Until a couple of years ago, no one in Australia knew or cared about American barbecue. After all, we already had our own rich barbecue culture consisting of sausages in bread with sauce.
We're pretty familiar with American barbecue at this point; we've been chowing down on smoked meats and sides ever since the new wave of Southern Barbecue hit our shores a couple of years ago.
Now that the smoke has cleared, Australians can afford to be a bit more discerning with our American barbecue choices and return to our own roots from time to time. Maybe it's time for an Australian take on American food—Australicana, anyone?
A Michelin star-trained chef, Chris was inspired to take American barbecue back to Melbourne after a chance encounter with Hill Country barbecue at Fette Sau in Brooklyn. He spent eight weeks in Austin learning the ropes with pit boss heavyweights Tom Micklethwaite and Evan LeRoy before setting up his first Bluebonnet location in Collingwood, Melbourne.
Rob has cooked barbecue in Austin and San Francisco, but relocated to Australia a couple of years ago. "I tried Bluebonnet before I applied for a job here," he says. "As soon as I tasted the brisket, I knew it was the real deal."
Chris and Rob came up with a menu of Australian-influenced American dishes, but as Chris says, "It's hard to say what an Australian dish is these days. We made a lobster roll using Moreton Bay bugs. We've got the cheesymite cornbread, which I thought was a pretty cool idea. Then there's pulled lamb on a damper bun, a brisket pie floater and the red velvet lamingtons for dessert."
I got paid to stand around watching them make the food (I also played the KISS pinball machine), and then we sat down and ate all the dishes over a few cold ones. It was entertaining and tasty in equal measures.
Dish One: Cheesymite Cornbread
Chris: Get a piece of this. It's actually pretty fucking good, eh! I thought it was going to be too full on. I put like half a tub of Vegemite in there.
Rob: The background flavour on that is really intense but it's good. That sharp cheddar in there really takes the pinch of the Vegemite off.
Max: Are there bits of cheese in there?
Chris: Yeah, see those big chunks?
Max: Oh cool, here we go. (I dig up a large forkful and put it in my mouth)
Chris: You just got butter then, not cheese.
Dish 2: Moreton Bay Bug Roll
Rob: Yeah, this is good too.
Chris: It's essentially a lobster roll, but we used Moreton Bay bugs instead of lobster.
Rob: They're cooked up in a butter emulsion so they're nice and tasty.
Max: Would you put this on the regular menu?
Chris: We don't really fuck with seafood too much, but if we did, we could put this on the menu, sure.
Dish 3: Smoked Brisket Pie Floater
Chris: We just took a basic meat pie and put our brisket in it instead of terrible mincemeat.
Max: Is it pie float, or pie floater?
Chris: I'm not from South Australia, so it's however you say it.
Max: However you say it, this is really good brisket.
Rob: I think this will be the next food truck craze in America: meat pies.
Max: Are you serious?
Dish 4: Pulled Lamb Damper Bun
Chris: The damper is pretty doughy. Well, it's pretty dense, as a damper should be, right? I cooked the first one in the firebox, but that was just too hot.
Max: Yes, it is dense. But the lamb is sensational.
Dish 5: Red Velvet Lamington
Chris: I just don't know about the lamington.
Max: Do you eat lamingtons much?
Chris: Not really.
Max: I thought the cake was Spam when you were cutting it up earlier.
Max: Is barbecue the kind of thing you need someone to physically show you how to do properly?
Chris: I think so. Working in Austin gave me the confidence to do it properly, and to not overthink it.
Rob: I think the learning curve is a lot slower with barbecue in terms of getting it to a level you want.
Chris: I've been cooking for almost 20 years and this is definitely the most technical food I've ever done, by far. I've worked in Michelin-rated kitchens and this is the hardest to get right.
Rob: I feel like I'm just scratching the surface of what putting up good barbecue is all about, but it's that pursuit that makes it more fun. You have 15 more variables than when you have an oven to throw your food in. You have to think about things like how damp is your wood? What's the wind doing today? Is it cold, is it hot, is it humid? All those things have to be running through your head as you're doing the cooking so you never get set in your ways.
Max: Now that it's popular here, can people still get away with doing bad barbecue in Australia?
Chris: There are definitely some cowboys, but I think people are becoming more aware of the difference between good barbecue and shitty barbecue.
Rob: I think you just have to try brisket once and you know right away.
Chris: If you can master brisket, you can master anything, basically.
Rob: It's your showcase piece.
Max: And you guys make the best brisket in Melbourne?
Chris: I'm not saying anything.
Max: Well you've got to have pride in what you do.
Chris: You've got to have modesty as well.