The good burghers of San Diego, southern California, should doff their caps to the great burgers of St Louis, Missouri, and beyond, for that is where Jeremy George’s BBQ journey was first mapped out.
Originally from northern Virginia, college took George to St Louis and weekends were all about trips to Kansas City, New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville in search of the best BBQ joints.
“I had at that point given up hope of cooking and running my own restaurant – my dream since a kid,” says George.
Studying economics and working at his father’s asset management company simply didn’t cut it for George. “So I quit and started playing poker.”
In poker’s Faustian thrall, he won and lost, before remembering that first job back home in northern Virginia working at Sloppy Mama’s BBQ.
After a brief sojourn to Singapore, George flew back to the States and drove to California, becoming an Uber driver to start clearing his debts, but that love of BBQ was still eating away at him.
“I rang my brother Josh and said could he lend me $5,000 to buy a smoker and get started.”
Meet brother Josh. He lent his younger brother the money and invested in what is now Smokin J’s BBQ restaurant in Poway, San Diego. But that is not even half the story, for Josh George’s tale defies belief and is one of immense human spirit and fortitude.
Aged four, with his parents feeding baby Jeremy next door, Josh, having specifically been told not to, took the chance to grab a toy he wanted to play with on top of a bookshelf. He climbed onto the window ledge to edge his way across, lent backwards and fell 12 storeys onto concrete.
Astonishingly, George landed on his feet which saved him from certain death. Shattered femurs, broken ribs, punctured lung and swelling around the spinal cord that caused paralysis. Life, from the age of four, in a wheelchair, but with the use of his arms and upper body and no brain damage.
“The beauty of it happening to me as a kid, is I don’t remember much.” That reaction tells you all you need to know about the remarkable Josh George.
He was in an induced coma for a week, hospital for a month and a full body cast for another month. “I was a bit of a mess. But I lucked out in other ways. My parents were amazing how they handled it. Whatever they felt emotionally on the inside, they approached it as a bump in the road that was not going to slow me down. I was just going to have to use my arms, not my legs.”
And how. Josh George, in between helping his brother grow their dynamic, popular restaurant business, is preparing for his fifth Paralympics in Tokyo this summer. He’s pretty damn good at them too, with his laurels including 100m gold in Beijing 2008 and a bronze in London 2012. He has triumphed in both Chicago and London marathons, including a sprint finish down The Mall to beat Britain’s David Weir in 2015 and is also a multiple world champion.
“Tokyo will probably be my last Paralympic Games. Before, after a hard training session, I could go home and rest. Now I have to head for the restaurant for eight hours! But it’s really exciting times and I love it.”
He was fiercely independent and determined even before the accident, attributes that have served him well and are serving the restaurant brilliantly too. It is no surprise to hear that this elite athlete is an exceptional motivational speaker and also a trained journalist. Just don’t ask him to cook, of which more later.
It was 2016 and Jeremy George had the smoker and his brother as a business partner, but the food was all about trial and error, flogging around farmers markets having stayed up all night to prep and cook only to take barely $100 a day, trying to affect a thick Southern drawl for a bit of BBQ authenticity.
Jeremy initially resented the feedback. “Remember Americans think they know everything about barbecue. Actually, we think we know everything about everything!” But he took the wiser counsel on board. “And my cooking got better and better and sales went up.”
George then started parking his truck and smoker outside San Diego apartments to feed the residents and even pulled up outside wineries. He began making money, with brother Josh running the diary and the bookings, and they were soon supplying offices at lunchtime too. The brothers, with Jeremy’s wife, Mckenzie, also a key part of the family business, were on fire.
The USA has a massive barbecue culture, with sub-cultures across different states, all claiming their way is the best way and fiercely proud of their live fire food.
“The common denominator with great barbecue food is there are no short cuts. There are many different techniques and methods, but it is a slow process. We have to stay here all night to watch the meat and tend the fires. There is no other, or better, way. Maybe I take it more seriously than I should at times!” says Jeremy.
To Jeremy, a barbecue is a 12-hour brisket, or a pork shoulder, time for the tendons to break down, the meat to loosen and the fat to emerge.
Running front of house, Josh stresses to staff that they learn the menu inside out and how it is prepared.
“People talk about BBQ more than any other food. They immediately want to tell you about how they did their ribs at home, what sauces and rubs they use. You don’t order in an Italian restaurant and discuss your pasta making techniques,” says Josh.
Smokin J’s BBQ still has its original smoker, joined by a 20ft big brother. Jeremy recalls the early days trailing the first smoker across town: “One time it came off the back of the truck and went across five lanes of a highway on a bridge! Thankfully nobody was hurt.”
We haven’t mentioned Covid-19, which hit within three months of the restaurant opening, but the brothers pivoted with aplomb. The space is 80% kitchen, so
they could concentrate on take outs and deliveries, not losing money on empty seats.
The restaurant has rapidly built a reputation for its brisket and baby back ribs, with Jeremy now a renowned pit master. The hero is the Smokin J’s sandwich – brisket, pork belly and coleslaw in a brioche bun.
“The occasional ones that don’t come out right are called Josh Ribs!’ says Jeremy.
“Yes, but if they can’t be sold to customers, I get to eat them! The sandwich is insanely good,” replies Josh.
A BBQ taco shop is in George’s expansion plans. “Maybe a spot on the beach.”
Stepping outside of expectations; allowing limitation to spark creativity, loving and respecting the process and keep moving fast. These are all mantras Josh talks about on his website www.joshgeorgeracing.com – and they equally apply to the brothers’ BBQ journey too. Must go, I have a flight to catch and a sandwich to eat.
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