Quitting well-paid jobs in London to embark on a road trip round the southern states of America was the start of an incredible journey, ending up in Barry.
Meet Samantha Evans and Shauna Guinn, patrons of the hugely popular Hang Fire Southern Kitchen in the south Wales town.
There wasn’t really a plan when they set out in 2012 to the United States. “We went to uncover the secrets of American BBQ and meet the unofficial patron saint of Hang Fire, Dolly Parton,” says Guinn. “We love food, people and music, so we thought if we threw ourselves at the Deep South something would come back.” Something did – with bells and briskets on.
Let’s take you to The Canadian – a pub, now closed, down a Cardiff backstreet in Splott and, like many at the time, struggling to make ends – even burnt ends – meet.
Evans and Guinn plonked a smoker in the pub’s backyard and practised their American BBQ learnings on the barflies, for whom pork scratchings had been the extent of their porcine cuisine.
“Sam was cooking and I was taking the orders. Little has changed in that respect!
A few months later we had 200 people a night, travelling from all over south Wales
to this backstreet boozer you struggled to find,” says Guinn.
“We wanted, as close as possible, to recreate the experience of going to a BBQ joint in the States. We had slides from our road trip on loop and B.B. King on the jukebox.”
Pop up events followed; a bit of street food here, a slice of butchery there. Then
a piece of research into the pop-up business model’s contribution to the retail economy prompted a call from the Radio 4 You and Yours programme, for Cardiff seemed to be ‘popping up’ disproportionately to the rest of the UK. In fact the Welsh cut was almost entirely the work of the Hang Fire pair.
“We’d skewed an entire piece of government research.”
They were pole vaulted into the nation’s culinary consciousness five years ago when, at the last minute, they were persuaded to try to get nominated for the BBC Food & Farming Awards.
Social media fans obliged in their droves with a record number of nominations and Hang Fire Smokehouse, as it was then called, was crowned winner in the street food category. The ink was barely dry on the chopping board prize before talk turned to a cookbook.
“We pitched a book about busting some of the myths of US barbecue, which can be quite secretive, not always sharing recipes, sauces and techniques,” says Evans.
In the whirlwind of sudden media attention it is easy to lose your soul, but engrained in Hang Fire from the outset was an authenticity and integrity in both life and food. The Hang Fire Cookbook was never going to be just another cookbook.
“Every recipe in the book is linked to a person, a place, something that inspired us,” says Evans. “A book that might inspire others to quit 9 to 5 jobs and follow their dreams.”
A pop up BBQ joint was all very well, but with just the two of them, scaling up the business seemed impossible. Going down the route of food manufacturing in wellies and hairnets didn’t appeal and having been approached earlier by a developer restoring the 1863 Grade II listed Pumphouse in Barry, ,they decided to take the plunge with permanent premises.
It wasn’t just the venue beneath the biggest handmade chimney in Wales, but the virtue. The restoration of the historic building was all part of the wider regeneration of Barry, the poor cousin to Cardiff and severely hit by the closure of the mines, having once been the largest coal exporting port in the world.
Where once there had been plenty of pubs and clubs and even a Butlin’s holiday camp, there was now social deprivation. The seaside town’s industrial past had gone out with the tide.
“We wanted to be where food was important and it was clear Barry needed a restaurant like ours. It was a great community fit,” says Guinn.
Opening their doors in 2015, the plaudits came rolling in for these forces of fire –
loud and proud as well as low and slow. Samantha is from Brecon in Wales and Shauna from Belfast in Northern Ireland.
Hang Fire won Best Restaurant in the UK in the Observer Food Monthly Awards in 2018 – the first time the award had strayed outside the cloisters of fine dining, a first for Wales and a first for a restaurant owned and run by two women.
“Not bad for a BBQ joint in Barry.” They had pitched the idea for their own TV show for BBC Wales and wanted to stay far away from the clichéd TV cooking programme.
“Everything we do has to have heart and soul and meaning. ‘Sam and Shauna’s Big Cookout’ is a celebration of Welsh communities and local produce. There must be an emotion and a connection to everything we do,” says Guinn.
