BBQ 101: tips and tricks for the perfect American barbecue

Hotbox executive chef Lewis Spencer on how mastering smoke, sauce and drinks is the key to the ultimate US-style meat feast


Nothing beats a sit-down feast of beer-can chicken, succulent smoked St Louis pork ribs and tender, slow-cooked brisket that melts in the mouth. But what are the tricks to getting a proper American BBQ exactly right?

Ahead of his barbecue master class series, The Week Portfolio caught up with Lewis Spencer, the executive chef of meat-smoking pioneers HotBox, to get some insider tips.

You went from serving food from a van to having a packed restaurant that Time Out calls a “barbecue masterpiece” – what have you learned from the experience?

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After a trip to Austin Texas, we were inspired by American BBQ and the beauty of achieving something so simple yet pure. We’d tried perfect brisket and wanted to bring it back. A one tonne reverse flow trailer was the weapon of choice allowing the oak smoking machine to create moist smoked meats.

This allowed us plenty of trial and error of course, a chance to perfect our product ahead of opening. We enjoyed stints with Street Feast at Dalston Yard, Hawker House and Dinerama, where we could share our smoked meats with discerning punters and gained traction ahead of opening.

How do you think the London barbecue scene differs from the US one?

Not a huge deal actually. We call our version East London BBQ. Everything we do focuses on smoked, spicy and sharp flavours but stays true to Texas style BBQ at its core. The HotBox collaboration was a new venture for us into Kentucky-style barbecue, reflecting Wild Turkey’s roots in the bluegrass state.

What kind of BBQ secrets do you plan on passing along at the master classes you are mounting?

The Wild Turkey 101s are all about giving you the classic skills to make the most of modern life, we’re specialists in the field and want to pass on the tricks of our trade. We’ll be divulging our much-loved rubs for beef, chicken and pork, while Wild Turkey will be teaching how to make the perfect Old Fashioned cocktail, so definitely worth booking a ticket to the next event on 30th August. Guests will get a take-home kit of rubs to recreate what they’ve learned at home with friends around the BBQ, and a Wild Turkey 101 Old Fashioned kit to make the perfect cocktail accompaniment.

Why is bourbon the right match for the barbecue dishes you are creating and which cocktails will be on offer at the masterclass?

Bourbon cocktails compliment the rich flavours of BBQ dishes. I recommend cocktails with citrus to counterpoint the richness of the sauces involved.

For the master classes, guests will try three cocktails: the ‘Wild Turkey 101 Old Fashioned’, the Dixie Fizz which is a refreshing highball with a little spice and a lime kick, and finally the Paper Plane, a sharp little number with Aperol and fresh lemon.

Due to its complementary flavour, we are also using Wild Turkey 101 as an ingredient in our BBQ sauce for the brisket bun.

What, in your opinion, is the best cut of meat to barbecue and why?

It’s brisket naturally! It’s the pinnacle of smoked BBQ and the trickiest to cook well. But when it’s perfect it sums up BBQ.

What one piece of advice would you give to a chef starting out today who dreams of a career something like yours?

Choose one thing that you love and nail it.

Which culture’s food scene inspires you the most?

I’m interested in Japanese cuisine, there’s such variety and intrigue around it. The idea of combining fusion between smoked BBQ and certain Japanese dishes sounds fun.

If you had to swap lives and careers with one other chef or restaurateur, who would you swap with?

Tricky one. But I really like where Tim Anderson has come from and gone to. American heritage with a love for regional Japanese cuisine, definitely my favourite cook book of the year too!

The final Wild Turkey 101s: Smoking and Rubbing with HotBox masterclass will take place on 30th August at 6.30pm. You can book tickets now at:

(Image credit: Chris Orange)

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