It's a cold night in Hackney and I'm huddling next to a ten-foot meat smoker for warmth. Standing beside me, sipping calmly on a can of beer, is Josh Ebsworth, founder of the Howard's Meat Co. barbecue joint, and the man responsible for the mounds of brisket slowly smoking behind us.
Ebsworth's nonchalance is surprising, given that tomorrow night, he'll be throwing a party to launch Howard's Meat Co.'s new permanent home at Netil Market, a car park near London Fields that hosts independent eateries and food stalls. As we talk, builders and plumbers weave in and out of our conversation to ask about piping and complicated sounding fittings for the new barbecue shack. Another Netil resident stops to see whether Ebsworth will be around later.
"Yeah, I will!" he answers.
In fact, Ebsworth will probably be here all night. Since 2014, he has been staying up until the early hours to feed his custom-build meat smoker with wood and ensure his brisket are perfectly cooked.
"It's fucking awesome—an absolute beast," Ebsworth says of the huge smoker, patting its side proudly. "I reckon it'll last a thousand years."
Ebsworth performs his nighttime smoking ritual to recreate the flavours of authentic Texan barbecue. He may now have his own permanent shack at Netil Market, but the hefty smoker hasn't changed.
"A friend of a friend made it custom, so it's the only one of its kind," Ebsworth explains. "And as far as I'm aware, we're the only ones in London who cook using a wood burning smoker like it. But I guess it's actually the most basic cooking can get."
He puts a couple more logs on the fire. It doesn't look very basic to me. While Texan barbecue isn't necessarily in Ebsworth's blood, it's certainly in his family now. During university, he spent a year studying at A&M University in East Texas and met his now-wife Madison, who grew up on a cattle ranch. Fully embracing the Texan way of life, Ebsworth began eating barbecue every Sunday as a "hangover ritual" and eventually set up a smoker in his front yard. In the early hours of the morning, friends who had just clocked off from their nearby bar jobs would swing by, drink a few beers, and enjoy the meats of his labours.
"Then I just thought, 'Hey, I want to get back into a real kitchen, and I'm in Austin which produces the best barbecue in the world—I have a really good opportunity to learn some really cool shit here,'" remembers Ebsworth. "So I went to every pitmaster in town and asked them to take me on. I ended up with a guy called Tom Micklethwait, who makes everything from scratch in a tiny trailer—like the Breaking Bad trailer but with meat, not meth." Ebsworth moved back to England with Madison after hearing about the Americana dining trend taking off in London.
"We figured that everyone in London was doing it an injustice," he explains. "People were trying to pass themselves off as 'artisan traders' and doing a really bad job of it."
What they were missing was the authenticity of the wood-smoking process. And so, with his customised smoker, Ebsworth founded Howard's Meat Co. and began trading at street food markets across London. I'm personally far too lethargic to sacrifice my sleep for brisket, so I have to ask Ebsworth, how much of a difference can all those painstaking hours stoking the smoker actually make to the taste of the meat?
"In barbecue restaurants, you have to use gas or electric smokers because these ones put out too much smoke for an indoor space," he explains. "A gas smoker will take a piece of wood and blast it with a flame, which gives a bit of smoke, but is a bit stale and unnatural. It doesn't have the same depth of flavour as the wood fire, which is a wetter heat."
It's not just the meat that Ebsworth puts in the hours for. Just like his pitmaster back in Austin, he makes all his bread in-house, as well as sides like roast potato mash and basil cheddar grits.
"We'll bake all the bread, make sauces, make the pickles, try out a different special each week," Ebworth adds
At this point, we take a peek into the smoker. Ebsworth decides that the brisket has still got hours to go. Feeling a creeping sense of hangry resentment for not being allowed to gnaw on a hunk of half-raw meat, I realise it's probably time for me to leave Ebsworth to it and head to bed.
The next day, after hours at my laptop staring at photos of brisket, it's time to actually eat some. I head down to Howard Meat Co.'s Netil Market spot again for the launch party, and this time find the place populated by a crowd of people drinking beer and eagerly awaiting their brisket.
I head towards the shack and grab a chunky slab of brisket on homemade honey white bread. It comes with a side of pickles and deep-fried green beans in a mushroom casserole sauce.
The meat juice seeps into the sweet bread below, and as I dive in for a mouthful, the filling falls out and all over my fingers in a delicious mess of flavour. Biting down, I thank myself heartily for the "flexi" part of my flexitarian diet. You just can't get this earthy, smoke-filled flavour with tofu. But was it worth the hours? With the luxurious fat of the brisket still on my tongue, I conclude it probably was.