DJ BBQ: 'Ireland has one of the most burgeoning barbecue scenes'
Celebrated American barbecuist DJ BBQ tells our reporter why Ireland's cook-out culture is currently smoking hot
Legend has it that if you play with fire, you get burned -and as king of the barbecue, Christian Stevenson certainly hasn't escaped unsinged. "Oh gosh, man, my whole arm going down the inside has got marks everywhere," he laughs. "As careful as I am, when you're smoking meat for 18 hours constantly - because that's how long it takes for our pulled pork to be ready - you make stupid mistakes and you get little singes here and there. But I haven't lost any digits or appendages, knock on wood!"
Going by the name of DJ BBQ, the celebrity barbecuist from Washington DC is best known for smoking up a storm on Jamie Oliver's YouTube channel, Food Tube.
"Jamie is the best, man," enthuses Stevenson. "My jaw's on the floor watching the man cook. We go snowboarding and skiing every year and we have a blast. He's just a normal dude who has worked his ass off and I can't thank him enough for all the legs up he's given me. He empowered me to show off my love of barbecue."
Just five years ago, the separated dad-of-three was a DJ - with his own show on UK radio station Kerrang! - who loved to barbecue. Today, after combining his two passions and being snapped up by Jamie Oliver, he has more than 165,000 subscribers to his own YouTube channel. In 2014, he released The BBQ Book in conjunction with Jamie Oliver, featuring recipes such as 'Chilli Con Carnage' and 'Rad Rum Ribs'.
DJ BBQ brought the thrill of the grill to Dublin last weekend, with a Pitmaster Academy masterclass run by Denny's Fire & Smoke range. Participants were taught the art of low 'n' slow cooking over a barbecue pit, as well as how to select cuts of meat and to make Deep South sauces.
"I love going to Ireland," says Stevenson, who lives in London. "I think it's one of the most burgeoning barbecue scenes." He was here last year for The Big Grill barbecue festival in Dublin's Herbert Park, and is on the line-up for this year's event, which takes place in August. "Irish beef is amazing. We were using [Tipperary butcher] Pat Whelan's beef dripping to baste our whole leg of cow at The Big Grill festival and it was one of the most wonderful things I have ever cooked with. You've got such a wealth of wonderful produce and people, so I love going over and seeing how much you guys embrace live fire cooking."
Known variously as 'live fire cooking', 'low 'n' slow', 'pit cooking' and 'smoking', American-style barbecuing is a huge trend in the foodie world. The authentic pit cooks in the States use wood as fuel, which flavours the meat as it cooks, while, on this side of the Atlantic, charcoal tends to be more popular for back-garden grillers.
But, from Holy Smoke in Cork to Pitt Bros and My Meat Wagon in Dublin, the pit-cooking revolution has been slowly marinating here for some years now. And the ultimate paleo diet isn't going anywhere, according to Stevenson.
"We've always cooked barbecue," he says. "It was only about 70 years ago we came indoors and started using gas and electricity. Before that everything was cooked over freshly made charcoal with wood and peat and any other kind of natural fuel sources.
"I'm not talking about gas not being a natural fuel - it is. But there's no flavour in natural gas; there are flavours in the peats and the charcoals and the woods, and I think it's like a lost ingredient we're rediscovering.
"Right now, if you look at the London food scene, the live fire scene is probably one of the hottest. You've got Temper with chef Neil Rankin; Yosma, which is a Turkish live fire restaurant… it really seems to be a hot trend.
"The more people understand that food, and embrace that food, it can only go from strength to strength, and that's what I'm seeing in Dublin right now."
Low 'n' slow may be Stevenson's cooking style, and it's also a fitting description for how he learned his trade. At 48, the self-dubbed 'catertainer' has been perfecting the art of meat and heat for four decades. "When I was six years old, my father 'won' me in a landmark divorce battle with my mom," he explains. "All of a sudden, he was a single dad trying to raise his son and daughter.
"He knew barbecue from his father, so when I was a really young age, he just put me on the grill and I made a lot of mistakes until I got it right. The beauty of trying to handle a live fire is it's changing. You don't turn a dial and you've got a number - you've got to know how to handle air flow and fuel levels. It's an art and the better you get at it, the more empowering it is."
It's a skill that he has since handed down to his own sons, Blue, 16, Noah, 13, and Frasier, 10.
