It would be pushing it to say that Sir Chris Hoy would swap an Olympic gold medal for the perfect brisket, but the cycling legend is hugely passionate about barbecue and an extremely accomplished live fire cook.
Hoy has even been praised by Michelin-Star chefs for the quality of his cooking and he, in turn, loves to pick professional brains in pursuit of excellence.
Again, it would be an exaggeration to say that the barbecue is an adrenalin substitute for the velodrome, but an hour’s conversation with Hoy leaves you in no doubt about how much he is drawn to cooking over live fire.
“I am slightly obsessive about doing something to the best of my ability. As a young cyclist I was forever trying to work out why I wasn’t as good as the others, watching and learning how to be better and faster.”
Obsessive, yes, but having a lot of fun along the way. Barbecue is not just about sharing the love and the food but enjoying the preparation and process.
“I have a great group of friends equally in love with barbecue. We are forever texting pictures of meat, where we bought it from, how we are going to cook it, for how long and with regular updates during the cook.”
We laugh at some of the Instagram posts where a beautiful piece of brisket is unveiled at the start, high on expectation, only for the low and slow result never to see the light of social media.
“It’s been at least 12 hours since your first post, where is it?’”
Hoy loves the whole experience of eating and entertaining outdoors. While very much an advocate of BBQ 365, and cooking outside year-round, including the Christmas turkey, he loved his time at Australian training camps ahead of cycling competitions, embracing al fresco dining at every opportunity.
In his professional cycling days, life was conducted at high speed, but, in stark contrast to the thrust and aggression of the track, Hoy enjoys the pace of barbecue, low and slow and sometimes all-day long, wallowing in the peace and quiet of the preparation, ahead of the party.
“I embrace the whole process; the fact that your preparation can start days before, choosing your cut of meat, researching how best to cook it,” says Hoy.
“I have spent many an hour on YouTube listening to big, bearded Texans advising on what rubs to use and what temperature to cook at. The build-up is just as exciting as the cook.”
Hoy will happily get out of bed at 4am to light the barbecue. “I didn’t ever get up that early, not even for training. A crying child yes, but other than that nothing gets me out of bed at that time, which shows just what a draw barbecue is.”
Preparation is one thing, but nothing, says Hoy, surpasses the enjoyment of the unveiling and the eating, unwrapping your finished work, absorbing the steam and the smell.
“And hoping it is not tough as old boots! That is so demoralising after so much time and effort; thinking, I did everything I was supposed to, so why is it not right? I am very stubborn and am always determined to do it better next time.”
By contrast the joy you get when you pick up the brisket, so perfect it wobbles, tender and succulent and the satisfaction of effortlessly cutting the meat.
Top sports people are competitive animals and an extraordinary array of them relish outdoor cooking.
Rugby produces more than its share of barbecue beasts and the day we spoke Hoy was preparing for Wales and Lions wing George North and his wife Becky James,
the former Olympic cyclist and world champion, to come round for pork shoulder on the BBQ.
Hoy’s posts have even raised health issues, with one worried follower suggested he was eating far too much red meat and where were the vegetables?
“I had to point out that the cooks were invariably for family and friends and I wasn’t just devouring entire briskets on my own. I was grateful for the concern!”
Vegetables of course very much have their place on the barbecue, but a ‘live salad cook’ on Instagram is unlikely to trigger many views.
“I remember a line from The Sopranos. ‘You don’t win friends with salad.’”
Hoy is amazed and delighted by the rise in interest in outdoor cooking in the UK. Coffee is another passion for Hoy and he sees BBQ mirroring coffee, which has seen an increase in independent cafes, roasteries and coffee machines.
“I can see more and more specialist BBQ restaurants and experiences popping up. Just look at the queues in the USA outside BBQ joints early in the morning, while the Chef’s Table BBQ series on Netflix has you salivating and thinking where can I buy and eat that food? The market is only going to get bigger and British barbecue is getting better and better.”
Hoy’s epiphany moment was when a friend cooked him a steak over the coals and the difference in flavour from a conventional internal cook in a pan.
“I thought I want to know how to do that, to replicate that taste and texture – to chase the perfect steak, with the meat from a great local butcher.”
A temperature probe has really helped with his education, while aspiring to be a meat whisperer, listening and talking to the food, understanding and sensing temperatures.
A cooking highlight was when he landed a 13-hour pork shoulder. “I pulled it apart like in the videos and the smell, the moisture, the flavour – wow.”
He learnt the value of patience, trusting the process – ‘if you’re lookin’ you ain’t cookin’ - rather than fretting that surely it must be dried out and ruined by now.
There is the primal too, admiring those who head to the stream, catch a fish and throw it straight on the fire.
“I love the romantic notion of living off the land.”
Hoy champions local produce and supporting your butcher. Aware of the importance of provenance and sustainability, Hoy says the barbecue world can support the environmental agenda, by being selective, advocating high quality, responsibly sourced meat, farmed correctly with the highest standards of animal welfare and lowest carbon footprints on the food journey from farm to fork.
His favourite barbecue is not a ‘show-stopper’ brisket, but beef short ribs in a bun with slaw and chunky chips, and maybe a bit of salad. “And most importantly family and friends to enjoy it with. BBQ is a reason to come together and socialise.”
Home for the Scotsman Hoy, his lawyer wife Lady Sarra Hoy, also from Edinburgh, and their two children, is now Cheshire.
At one point during our chat, he had to shut the window. “We’ve got the builders in.”
By in he meant out, for, despite plenty of internal work also going on at the house, it was the outside he was focused on, creating the dream outdoor space to accommodate and shelter his array of equipment, including his Kamado Space storage, a Kamado Joe, a Traeger pellet grill, a Big Green Egg and a pizza oven.
“It is probably way more than I need,” says Hoy, with no hint of regret.
He admits his BBQ avatar would be ‘Hero Dad’ dominating the outdoor cooking arena. “Sarra is a really good cook, but she knows I am a big kid with my toys, so leaves me to it.”
Children Callum and Chloe, fortunately, love the food, as long as it is not too spicy. “Whatever it is, they call it BBQ meat.”
While he’d never push his children down the cycling route, you sense he would be equally proud should they inherit his passion for live fire cooking.
“If you are naturally exposed to something a lot, you often show interest. I’d love them as they grow up to master a brisket and pour mum and dad a nice glass of red wine to go with the meat.”
Hoy is a true polymath. Since retiring from competitive cycling. he has taken up motorsport with conspicuous success, while his children’s bicycle business, Hoy Bikes, goes from strength to strength.
He is an author too, with the Flying Fergus series of children’s books about a boy with a bike with magical powers, as well as Be Amazing – a guide for kids to make the best of life by identifying an interest, working hard to achieve your dream, learning resilience but nothing wrong with not winning, as long as you enjoy the journey.
“I wasn’t the child identified at a young age as a future champion. I was just an ordinary kid who loved cycling,” says Hoy, inspired to take up cycling after watching the flying BMX bike in the film E.T.
Hoy covered the cycling at the Tokyo Olympics for the BBC, drawing on the experience and class of a man who won six Olympic gold medals, as well as 11 World titles.
I started by suggesting it would be pushing it to say that Sir Chris Hoy would swap an Olympic gold for the perfect brisket. After our Zoom interview where his passion for barbecue charred my laptop screen, I am now not so sure.
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