When pies are complicated and messy but worth it.

We’re not cheap. We get it. And we own it. You may have lots of cheap meals in your life, but we ain’t one. And generally people say all kinds of amazing things about us but sometimes they say this: we’re EXPENSIVE. And if you compare us to your local pub meal, we agree. But if you put together all of the pieces of the apple pie, the whole is of a business trying to do right and stay alive. 

Delicious apple pie

Delicious apple pie

And if you’re concerned with any of the following: global warming, the treatment of animals, fair wages, supporting low income workers, ethical business practices, supporting farmers (this list could go on), then maybe you should be asking questions of your local pub. The old adage is still true – you get what you pay for. And we’d add to this, if you’re not paying enough, someONE or someTHING is suffering. 

Pricing your menu is complicated at the best of times; not only do we need to take into account our set margins that cover things like operation costs and wages but how the pieces of the menu fit together. And what our customers can spend and how we create value are key considerations. But so much of what we do around pricing sits on the head of a needle. That is, when one item is out of balance – when we’ve ordered too much stock and haven’t sold it or when one week’s (or god forbid 3) labour costs are out of whack, our profit margins go careening down that ledge. And it just seems that the challenges are endless – the constant to’ing and fro’ing between doing things right and good often sit in stark contrast to doing things that make the business money. Our pockets would be much deeper, if only we’d chuck our principles. 

We realise that we have a responsibility to share this with our customers. If nobody is telling the story of what ethical sourcing and practices look like then how will consumers know what to look for? 

We make sure our team is equipped with the information they need to explain why our beef rib costs $54. We educate them on the challenging environmental conditions, including droughts and floods that have sent herd levels to the lowest in decades. We tell them that free range products still only make up 3% of the Australian meat supply and that the cost for sourcing local, quality and ethical products is high. But we also tell them why it matters. What it means to the environment, their community, animals and our world, when we make the harder, more expensive choice.   

But getting this info across to customers is more complicated. Some people just wanna cheaper meal. And isn’t our job to make them happy, first and foremost? 

Our answer is no. Our first priority has to be to our values. It’s been our guiding light thus far and will continue to be. 

Our guiding values are written on the wall of the restaurant for all to see.

Our guiding values are written on the wall of the restaurant for all to see.

Making our business profitable means being able to pay our staff, it means being able to pay our suppliers and it means staying alive. Ensuring that we’re balancing these competing demands and pricing our offerings to make a profit means the business can be sustainable. This is not about lining our accounts, but about the 50 people who count on us for jobs. It’s about the family-run businesses whom we choose to support and who rely on us for income. It’s about seeing this thing live and thrive and continuing to connect the dots of ethics and business. 

Our B Corp certification drives us. It means our practices are held to the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability. It’s not just a brand on our wall – it’s our purpose. 

The team celebrating our B Corp certification!

The team celebrating our B Corp certification!

It means paying our staff public holiday rates and penalties. On any average Sunday this means our staff are paid between $28 and $34 an hour. On public holidays these are between $42 and $51 an hour. On these days we add a 15% surcharge to orders – without this we wouldn’t be able to be open and even with this, we still sometimes make a loss on these days when all the pieces of the pumpkin pie come together. 

It also means that we only source local wine. We live in a wine region and we’re committed to supporting our local, independent suppliers. Yes, we can get cheaper wine from other areas but we like seeing our dollars supporting our local community and reducing our carbon footprint. 

It means sourcing reused and ethical materials, from compostable and recycled take away items and using reclaimed timber in the restaurant. It means managing our waste with purpose – with water reduction and recycling initiatives.  

It means challenging suppliers who tell us we should just get the cheaper meat and tell our customers it’s the other stuff. It means understanding the difference between grass fed and grain fed and why that matters. 

It means being true to our principles everywhere and in every context. And doing this just ain’t cheap. Nor easy.   

We are the only B Corp certified restaurant in Australia and while we love this accolade, it certainly isn’t all fun and games. 