"When my youngest was eight years old, we taught him how to butcher a chicken and to make his own sausages. He's been cooking barbecue since he was five or six, and I love watching him on a grill. He did some lamb chops for me last week that were perfect.
"Families just aren't cooking together anymore. They're not passing on that knowledge, and that's so important for children to learn how to cook because they're going to get to 18 and they're just going to live off fast food - and that's just no way to develop as a human."
Eating his past words about vegans, Stevenson jokes that even lentil lovers are welcome at the BBQ pit. "Barbecue is not about sausages and burgers and steaks. I mean, it is - and that's what I love to cook - but you can do so much more.
"I don't think people realise that root vegetables and fruit love live fire. They love being kissed by charcoal and wood smoke. I'll do, like, a rib-eye with a full grilled salad.
"Just chop up all that lovely mushrooms and peppers and onions and chicory and courgettes, drizzle with some olive oil and salt, and you've got a wonderful grilled salad. I cook a lot of my food dirty - I actually lift up the grill and I put onion straight into the coals."
Even beginners can earn their licence to grill this summer, Stevenson says: "My number-one tip is to set your grill up for indirect cooking. So when you've got a big kettle, don't cover the whole bottom with charcoal. I just put charcoal on one side and no charcoal on the other - that way, I can get the sear on the meat, then move it over to the other side where there's no super-hot heat underneath. I call it 'goof-proof' cooking. It's basically being able to turn your outdoor grill into an outdoor oven and not burning your food."
And he insists that you don't need Ireland's legendary 'Leaving Cert weather' to flambé al fresco.
"I look at rain as liquid sunshine," says the cook, whose signature Spandex clothing is, happily, optional. "The best time to cook is in the rain or the cold because that's when I want to stand around hot coals. I don't want to stand around hot coals when it's super-sunny out.
"As long as you've got a cover for your grill, you're cooking."
Millennia after cavemen first made barbecuing a thing, DJ BBQ urges Irish women to take their rightful place at the coalface this summer.
"I think women are actually better on the grill because women tend to be better at multi-tasking," he says. "Some of the best pitmasters in the world are women so I try to tell women: 'Don't just think it's the man's place to be on a grill.'
"I know they might say that's where they belong, but that's BS, man. Everybody belongs around the grill."
DJ BBQ'S NEXT-LEVEL FLANK STEAK
Flank steak is my favourite cut of beef. My father would always grill a couple of these tasty steaks and serve 'em with a baked potato and salad: classic American homely food. I also like to use cuts of flank in my burgers. It combines wonderfully with chuck - chuck for the fat, flank for the flavour.
This is a sure-fire recipe that will rock your taste buds harder than something that rocks really hard. What? Sorry, been grilling a lot of burgers and smoking a lot of meat this summer... This marinade can handle about a kilo of flank (I like cooking for lots of people).
Flank steaks (up to 1kg)
For the marinade: ½ cup of chopped garlic
1 cup of olive oil
¼ cup of red wine vinegar
¼ cup of lime juice (you can even use a microplane to zest some of the skin into the marinade)
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 chilli pepper, chopped (bin the seeds if you want to dial down the heat)
1 tbsp freshly cracked pepper
1 pinch of mustard powder
1 tsp cumin
½ a bunch of coriander, chopped (use the stems and leaves, but save some of the leaves for garnishing)
Combine the ingredients and throw the marinade and those flanks into a zip-lock bag. Try to do this the night before or the morning of the cook-out, as the vinegar will help tenderise the steak.
The good thing about a flank steak is that the muscle usually goes fatter towards the middle so you can cook it for people that like well done to medium-rare all in one steak. The middle being medium-rare, while the ends are more medium to well done. The ends are my favourite bit as they get all that marinade.
Set your grill for half-and-half coal/wood technique. This way, you have an indirect (goof-proof) zone and a direct zone.
Make sure the steak has come out of the fridge about 30-60 minutes before grilling. You want that muscle at room temperature before grilling.
Pull the flank steak out of the marinade and get the excess oils to drip off. Too much of it will cause flare-ups.
Hit it hot for a minute or two a side to get the steak seared. You want those grill marks. If you get the flare-ups, move the steak to the indirect side for a bit. It will still cook.
I usually grill my flank about 3-5 minutes a side, depending on the cut and the heat.
You need to poke it to see where it's at. It's done when it's done.
Let it rest for half the time you cooked it so the juices go back into the muscle. Slice against the grain and serve. Really good with tortillas and a pico de gallo salsa.