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Fire food and fairways

The Beef is back – on the menu and the golf course. Rupert Bates talks to Andrew Johnston about his love of BBQ

 Rupert Bates   Winter 2020

Join us on        @thebbqmag

 #beef #AndrewJohnston #Golf

 
 

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For Beef read ‘Beeeef!’  Naturally it works better audibly than on the page. So, shout it out loud and to really seal the deal – and the meat – do it while at the barbecue.

Meet Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnston. Most sports stars’ nicknames are as dull as they are predictable, but if a golfer and his nickname were a dream Ryder Cup pairing, it would be Johnston and beef.

When we spoke, Johnston had just come off a fine top 20 finish at Wentworth in the BMW PGA Championship, flagship of the European Tour, if sadly devoid of crowds.

Johnston on the charge would usually be accompanied by the roar of ‘beeeef!’with a ready smile and a wave in response.

As it was, as Tyrrell Hatton strode to victory, all we could hear above the birdsong was the odd curse as a putt was pushed or a chip fluffed – commentators forced by TV rules to apologise for the language.

“Yes, it was a strange atmosphere, although I’m not sure they can expect us to mutter ‘oh what a shame, that wasn’t very good’ when we slice our tee shot!” laughs Johnston.

He does a lot of laughing. Sometimes when a person you haven’t met is built up as a ‘character’ you can be disappointed – the reality often contrived.

Not Beef. I have met many sports people and Andrew Johnston is as natural as they come – a man of the people who just happens to be bloody good at golf.

He is not bad on the barbecue either and for TGI Fridays, the restaurant, food and drink business, its sponsorship of Johnston is the perfect match.

 “I am a golf fanatic and want to put beef back on the menu at Fridays in a big way, investing in Scottish beef and improving the quality all the time,” says Robert Cook, CEO of Fridays.

“The beef is back is the message and when I mentioned it to Andrew’s agent (Ian Bird at World in Motion) we both laughed as we realised it was the ideal fit, especially as Beef was well-known among his golfing peers and fans as a great lover of BBQ.”

 

 

A Fridays promotion earlier this year showed Johnston hurtling across the fairway in a golf buggy to join Fridays head development chef Terry McDowell cooking on the grill, highlighting the range of The Butcher’s Box, with steaks, burgers, sausages and slow-cooked marinated pork ribs sizzling on the barbecue.

Johnston didn’t need to pretend he was hungry for the camera; this was his food heaven. You suspect if McDowell fired up a barbecue beside the 18th at Augusta as Johnston was lining up a putt to win the US Masters, Beef would be conflicted.

It’s not just the eating for Johnston, but the cooking. “The cooking is inspired by my eating. I love to try different foods, different recipes and am always learning,” says Johnson.

“I did a few briskets and short ribs over lockdown which I was particularly pleased with and am now trying more fish. I always look to pick up tips, but I’m not a pit master – yet!”

As a golfer his work is outdoors and so is his relaxation. “There is something about being outside man and cooking over live fire – good food and a good beer. If you are smoking low and slow you can take all day and relax, especially if I’ve come home after a run of tournaments and just want to chill over the grill.”

Career highlights to date for Johnston include winning the Spanish Open in 2016, the year he also finished 8th in The Open at Royal Troon.

While golf can be a relentless international treadmill of courses and hotels, Johnston takes the opportunity for culinary tours too, tasting the local food and exploring the techniques, embracing the BBQ cultures that emanate from Asia, USA, Australia, South Africa and the Middle East, as well as Europe.

There is a melting pot of international players to tap into too, trading recipes in global clubhouses.

“At Wentworth I played a practice round with New Zealand golfer Ryan Fox (son of legendary All Blacks rugby player Grant Fox) and he is big into his BBQ. I think we spent the 18 holes talking live fire cooking. Ryan loves his fishing and cooking what he catches on the BBQ. I need to get out there on the boat with him,” says Johnston.

“After playing golf I come home and think how can I make something as good as what I tasted on my travels? I am very lucky to be able to tour the world and experience all those different flavours, seasonings, sauces, textures and cultures.”

The UK barbecue culture is rapidly gaining momentum too. Robert Cook calls it a “revolution”, with people creating outdoor cooking spaces, playing with fire and flavours.

“BBQs, pizza ovens, firepits – they are everywhere. At home in Northumberland

all summer, I cooked every night outside,” says Cook (left), originally from Aberdeenshire in Scotland.

Johnston has been very open about his mental health struggles and says how important it is to be outside.

“Cooking takes your mind somewhere else and that is really good for you and your mental health. Spend time in the garden relaxing with family and friends you want to be with.”

Cook agrees. “A lot of people can get frightened of cooking. Take your time and enjoy. Have a play. It is a relaxant.”

Fridays is on a mission, not just to supply great food and drink, but educate at the same time, with a commitment to the provenance and sustainability of its produce.

As a restaurant chain Fridays has, like the whole sector, been hit hard, but it has successfully grown its Fridays at Home business, led by The Butcher’s Box.

Fridays, founded in New York in 1965, is investing heavily in its ingredients. The beef – no not that one – included in its delivery boxes is certified Scotch and grass-fed on quality assured farms throughout Scotland, hand selected by Fridays’ master butchers and complete with cooking instructions and tips.

You can also order Fridays’ ready-made cocktails to drink at home to counter the enforced lack of restaurant trade.

“We closely support our local food chains, visit them and get to know them well, so we follow the journey of that cow to that plate. The farmers and butchers all have great stories to tell,” says Cook, former chief executive of Malmaison and Hotel du Vin.

“Nutrition and diet are so important too, especially with obesity problems among kids. We have a moral and professional responsibility to help and educate.”

Johnston plays golf in all weathers and seasons and, for him, BBQ is a year-round game too. “100% you should cook outdoors whenever. I’ve started a brisket at 5am on a freezing morning, wrapped in jumper, coat and woolly hat. I’m not fussed. You’ve got the fire to keep you warm.”

While it’s all about the beef, be it man or beast, Cook says Johnston has brought “a freshness to golf”.

“I think he outweighs all the top golfers in terms of his personality and refreshing approach to the sport, playing with a smile on his face – super guy and super-accessible.  Beef’s freshness and character chimes perfectly with our brand and what we are looking to achieve,” says Cook.

“Fridays staff, even if they have very little interest in the game, come up to me and say: ‘I see our golfer did well this weekend boss?’ That shows the great relationship.”

We briefly switch sports to football and Johnston, from north London, is a big Arsenal fan, as he dwells on the frustrations of supporting the men from the Emirates, even if Mikel Arteta looks to have them on the right track.

Johnston’s local golf club is North Middlesex, where he has played since the age of nine.

“I’m always threatening to cook a BBQ there, but it’s about finding the time. It’s a fun course with great people and a great bar. A proper club and one of those places if you get stuck there, it is hard to leave!”

Johnston heads off to check out some of the social media posts from Marcus Bawdon of BBQ magazine. “I need to get down to see Marcus in Devon for some cooking tips”.

He also tells Cook they need to sort a weekend of “golf, barbecue and beer”.

That seems typically Johnston, oblivious of his hectic professional golf schedule and ‘keen to chill man’ – family, fire, food and friends is his fourball of choice.

The beef is back.

 


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