In easy conversation they effortlessly pivot from humour to history; the laughter and
the lore that defines them as champions of their trade.
“BBQ has such a long history. Slaves with only cheaper cuts of meat to cook would bury them in fire pits before going to work on the plantations, with something ready to eat on their return,” says Evans.
“A lot of BBQ food stemmed from a necessity born from poverty, using ingredients that were cheap and freely available. A dish like gumbo needs a lot of time and energy to make it taste fabulous – a labour of love.
“The essence of BBQ food is cheaper cuts with lots of fat and connective tissue that needs care and skill to make something delicious.”
They talk of honouring barbecue, especially in recognising its cultural significance across so many nations.
“The roots of barbecue cooking are deep. It’s not just a nice pulled-pork shoulder; every time you cook low and slow you are honouring those who have passed the recipes and techniques down. We have huge respect for barbecue, not least as it has given us a business.”
Hang Fire’s ethos is seared in the notion of soul food, putting passion onto every plate. They have certainly done their homework on Southern-style cooking, but still learn every day, so deep is the history of indigenous food, but with the provenance and produce of Wales to draw on too.
“It is important to get behind Southern-style food and understand it, as well as cook it. Keep practising, keep learning and stay humble.”
Evans and Guinn ate from a rich and varied table around the United States, be it Texas, Kansas or the Carolinas, busking and barbecuing.
“It helps if you are just greedy girls. Everything we tasted was emblazoned on our palette and we have tried to replicate it,” says Evans.
“If you want to specialise in food not native to your country, take a road trip. Bring that inspiration home with you and put your own stamp on it. The nuances of flavour cannot be understood from a cookbook.”
What we do all share is the lure and nature of fire. “Light a fire and everybody wants to gather round it. Put food on it and more people gather. Add music and you’ve got a party,” says Guinn.
Aware of the vagaries of the British weather, their top tips include the purchase of a gazebo and a raincoat. “If you’re going to get good at BBQ, you have to practise.”
Start the party early is another piece of advice; celebrating the meat.
Their US road trip saw them meet Aaron Franklin at his legendary Franklin Barbecue joint in Austin, Texas, inspired by tales of his rise to global pitmaster from a small trailer. He also told them if you do American barbecue right, you’ll never make money.
An expensive piece of meat, cooked in a slow, technical way that shrinks, coupled with the need for wood and charcoal and it all adds up, hence a diverse menu for commercial viability rather than “pure play BBQ”.
“So this is our riches to rags story,” jokes Guinn, who gave up a career in child protection social work to chase the dream, while Evans was a creative director in London, with her graphic design portfolio including work for the 2012 Olympics.
The Hang Fire name and logo was born not from adhering to brand guidelines and a mountain of design options, but from sketches on a napkin in a log cabin in the hills of Tennessee.
Fighting for women in the hospitality industry is woven into their fabric too.
“As women we believe we have to work so much harder to be recognised and not overlooked in favour of men. Wales can be perceived as parochial and difficult to break out of.”
Guinn says she may be biased, but she emphatically believes Evans is “one of the best live fire cooks Britain has ever had”.
“But in a list of the top 10, I’d be surprised if Sam was put on it, with our industry so male dominated. We’ve done our best and have a great, loyal and supportive following. I hope we are blazing a trail for other women to follow and raise the profile of women in hospitality full stop. There are voices that need to be heard.”
I’m still not sure that they ever met Dolly Parton. Something about sleeping on her drummer Steve Turner’s floor, but as for the great lady herself, I like to think they did. She does at least hang from the walls of the restaurant and the country music superstar specifically asked for their brisket at a gig she played in Cardiff.
The video was switched off on the Zoom call, but I swear the lips were moving on the still image of their cookbook cover, faces rocking with laughter too. Every picture, every recipe, does indeed tell a story.
Next time I ‘see’ them it shall be in person in Barry, maybe picking up Nessa and Uncle Bryn en route. For me it will be the shrimp and grits from South Carolina followed by a three-hour smoked Yard Bird. Lush. Tidy.
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