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The sweet smoke of success

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American BBQ judge and consultant Bob Devine displaying designs for the “smoker” he intends to build at a new restaurant. Photo by: MICHAEL SLOAN

FORMER Wall Street trader and competitive barbecuing expert Bob Devine is bringing a new flavour to Siem Reap’s Pub Street next month, with the opening of a new Southern US BBQ restaurant specialising in slow-cooked, smoked meats.

The new restaurant, tentatively called Old Market Smokehouse, is the latest venture by local restaurant entrepreneur Alex Sutherland, who hired Devine to fly from the US for three months and supervise the construction of a custom built “smoker”, designed to slow-cook meat over 12 to 36 hours.

Devine, who acts as a sort of barbecuing consultant, travelling all around the States installing smokers, in between acting as a “pit master” at competitive BBQ cook-offs, told 7Days the process of slow-cooking meat involves exposing it to indirect heat in order to eliminate excess fat and moisture and bring out its full range of flavour.

“It’s important to look at the smoke as adding another spice to the meat. All traditional barbecuing in the US is done with what’s called the low and slow method, which usually means no direct heat is used. The ‘animal’ that I’m building here means the meat never goes near a flame but will come into contact with a heat source and smoking source to bring out the maximum flavour available in each cut.”

The ‘animal’ Devine is referring to is the $4,000 custom smoker he intends to build from scratch and install in the new restaurant, after high shipping costs ruled out importing one from the US.

Resembling a small metal chimney, the smoker is stuffed full of  layers of wood and charcoal, which then feeds smoke into a connected oven holding racks of pork ribs, duck and chicken.

“The type I’m building is called a gravity feed smoker,” said Devine. “It’s going to be about four feet high and you fill the chamber with charcoal and wood so you have a heat source that’s going to be constantly burning. You light it from the bottom and as the wood burns down over the charcoal it creates smoke. Once the ash from the first layer falls, the next layer of wood starts burning, and continually feeds smoke into the oven.”

One important difference in barbecuing terminology between the US and the rest of the world is the use of the term “barbecue” itself.

Outside the US, barbecuing usually refers to the process of grilling a piece of meat directly over high heat, while in the US barbecuing is taken to mean a long and slow process involving indirect heat and smoke – a process which means that while the meat takes much longer to cook, it emerges from the oven more tender and juicy.

The only downside is the process can take up to 36 hours, with experienced barbecue chefs usually sensing if a piece of meat is ready based on their intuition.

“You can actually over-smoke a piece of meat and it will taste terrible, and that happens a lot to people who are just starting out. Before you even begin using the smoker for the first time you have to test it or ‘dial it in’.

“I’ll probably be there until midnight when it first goes in, tossing in cheap cuts of meat and fine-tuning things based on how long each one takes to smoke.”

The new restaurant was originally scheduled to open on the site of the old Funky Munky bar, which closed in February, but delays in renovations forced Sutherland to move the site across the street to another building which formerly housed his Moksha café and restaurant.

The Smokehouse, slated to open in the first week of July, will serve an array of smoked meats including St Louis cut pork ribs, pork shoulder and brisket, as well as smoked chicken and duck, not to mention several southern dishes including corn pudding, fries with coleslaw, and macaroni and cheese.

While slightly more expensive than other grilled BBQ joints in town, the smoked meats will be sourced locally and priced “a heck of a lot cheaper than ordering steak in a restaurant”, according to Devine.

Before switching careers to pursue his lifelong fascination with BBQ cooking, Devine worked as a European currency trader on Wall Street until the introduction of the euro made judging barbecuing contests, and being paid to design and open restaurants, a more attractive way of making a living.

But the world of barbecuing contests is just as competitive as Wall Street, with secret recipes, privacy curtains and arcane judging criteria just some of the things contestants have to be familiar with if they want to vie for the sometimes large sums of prize money at stake.

“They say you eat two pounds of meat when you judge these things,” said Devine. “Each competition has different rules about what you cook and how you present it, and there are so many rules it is ridiculous. One of the judging criteria is the presentation of the meat on the plate, or ‘decorating the box’ as it’s called.

“Now here’s where it gets crazy. For example, there are some BBQ associations who don’t like garnish on the plate. If you go down to Texas and they see any greens or any of that fancy stuff, they’re going to disqualify you. For them, it’s all about the meat.”

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