Lockdown may have messed with our sense of time and place, but I didn’t expect a Gloucestershire grill master to transport me back to Chicago just after the Second World War.
Meet Dan Cooper, head grill master at Weber, educating a chunk of Europe as to The Weber Way, the way of the world’s biggest barbecue brand.
Cooper’s own story, from cooking Cotswolds dinner parties straight from
the pages of a Jilly Cooper novel to demonstrating the art of barbecuing to thousands on and offline is fascinating in itself. But let’s start with the genesis of Weber.
Behind every great brand is not just a bold vision, but often a solution to a problem personally felt.
In the late 1940s, George Stephen (below) was working for Weber Brothers Metal Works in Chicago, Illinois.
The company made giant steel marine buoys for the likes of Lake Michigan Yacht Club, using heavy-duty machinery some of which was manufactured in the Midlands cities of England.
Stephen, like many Americans, enjoyed his backyard cooking and with a huge family he had a lot of mouths to feed. However, Stephen got increasingly frustrated with the inadequacies of his grill and no method of properly controlling the temperature.
The solution lay with the very product he made at work. Slice a buoy in half and you have two spheres and there was your rounded cooking bowl. Stephen added legs; a handle and air vents and 1952 saw the first lidded charcoal kettle barbecue.
Like every invention you’re unsure about, you first show it to friends. Chicago laughed but then loved it and soon Stephen was taking the kettle barbecue to shows across the US and demonstrating its cooking prowess.
He eventually made enough money to buy out Weber Brothers and switched the production line to just barbecues, sticking his surname on the end of the business to give the company name Weber-Stephen Products. The current chairman is George’s son Jim Stephen.
“It is fascinating touring the factories in Illinois, with barbecues on hooks going through huge furnaces, as the enamel is coated onto the steel. Weber remains unrivalled in its simplicity of form, but great breadth of function,” says Cooper (right), who still has a vintage 1970s brown Weber kettle somewhere in his collection.
Back to 2020 and Cooper is back in Stroud, Gloucestershire, where he grew up. He enjoyed cooking from an early age, including working in the local pub.
“I started doing cooking jobs, but soon realised the stainless steel environment of a commercial kitchen wasn’t really where I wanted to be.”
So in 2006 he set up a catering business with Wycliffe College school friend Bruno D’Abo and Cooper d’Abo was soon taking dinner party and wedding bookings across Gloucestershire.
D’Abo is the son of Mike d’Abo, lead vocalist of Manfred Mann with hits such as Mighty Quinn and he also wrote Build me Buttercup – a number one for The Foundations in the1960s.
Bruno d’Abo now works for Daylesford, with its award-winning farm shop and so his and Cooper’s culinary paths continue to cross and cultivate.
“Many of the Cooper d’Abo parties we did wanted barbecues, so we gravitated towards cooking the likes of low and slow lamb shoulders and meats over seasoned logs. We were not necessarily always getting it right, but I soon learnt the best way to get flavour from meat is on live fire and that belief has stayed with me ever since,” says Cooper, the Dover sole of discretion, as I pushed him to share some of the wilder Cotswold country house parties they must have catered for.
The financial crash saw the dinner party set slow down and Cooper joined an agency in London, becoming a private chef for families.
Next up and another musical link was as a demonstration chef for the Chadwick Oven, conceived by Daniel Chadwick – an oven described by Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli as a “mini spaceship and mighty pizza cooker”.
Blur bass player Alex James was enamoured by the product and had a contact at Weber and a relationship between the two businesses was soon forged.
“I ended up demonstrating Weber barbecues in Chicago in 2011 and have been with the company since,” says Cooper, who now oversees all the Weber cooking activities in the UK and Ireland and across the Netherlands and Belgium.
“I am involved in Weber marketing campaigns to deliver core messages, spot the trends and also training and recipe development. It is all about inspiring people to cook on the product and being creative.”
Cooper loves all methods and styles, be it low and slow Americana, which is gaining such UK traction, or simply teaching people how to barbecue a sausage right – that staple diet that so easily goes Pete Tong in the wrong tongs.
“I am very much an advocate of quality British ingredients, animal husbandry and kindness, cooking great meat.”
As befits working for a global brand active in more than 40 countries, Cooper loves to seek inspiration and innovation from far and wide, be it Korean, Japanese or from the less heralded BBQ hubs of Scandinavia.