Certification in hospitality is extremely rare, and we totally get why. Profit margins in this industry are infamously slim and we’ve got so many other things to balance and manage before considering more red tape for additional certification. 

But ultimately, we’re just working our behinds off trying to make all the pieces of the banana cream pie fit. And in our case, they’re just a bit fatter and yummier (our behinds too). Success is more than just a bottom line and what’s the point if you can’t feel good about what you’re doing?

And the people who want a cheap meal probably won’t visit us. While we’d like to be the place for everyone, we accept that we’re not. Thankfully, consumer attitudes are changing and people want to know more about their footprint. We hope that a customer that tells us our menu is too expensive or complains about a public holiday surcharge is open to learning about why we price we the way we do.

We're here to be a different kind of business – one that can be proud of how it exists in the world and of the bbq trail it leaves behind as it forges ahead.

The Whole Hog blog

Next week we celebrate the 4th of July at Red Gum BBQ or as we call it, our ‘Not so Fourth July Whole Hog Party’ as the fourth never lands on a day where it is a good idea to hold an event on. This is an ironic day for me to celebrate, being British and all and the day celebrates American independence from British Colonial rule, but I digress.. each year on this day I get to cook a pig! I am not sure why I am drawn to cooking whole hogs. Pork has always been a favourite meat of mine much more so than beef, lamb and chicken so when I first discovered that in the Carolinas they cooked whole pigs, I became fascinated. I dig the tradition of whole hog BBQ. The process of burning firewood down to coals and shovelling them under the hog seems to capture the essence of BBQ, cooking over direct heat using only wood is pure. 

The Whole Hog cooked and ready for carving

The Whole Hog cooked and ready for carving

I had my first crack at cooking a hog many years ago. I was living in our small rented house in Mornington, Red Gum was in its infancy and I decided to cook a pig for a fourth of July party. I made a call to my pork supplier and requested a whole pig (free range, of course) head off as Melissa didn’t want to look this pig in the eye. I quickly realised that I couldn’t put it in the fridge as it was way too big so I went online to figure out how other people had overcome this problem. In the bathtub! Right, here we go. I set to work cleaning the tub, laying down plastic sheets and carrying this beast into its tub-bed for the night. I popped across the road to the bottle shop, grabbed some bags of ice and covered Mr Pig. It hadn’t occurred to me that I hadn’t introduced pig and Melissa until she came out of the bathroom with the strangest look on her face, ‘um, did you know there’s a whole pig in our bathtub?’ Anyway - pig had a good rest and was nice and cold for the party the next day. 

In the weeks and days leading up to the event I researched how to build a besser block pit. Fingers crossed this all came together! I found a chap who was offloading a bunch down the road from me and took them down to Commonfolk Coffee in Mornington - the site of our first ‘Not so 4th’ party. I took with me the reinforced steel mesh I purchased to act as grill grate and some ply to act as lid. At this point I had never cooked a whole hog but had been researching for months so was pretty excited about cooking this thing. And also, hoping I could get it cooked in time for the party that evening. It wasn’t the type of thing I could practice for so just had to hope my BBQ knowledge and research would pull it through. 

BBQ enthusiasts this next section is for you, everyone else, see you in a few paragraphs: I prepped the hog by removing the spine and short ribs that sit in the shoulders. This just makes for the heat penetrating the shoulders easier. I washed the cavity with white vinegar and salted both the cavity and the rind. I placed the hog rind side up over the coals and covered the pit with the ply board and set about tending to the fire. 

I built a burn barrel out of a 40-gallon drum which I cut the lid off, drilled a bunch of holes to insert reinforcing steel in and cut an opening in the bottom to shovels coals out from (have I lost you?). I lit a fire on top of the steel bar so that the coals would fall into the bottom of the barrel. This process is hard work and consumes a lot of firewood to produce very few coals, now I have multiple burn barrels going at one time to produce enough coals to cook a hog. Phew. 

