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The girl who played with fire

... and became a world champion. Isla MacFarlane talks to Jackie Weight, now sharing her expertise with students at her BBQ Workshop

 Isla MacFarlane   Winter 2020

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When people come to Jackie Weight’s BBQ Workshop near Ashford in Kent, a common reaction is to think that they have been doing it all wrong. However, it seems only our perceptions of barbecuing are wrong. A conversation with Weight sends the traditional idea of a beer-swilling man slinging burgers up in smoke.

“BBQs are for everyone,” says Weight, who had her own perceptions challenged in 2003, when her husband took her to Tennessee in the United States to attend a BBQ school.

“They were cooking really big, cheap cuts of meat and making it all taste fantastic. Before that all I knew was steak and burgers, so it was quite an interesting revelation that you can cook really big, tough cuts of meat and make them taste sublime.”

After her first taste of American BBQ, Weight never looked back. With her husband she started competing across the US and, in 2004, on their second invitation to cook at The Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational BBQ Competition, they took the top prize and became The Grand Champions, also bagging the International Grand Champion Prize. Famously, they remain the only non-American team to ever win this title. 

As the Chief Cook, Weight is also the only woman ever to win this title. The ‘Jack’ is considered the Super Bowl of BBQ competitions in the USA.

In the wake of this success, The American BBQ Company was founded, along with

a catering business using American-style BBQ methods. With the American BBQ Company now sold, Weight runs a restaurant consultancy, a BBQ school and a BBQ rub business from her home in Kent.

Throughout her career, her passion for American-style cooking has never burnt out. “The American way of barbecuing is hugely different – low and slow, using indirect heat which means your fire is shielded from your food, so you’re using the heat from the fire but not the flame. Lids or doors are always involved.”

Using a BBQ as a primeval slow cooker is especially appealing to a modern crowd, who perhaps haven’t been motivated to pick up a pair of tongs before. When Weight reopened the BBQ Workshop after lockdown, she was overwhelmed with demand.

“I reopened the barbecue school at the beginning of September, and lessons are manic. We are getting so many bookings.”

Lockdown seems to have ignited a passion for outdoor cooking. “I think people have had lots of time to do different things at home and so barbecues are coming out of sheds an awful lot more. I think outdoor living has become much more popular.”

 

 

Many students are surprised to learn there’s a lot more to barbecuing than they may have encountered at the average British bank holiday spread. However, Weight insists that there is no right or wrong.

 “The only way of doing it wrong is when you burn the outside and leave the inside raw. There are different ways of cooking. I’m just teaching my style of cooking, but people seem to love it. Most people think you have to look over the flame and you really don’t. Flame has its uses, don’t get me wrong, but indirect cooking is a nicer, gentler way of cooking and you get much more flavour,” says Weight.

“I think the biggest shock factor is the amount of food we cook and the amount of food they get to eat and take home. I don’t want leftovers – I really don’t need that much barbecue in my life – so we divide up the leftovers and everyone takes a big box of food home. Otherwise I’d be the size of a house!”

Lean cuts of meat also appeal to a generation conscious of their waistlines and wallets. “In the summer months, the butchers and the supermarkets sell smaller cuts of meat because people want to put them on the barbecue, which invariably means the bigger roasting joints get reduced and the prices go down. If you can get the mark down or the reduced price joints and if you set it up correctly, you get much more flavour out of them.”

She certainly knows her meat, having run a Kent cattle farm, farming around 250 pedigree beef cattle, using some for meat, but the majority for breeding. She also kept and bred rare breed Saddleback and Berkshire pigs, triggering her love of ‘farm to fork’, making her own sausages, bacon, hams, pastrami and other cured and smoked meat, selling them at at local farmers’ markets.

Weight stresses that you don’t have to burn a lot of money on the BBQ itself. “I think you buy a barbecue that you can afford. People are buying more and more expensive kit, and it’s quite shocking how much some barbecues cost. But you can probably pick up a kettle barbecue for £50; it may not last very long, but it’s a start. Barbecue should not be about wealth, it should be about wanting to cook outside.”

Another surprise to newcomers is how you can keep the BBQ smoking throughout the seasons. The moment Weight put her Christmas classes online, they immediately began filling up. “We need to start spreading the word and spreading the love that barbecue isn’t just for summer.”

For nearly 20 years, Weight has been determined to challenge the stereotypical BBQ, and the UK is beginning to get the message.

“I think people are being more adventurous now. More people are cooking bigger cuts of meat such as brisket and pulled pork. All that sort of stuff is really taking off in the UK. When I first started doing it, I actually entered the Good Food Awards with brisket and pulled pork; nobody had ever heard of it before!”

As we end our conversation, Weight  is planning to fire up her BBQ for dinner in the evening. Hasn’t she had enough BBQ? “Never!” she laughs. “I’d always rather cook on the BBQ. I can’t stand the mess cooking in the kitchen makes!”

 


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