“BBQ taps into so many cultures. It may have a central live fire core, but it is fascinating to travel the world and see how different countries do it, with varying techniques and processes, but ultimately invariably delicious and underpinned and overlaid by its heritage.”
What Cooper especially loves about BBQ food is how it has elevated itself to the fine dining table in top restaurants, but without letting go of its primal, elemental basics.
“I love the versatility. And also the evolution, especially in recent years over here. Charred food is great on a plate. A BBQ crust, done properly, is now heralded as a triumph,” says Cooper.
“The fine balance between flavours, the slight bitterness of char, coupled with the juicy interior of cooked meat is a very pleasing combination.”
So what of BBQ in this country?
Despite Cooper having memories of his grandfather using a rotisserie on holidays in France, he believes over here “we are first generation barbecue”.
“Still plenty of people think of it as an activity when the weather is fine. That snuffs out creativity. Take the BBQ on its own merits and the weather is irrelevant. It is about the food.”
Go to Sweden or Denmark and they don’t think twice about grilling a fish over charcoal while wrapped in winter raincoats.
“More people in the UK are understanding that you can use your barbecue like an oven with direct and indirect cooking. There is nothing you can cook inside that you can’t cook outside.”
He also chuckles remembering when he first told people he was a BBQ chef and that reaction of mild disappointment, as if his cooking journey had been a slight failure.
“But now of course it is very big business. I am certainly glad I stuck with it and am always taking calls from family and friends with advice about what to buy.”
Compared to staring through the steamed glass of an internal oven, a barbecue comes seasoned with social – a shared party atmosphere invoked the moment the first flame is lit and smoke and conviviality fills the air.
Lockdown saw Cooper doing demonstration videos from his garden, building up big audiences with more people than ever forced to cook at home and then recognising the opportunity to embrace it and learn new skills.
“Lockdown certainly focused the mind as you looked at the four walls of your house and recognised the need to bring the inside out and vice versa – bigger windows, direct access to outdoor kitchen areas or patios. That has inevitably shrunk the perceived barrier between everyday cooking and the barbecue, using it regularly, not just on the odd sunny afternoon.”
Cooper then describes some of his recent cooks and it isn’t just meat. “Take leeks for example. So simple. Throw the white part on the coals until black. Peel off a few layers and inside you have soft gooey leaves than you can drizzle with butter and season with salt and pepper – the sophisticated flavour of leek mixed with the smokiness of the charred skin.”
Vegetables, says Cooper, are made for grilling and wood smoke, rather than just boiling or braising.
With barbecue always stick to the three principles of lid down, understanding direct and indirect cooking, and using a thermometer to check the meat’s temperature and you can’t go far wrong.
When Cooper described scallops on cedar planks with garlic butter, parsley and tarragon, I swear the essence wafted through the laptop on the video call.
While many perhaps started their barbecue journey in lockdown, others used the stay-at-home instruction to step up their passion and their hobby to another level.
“There are super-enthusiasts who’ll spend big on barbecues and everything that goes with them, bringing them huge enjoyment. The perception has changed immeasurably.”
Cooper is also busy writing various themed courses for Weber’s grill academies – a network of BBQ schools teaching the art of grilling.
He stresses the importance of fuel as an ingredient, not simply a fire-starter.
Gas or charcoal, take your pick, but there are always little tips to digest, such as throwing a smoker box on a gas barbecue filled with soaked wood chips for a fantastic smoke effect.
Weber makes its own briquettes – 100% untreated wood. While it is fashionable and enjoyable to play with different woods and flavours, charcoal, says Cooper, is essentially a smokeless heat source, although wood chips can create a very identifiable taste.
Wood-fired pellet grills with Weber Connect built-in smart technology, including the SmokeFire for searing and smoking; the premium steel and porcelain robustness of its charcoal range; the durability and evolution of the gas collection, including the bar-raising Genesis; and its convenient electric grills, showcase the breadth and all-weather versatility of the Weber products, augmented by branded accessories.
It is not known if Stephen sang ‘Built me Up Barbecue’ 16 years before Buttercup flowered. To borrow again from Mike d’Abo’s lyrics, the Weber founder messed around in the making, but he certainly didn’t let anyone down.
Quite the contrary and BBQ around the world can give thanks for the windy city of Chicago, blowing the backyard cooking of George Stephen off course – and buoy did he find the right solution to his problem.
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