Martin looking pretty chuffed with the burn barrel he built.

Martin looking pretty chuffed with the burn barrel he built.

What you do when you cook a hog is build a dumbbell shaped fire to cook the hams and the shoulders, the belly will cook from the radiant heat of the fire so doesn’t need to have direct heat. I can cook a pig in about 8 to 10 hrs. 

My first hog was a huge success, I flipped it only once during the cook, I had chap named Stuart who had been following us on Facebook come down to check it out. Lucky he was around, he helped me flip the beast. We had never met before this and we are still friends all these years later - just another example of BBQ bringing people together. You need two people to flip a hog - at least. At around 7pm, we went outside to take the pig off the coals, the ‘Not so 4th’ party in full swing, our guests gather around to watch us take piggy off. It felt like such a celebration, there were pictures and videos, cheering and excitement.
We put piggy on a board and chopped for everyone to see (check out the video below)

I started with a 75kg pig and by the time I had finished cooking, removing all the bones and chopping all the flesh and crackle I ended up with about 30kg of servable real Carolina style chopped pork. There is a lot of bone and moisture loss in a whole pig cook, thankfully I’d figured this out in advance so had more than enough for my event. 

The interesting thing about whole hog BBQ it doesn’t have that Smokey BBQ taste that you get from an offset smoker it is more like a direct heat BBQ taste that you would get from grilling. There is very little smoke involved in the process. When the firewood is burnt to glowing embers in the burn barrel all the smoke from the initial stages of combustion are lost in this process. 

I am a super-fan of cooking whole hogs and any time when the occasion calls for it, I’m on it! So much so that I had a custom hog cooker built here in Australia. I only bust this bad boy out on special occasions and it has become a tradition to cook a hog on the Fourth of July. 

The custom hog cooker.

The custom hog cooker.

Since my first cook I have had a mixed bag of success with cooking hogs. Once, I thought it would be a good idea to cook a big fat heritage breed pig. I bought a pure Berkshire which are known for being fatty beasts. If you’ve ever BBQ’d you’ll know that fat dripping on coals creates fire. FYI - crackling is cool but avoid setting your whole pig on fire. I now just cook white pigs as they are much leaner than heritage breeds. I have also struggled to get them cooked in time due to miscalculating the amount of firewood I would need to burn down to get the pig cooker hot enough to cook. Another note for the enthusiasts: cooking a pig takes A LOT of wood. I’ve now got my whole pig rhythm. But as any BBQ’er knows, there is always more to learn. 

Now as the Fourth of July slowly creeps up, I begin dreaming of my pig and what this whole pig cook may bring. The pig, the cook and the event never fail to bring all kinds of fun and adventure. I look forward to cooking the whole hog, to seeing the looks on people’s faces as we bring it out the BBQ love from all those happy punters tucking in to some real Carolina style chopped hog. Delicious.  

See you on the Not 4th? (5th of July)

4th of July  landscape.jpeg

I've never been good at keeping secrets.

I’ve never been good at keeping secrets. My son has the same plague/gift. Ask him who stole the lolly off the bench and see it written on his face. Ask me about my BBQ or my journey so far and I’ll tell you. In fact, I won’t shut up.

I’ve never seen BBQ as competitive. It’s always been about sharing. About connecting people and food and building a community. When I first ate BBQ in 2002, visiting my now wife in the South, I fell in love - with BBQ (and her along the way). As I learned more about the tradition, of how it brought people together, family stories and history, I was hooked. It did, and continues to, consume my thoughts. A biopsy would reveal a section devoted to wife and family – the rest (much larger part), devoted to meat, smoke, wood and fire.

 When we moved to Australia in 2005 I tried to recreate that sweet lick of smoke. I was desperate for information. Looking for any book on bookstore shelves on BBQ, all I could do was have family in the US send some over, Australia was barren. Before the days of Facebook BBQ groups and Franklin on Youtube, I searched and read and spent every opportunity stuck in - playing with BBQs, smokers, wood, chips, sauce and meat.

