Rupert Bates Spring 2022
Third down and four! And that was just me in minutes with the baby back Memphis ribs. I’m not sure a Los Angeles Rams combination of Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp could have breached my family’s defence of the pulled pork and chicken wings.
This was Super Bowl LVI Sussex, England style with a BBQ Box from Hickory’s At Home our pre-game meal ahead of watching the LA Rams triumph over the Cincinnati Bengals, not to mention the draw of the half time show with the likes of Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg and Eminem. BBQ magazine considered a 30-second TV advertisement during the Super Bowl, but quoted over $5m, choked on our corn dogs and ordered a side of mac ‘n’ cheese instead.
Combining romance with sport, I also ordered a Valentine’s BBQ Box from Hickory’s, which went down well until I was sacked, Aaron Donald style, reaching for the last blackened butt steak.
Hickory’s At Home was born, like so many great food delivery initiatives, out of lockdown, although the concept was already in development. Not only has HAH evolved to be a significant part of this UK restaurant business, in lockdown it funded 3,200 meals and along with other fundraising initiatives helped raise over £125,000 for local children and families.
Hickory’s Smokehouse is an inspiring hospitality tale of bringing the BBQ culture of America’s Deep South to the North West of England and beyond. The first Hickory’s opened in Chester in 2010 and is now poised to open its 14th – and first in Yorkshire – in Wakefield.
Hickory’s founder Neil McDonnell fell in love with the live-fire food of the Southern States on his first US road trip 15 years ago. There have been epic road trips ever since, every Hickory’s dish served with ‘trust us, we’ve been there’ authenticity and respect, not to mention imbuing every restaurant with the spirit and hospitality of the Southern States.
Austin in Texas, Memphis and Nashville in Tennessee, Kansas City, New Orleans, Brooklyn, Miami, Charleston in South Carolina, Savannah in Georgia, not forgetting some Kentucky bourbon to help wash it down.
Hickory’s lists its US trips over the years – 18 and 70 cities to date – up to 2020, when Covid saw the company traversing the M6, M1 and M5, with its ‘Smokehouse to your House’, rather than the highways of the Deep South.
“We’ll be heading back to our spiritual home of the Deep South now travel restrictions are being lifted. It is really important to keep inspiring our teams and educating our chefs – developing the menu and looking for ideal locations for our authentic BBQ offering,” says McDonnell.
Texas first opened McDonnell’s eyes to the UK smokehouse opportunity and a realisation how far ahead of the BBQ game the US was and still is.
The outdoor space has been a key evolution too, amplified by pandemic restrictions, but a recognition that al fresco dining could be offered 365 days a year with the right balance of shelter and heat, as well as adding significantly to restaurant covers.
Rob Bacon is executive chef director of Hickory’s and equally passionate about food quality, cultural honesty and customer service.
“BBQ food was born out of making cheaper cuts great, bringing us brisket, pulled pork and spare ribs. They’re called spare ribs for a reason,” says Bacon.
“When I first started out in live-fire cooking there were no pit masters to learn from over here. But I love the elements of BBQ cooking, controlling the temperatures, choosing the right wood for the right meat, be it beech, cherry wood, apple wood and of course hickory. It’s an ongoing education and fascination.”
While the US is Hickory’s muse, the company recognised they needed a few tweaks for the UK market, away from canteen style plastic trays, developing recipes and taste sensations, but always true to the ‘purity’ of its Southern States of origin.
Head to Kansas City and they’ll smother the meat in thick and sticky sauces, while Texans like their barbecue ‘naked’ and all about the meat and the smoking, In Memphis it is pork, dry-rubbed ribs, shoulders and butts. Bacon says watch out for the rise of Korean BBQ, as what cooking trends and cultures emerge in the States eventually travel transatlantic.
While Americans assume the British can only cook – and ruin – sausages on a BBQ, the British equally have their own preconceptions of US food, assuming there is just a lot of it, putting quantity over quality.
“The standard of US barbecue cooking and food never ceases to amaze me. They are very open to different chefs and always inquisitive,” says McDonnell.
BBQ chefs on Hickory’s travels are invariably willing to share, but you rarely get the whole recipe, with the magic dust ingredient held back, leaving Bacon and his chefs to turn alchemists and detectives to refine and complete the dish. Hickory’s in turn will keep their own secrets in a competitive culinary world.
“We love to educate our guests about true Southern BBQ. We have developed our own secret sauces, inspired by some of the great pit masters we have met in some of the most iconic smokehouses,” says McDonnell.
Bacon, with smokers from Tennessee and Missouri, with Ole Hickory smokers of course, then eulogises about a 16-hour beef brisket, the rub, the smoking, the bark – and I am determined to attend its next ‘cook off’ where chefs share and critique new menus and recipes.
As well as locals signposting the increasing love of BBQ food in this country, Hickory’s restaurants attract US tourists in search of a home from home dining experience and Sunday evenings – traditionally quiet ones for hospitality – draw the NFL crowds deep into the night.
Hickory’s talks about its five stars, recognising its five core values – Authentic, Welcoming, Passionate, Daring and Community. A star-spangled BBQ indeed.
Finally, a reminder to Hickory’s, as it thinks about its next restaurant, that Sussex is in the deep south of England. Just a thought.
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