of Celtic girls tell you about American-style ‘slow and low’ barbecue that you haven’t already read or watched on TV? Three years ago, we made a dramatic decision to quit our long-standing careers in London and embark on a six-month road trip of a lifetime across America, eating at every BBQ joint we could afford, and becoming increasingly possessed by the spirit of smoke and fire with every meaty mouthful.
This is the story of the metamorphisis from occasional backyard barbecuers to an award-winning, smokin’ duo with an obsession for fire and meat.
We fell in love with the Southern States and their attitude to food and gatherings. Southern hospitality really is the ninth wonder of the world. And as we travelled around we learnt that there is so much more to barbecue than just the grill. Barbecue is a serious business.
After eight years of living the London rat race, we felt like we wanted to run for the hills. So that’s what we did. With limited cash and time, we dumped our day jobs and our old lives and headed for the United States, on a bid to discover the bounties of the American Deep South.
Landing in Nashville, Tennessee, we were beside ourselves with excitement. This was it, the moment we’d dreamt of: the home of country music, old-time and bluegrass, and the start of our Southern road trip. With battered cowboy hats, guitars and massive rucksacks we looked like everyone else wandering wide-eyed through Nashville city centre.
We are massive fans of Dolly Parton and were thrilled and fortunate enough to be staying with a wonderful guy called Steve who is Dolly’s drummer. Steve and his partner Elizabeth introduced us to everyone and anyone in Nashville who were remotely involved in the restaurant business, had a food truck or owned a smoker. Together we sought out barbecue joints throughout Georgia and Tennessee. This trip taught us so much, not least that you have to bowl up early to have any hopes of sampling the best barbecue.
Many neighbourhood joints were closed or sold out by the time we arrived. (‘Sold out’ is a concept that Hang Fire is now all too familiar with). From Tennessee up to the Carolinas via Georgia, on this trip, we stopped at any number of little neighbourhood barbecue joints. One of the best was Walkers Fried Pies & BBQ in Ellijay, Georgia. Delicious deep-fried, hot pockets of blueberry filling served with creamy ice cream that are to die for, and yes they are 101% sinful.
For the next few weeks, we travelled between North and South Carolina, seeking out restaurants creating distinctive, modern flavours as well as proponents of traditional, regional Carolinian barbecue. One of the stand-out places was 12 Bones Smokehouse near Asheville, where the Obamas are apparently regulars. We were lucky enough to grab a rack of their blueberry chipotle sauce baby-backs, plus a ‘Hogzilla’ sandwich which contained slices of brown-sugar bacon, a bratwurst, pulled pork and melted pepperjack cheese on a hoagie that was trying its best to hold together. Needless to say it was regrettably enormous - but as damn tasty - as it sounds.
Back in Tennessee, we had word that there was a barbecue competition happening in Covington, just north of Memphis: the ‘40th Annual World’s Oldest BBQ Cooking Contest.’ This was our first experience of competitive barbecue, and it seemed to us that the first thing you do aside from make great barbecue, is come up with a hilarious name (Old Dirty Basters, Serial Grillers, Two Men and A Little Piggy were particular favourites). From one particular team we got some great tips on their ‘Boston Butt’ entry. The only details the Pit Boss (we called him ‘Soda Pop Bob’ on account of his love of Mountain Dew sodas) would give us were the ingredients for the rub and flavour injection. We made some educated guesses while the pit master’s wife nodded or shook her head behind his back.
In Memphis itself, Sam got out her list of barbecue joints and we headed straight to number-one on the list, Charlie Vargo’s Rendezvous, right next to our hotel (not a coincidence). Rendezvous is one of the most revered rib joints in the State. They don’t cook slow and low here, quite the opposite. However, the tenderness of the ribs and their famous dry shake is the thing you’re going for. We’d heard so much about this place and were dying to try it out, but it was Monday: restaurant closed. Gah!
We witnessed a heated argument about the ‘best’ barbecue between a Texan and North Carolinian – where the Texan had his hand on his holster the whole time. In the US, barbecue is defined by its State variations and we wanted it all: mustard and vinegar whole hog in the Carolinas, sweet and saucy burnt ends in Missouri, long horn beef in Texas, and dry rub ribs in Tennessee. As a guy from Arkansas at one BBQ competition said to us, ‘So you’re one of these bar-bee-cue fence-sitters, huh?’
And I guess we are.
We were so inspired by that taste of the South that we couldn’t go back to our old lives when we returned to the UK. For us, and so many others, barbecue has become a lifestyle choice. Our recipes may not be 100 per cent faithful to how the BBQ legends smoke a hunk of meat, but they are our take on what those inspirational pit masters taught us (and often the result of our own trial and error).
The Southern States may be the birthplace of ‘slow and low’ but at last their style of barbecue has drifted across the Atlantic, smouldering into life in British back gardens and beyond. BBQ is now so popular that thousands of us eat at chains of barbecue restaurants up and down the country and we even hold KCBS (Kansas City Barbecue Society) sanctioned BBQ competitions. US-style barbecue is flooding the UK like a ‘meatwave.’
After arriving home in the UK we knew we had to share what we had discovered immediately. In fact, we’d decided on the name ‘Hang Fire’ and had even designed the logo whilst in Nashville – we weren’t messing around. Our first kitchen takeover was a weekly pop-up in a back-street pub, The Canadian, in Cardiff. We fed 10 people the first week, 40 the following week, and by the next month we were averaging 100 a night. Our dream was coming true – but that’s not to say it was all a breeze. Within our first couple of months, we dealt with grease fires in the smoker, badly smoked meat, burns up and down our arms and a trip or two to A&E. Sounds like hell? It was... but we loved every minute of it.
That was back in 2013. Since then we’ve sold over 22,000 plates of barbecue in two years with just two people. We are on first-name terms with almost all the people who visit us, and many of our customer/friends have been eating our barbecue since the Canadian days. They are truly amazing.