 The lengths I would go through to source meat was extraordinary. I spent countless hours tracking down experienced butchers, meeting with them, printing out animal diagrams and description info to try to get the meat to the ‘American-style’ specs I couldn’t find. In 2012, when I began smoking for our weekend BBQ business, I used to get briskets and pork butts delivered to my old work place. Colleagues would open the staff room fridge and be shocked to see it transformed into a meat locker - all in aid of practicing on the weekend. This odd occurrence went on for years until I finally devoted myself entirely to BBQ and left all ‘real work’ behind.

Early briskets, circa 2013.

Early briskets, circa 2013.

While I struggled with passion and desire but lack of info, there were people that extended a hand of friendship and knowledge. In 2012, when I approached Paul from Silver Creek Smokers to build my first pit he astounded me with his skill, his generosity and friendship – he continues to do so. Across the next years many of the early crew – those men and women I stood next to at the first BBQ festival in 2015 –  Fancy Hanks, Big Boy, Bluebonnet and Burn City Smokers have been friends and supports over the years – we’ve shared stories, pits, gigs and meat.

Maeve & me at BBQ Fest 2015

Maeve & me at BBQ Fest 2015

In 2016, as we were opening the restaurant, I took a detour when visiting family in the US and spent some time at Southern Soul BBQ on St Simons Island, Georgia. Harrison and the team were so generous with their time and knowledge. I was like a sponge, watching, taking notes, asking questions. This amazing experience gave me a glimpse into not only what it’s like running a bricks and mortar joint, but the way this place reached out and connected the community and the camaraderie between the local BBQ joints.

Harrison & me, 2016

Harrison & me, 2016

I know the pain of an all night cook. Only to see your brisket turn out tough and smokeless. I know what it’s like to haul wood and lift metal doors until your joints ache. I know what it’s like to fight a pit fire, fuelled by grease and heat, after little sleep and physical exhaustion and then to see all your hard work and money go into the bin.

We people who chase the perfect BBQ are a passionate bunch. Out to impress others yes, but much more so, ourselves. I don’t see those other BBQ folk as my competition but my brothers and sisters in arms. Our war is fought for the love of BBQ and in search for the perfect smoke. Our weapon is metal, fire, wood and meat.

Paul & Melissa, pre-open 2016

Paul & Melissa, pre-open 2016

It is for this reason we had our first Pitmaster Masterclasses at a pop up venue in early 2015. And why they continue to feature as a core offering of our business. I get your passion. And your deep, desperate need to perfect your BBQ.  I continue to love these classes and the opportunity to speak to a passionate group of either new or experienced BBQ enthusiasts.

Over the years I’ve had calls or visits from people starting out – with their BBQ business or home projects. If you have ever caught me at the restaurant and wanted to chat BBQ you’ve more than likely been on the receiving end of me talking your ear off. It’s now been two years of running monthly classes in our function room at Red Gum, and I feel extremely humbled that folks want to hear me talk about something I love in the restaurant that I built.

These days, BBQ in Australia is a very different, much more diverse space. Where we used to explain to our friends at backyard BBQs what the pulled pork was, it’s now a staple across menus. I still spend my days and nights thinking about meat and playing with recipes at Red Gum – but also teaching this art to our in-house Pitmasters and to visitors to our Pitmaster classes.  

Me & Mike (Fancy Hanks) at Red Gum

Me & Mike (Fancy Hanks) at Red Gum

So I go to youtube to share. For those same reasons that I am grateful to those who have reached out to me over the years and to give back. To build community. To hand over some lessons where I can that have been hard fought and hard won. To share my secrets - what’s in my brain is yours, for whatever it’s worth. In the hopes that we can learn from one another and create an even wider, more passionate and more connected BBQ community.   

I hope you’ll join me on this smoking journey and share your secrets too. It’s all about #sharingthebbqlove

Click here to subscribe to our YouTube channel and follow the smoke with Martin.

Happy Birthday Red Gum BBQ! [this is not a feel good piece]

The last few months have been a whirlwind of holidays, family visits, birthdays and mid-life crises. Or was this just me?

No, you know what. I’m pretty sure it’s not. Only because every SINGLE person I speak with, who takes the time to really let me in beyond the, ‘I’m fine, everything’s great’ mantra, tells me so. 

I’m 40. Plus or minus a few years. Let’s say minus. Anyway – what this means is that it’s literally written in the life playbook that at this point in time I am revaluating my life and my choices and feeling the loss of my former, quite fun, passionate and fiery (also dangerous, irresponsible and bad with money) younger self. But I digress. This is a blog about Red Gum BBQ’s 2nd birthday. Or is it? I can’t decide.

This 22 of January marks the start of our 3rd year of life and exactly 2 years after opening our giant roller doors at 87 Arthurs Seat Road.  Here’s a little iphone photos video of that day.

It seems all at once a lifetime ago and just the other day.

What came before that was years of dreaming, imagining and planning. Here’s a picture of baby Martin in 2007 with his new BBQ scraper. His love affair with American-style BBQ in full swing, he had just purchased his new 6 burner and our backyard BBQs were never the same. Pulled pork, ribs and homemade BBQ sauces became our go to party food and we loved sharing it with our friends in Oz who had not yet been exposed to it. This was pre-pulled pork on every menu days.

Christmas BBQ gifts 2007

Christmas BBQ gifts 2007

This was our BBQ life until 2012 when Martin, on paternity leave with our son, Ashton decided it was time to bring the late night, too many beers ideas to reality. He wanted to open a BBQ restaurant. And the rest is the rest.

Our regular spot under the stringybarks at Emu Plains Market, 2013.

Our regular spot under the stringybarks at Emu Plains Market, 2013.

Cue 2019 and my (and your?) mid-life crisis. See the thing is, I’ve got this amazing business and I really, truly love what I do. I love going into that place every day and seeing all of the dedicated, quirky cool people who inhabit it. They let me be me and they are them. I have never felt more at home, more challenged and more fulfilled, professionally.

RGB Xmas Party 2018. Santa Sarah and me.

RGB Xmas Party 2018. Santa Sarah and me.

And I’ve got this wonderful, healthy, kind family – who I adore and who adore me. So what’s all the fuss about? We have health. And security. And love. And, well, that’s it, isn’t it? What else matters? Shouldn’t I spend every single freakin second being totally grateful for all of the wonderful wonderfulness my life is providing – YES!

Awesome family.

Awesome family.

But there’s this haunting. If I’m really honest (and why not, publicly, to a whole bunch of strangers). Of a life unled. Of decisions locked in and permanent. Of a repetitive, foreverness that is as far as I can see. And I can’t seem to quiet my mind to the discomfort of it all.

But back to Red Gum.

In late November we gave thanks to a group of Red Gum BBQ friends who have supported us through partnerships over these past couple of years. It was an awesome night of food, wine and gratitude. Though there’s nothing like being ‘home’ for Thanksgiving, sharing it in a new home, with a group of people who haven’t yet experienced it, is really special. It’s hard not to be moved by the simplicity of it all. Perhaps I could learn some lessons…

Thanksgiving 2018

Thanksgiving 2018

Over Christmas my Mom visited. It’s been 5 years since her last visit and she had never been to Red Gum. My pride gusheth over to show her our baby. And just in time to meet the new pits. This is Mama Carolyne eating BBQ. She says it’s the best she’s ever had. And she’s had a lot. And she is not biased.

Mom & Brisket.

Mom & Brisket.

Which brings us to this week and we celebrate 2 amazing years of adventure, friendship and growth. The learnings are innumerable. When I’m quite sure I’ve got something figured out, it twists and turns and shows me a new, confusing side.  Since last year you have continued to support us in showing up, sharing and investing in our story. And for that, we are overwhelmingly grateful. It is because of our community that Red Gum thrives. We continue to be humbled by your kind words and connection. That you choose to visit us, to share your special moments, that you take pictures and tell your friends, that you know who we are and you get it, is everything.

Thank you.

So I return to the disequilibrium of this moment of time. No, I didn’t make up that word. I thought I had but spell check says it’s cool. I’ll assume that this is just a time – with kids who push me to the brink and a repetitive familiarity of experience that gives pause to all thinking, feeling beings. And I’ll continue seeking but also trusting that our life unfolds as it should when we make the right decisions. Easy.

I hope you’re good too. Let me know if you wanna crisis together sometime. Maybe less, ‘I’m good, thanks’ and more ‘I’m a bit over [insert everything and anything here]’ would be useful. And while we’re ditching the formalities, no. My holidays weren’t ‘great’ and the start to my New Year has not been wonderful. It’s been nice. Ups and downs, you know? This is no pity party, I get how lucky I am and how grateful I should be. All day, every day. I’ll do my damndest not to focus on the suck but to focus on the beauty. But it ain’t alway easy, alright?

Martin and I, two weeks into open in Feb 2017. Amazed and humbled, still.

Martin and I, two weeks into open in Feb 2017. Amazed and humbled, still.

Honouring Joel

Yesterday I turned 44. 4 tens and 4 ones. As you age, it seems increasingly difficult to see those number rise and understand your value and worth against your impressions of the age and the awareness of your mortality. This year’s birthday came with a gratitude and peace that gave me a different perspective.

Today I attended the funeral of a 20 year old man. Joel was an employee of ours at Red Gum BBQ who died, tragically, driving home from our workplace, a week and a half ago. Joel was a kind and gentle soul who seemed to always have a smile on his face. He did a number of jobs at Red Gum – from dishes, to supporting the kitchen, helping clean pits and handle deliveries. No job was too big, no ask was too hard and no length too far to travel. Joel was the warm, friendly face greeting you wherever you were. Polite, cheeky, easy. These are some of the ways I remember him and some of the ways he was described today at his funeral. His funeral.

Joel, on a sunnier day.

Joel, on a sunnier day.

First thing Sunday morning we got the call from his brother, who also works with us, to tell us the awful news. Joel left work and just minutes from us, hit a tree on the side of the road, losing his life instantly. There is no greater explanation, no reason or rhyme to this great tragedy. No sense to be made from the destruction of a family, the loss of this young man and the heartache of all who knew him.

I spent the next couple of hours in a spin wondering how I would communicate this news to our Red Gum family. To all of the people who worked most closely with him, to all who knew him in our building and to all who called him friend. How could I tell the Chef who worked alongside him that evening, the friend in the kitchen who knew him since childhood, the waitress who walked out the door with him and followed behind him in her car by just a minute? I knew this would be information that would deeply affect some, if not all who heard it. I googled ‘what to do when an employee dies’ – FYI: Google doesn’t know everything. I felt an intense pressure to ensure we were doing what was right. But what is right?

As the morning went on, and news of Joel’s death was being reported in the media we knew our time to share it carefully and collectively was dwindling. We had a few hundred booked in for the day and I wore my business owner hat too – I didn’t know what any of this would mean. We just needed to honour Joel’s news as best as possible and put one foot in front of the other. I spoke privately to some and felt their intense grief. We gathered the rest, moving through the building asking everyone to stop and come to the kitchen. It was 12pm and the restaurant was full. The response was as you could imagine. This was an impossible piece of news to share and more awful to hear.

The crew.

The crew.

What happened next over the coming hours was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Our people cried. And hugged. And hearts were breaking across our space and beyond. But they waited tables, they seated, they smoked and smiled, they served and supported each other. They huddled in corners hugging. They took long trips to the bathroom. They wiped their tears on their sleeves and soldiered on. Now I know we’re not in a hero’s field. We’re not saving lives and we’re not protecting the common good. But if standing, unflinching in grief and smiling for your friends and a sense of duty is noble, these are our Kings and Queens. Nobody wanted to leave. We asked, even encouraged some to go. But they stayed on and extended love and support to everyone around them. Martin and I watched on in awe. Our leaders extended hands of strength and support, as Captains do. People half my age supported me with a strength and resilience and wisdom I couldn’t have imagined. They shared in their sadness, gave smiles to our guests and stood strong in news that would shake any 44 year old, let alone an 18 year old, being touched by loss for the first time.

The next days and week have been similar. Hearts continued to break and loss continues to be felt. We still can make no more sense of this. Each of us is processing in our own way. Some pain is palpable and some hidden away. We have sentimental, hearts on their sleeve folk, and stoic, pragmatic types. I don’t know what each of them needs or how to fix it. I also understand, logically, that’s not my job. But it’s hard to not feel that these are my family, my responsibility and the joys and pains we experience there, mine to navigate. For someone who likes to think her way out of confusion, this one is proving difficult. It’s hard to see and understand when you’re in the middle of the thing. 

But I wanted to share our heartbreak. To honour Joel in some small way. To tell our community about our loss and of the beautiful young man who was taken from this world far too early. I’m not sure what lessons there are to be learned here – I suppose time will reveal those.

44 and Blessings

44 and Blessings

What I know is that 44 seems quite the privilege. This is one of those reminders, that comes at far too great a price, that life is much more than the silly things that distract us every day and age and health and love are gifts and essential practices. I’ll hope for peace for Joel’s family and for the people I know struggling with his loss. I’ll hope that we can be what they need from us but I’ve seen their strength and their wisdom and I am in awe of it. Joel, you are missed and you are loved.  

Starting at the end.

We use free range and grass fed meats, exclusively. But how do we ensure that this process is humane and ethical? It seems impossible. But in ensuring we understand and make the right decisions, we’re taking the journey and reporting it to you. On this occasion, I use the word ‘challenged’ in my video to mean, I STRUGGLED. Today’s visit was totally confronting. But knowledge is power and with it, we can make better decisions for us, for you and for our world. Phew.

The Meaty Truth at Red Gum BBQ

So here’s the thing about meat. That you may or may not be aware of. It’s a complicated industry, to put it lightly. One where, throughout recent history, most of what has been available to the masses has been sourced in a not very ethical and not very sustainable way. And did you know that an estimated 97% of Australian’s pigs are raised indoors with no access to the outside? Making doing their regular pig thing impossible. This leaves just 3% of pigs that are described as free range or organic. Pathetic statistic.   

Here's this guy with a cowboy hat who tries to explain it to us: 

Aussie dude in cowboy hat explaining Free Range

In this minefield of an industry there are the animals and the farmers, the distributors and the buyers and the consumers. There are free range, bred free range, grass fed & grain fed. There are bio shelters and factory farms and cages and pastures; there are RSPCA, Free Range, Organic and industry accreditations. Making sense of it all seems pretty much impossible. I ask a lot of questions but the answers are anything but clear.

Here's a graphic that tries to explain some of the most well known accreditations. Within these, there seems to be lots of movement between brands and farms and... fuzzy enough? 



So here’s another thing, that you may know but if you don’t here it is: We care a LOT about all of this. And want very much to be doing our best, as participants in this complex industry, to ensure that not only is the meat we source ethical, but that we are also contributing where we can to strengthening and promoting those within the industry who feel the same.

I remember the first conversation Martin and I had about our commitment to exclusively using free range meat. We agreed that as animal (and yes, meat) lovers, we didn’t want to contribute to an industry that was not caring for the wellbeing of the animal. This was not always an easy choice, in fact, it’s been more hard than easy, by far. For the many years our little BBQ venture was making a loss, it seemed an easy option to cut our costs in half and go with the factory farm, feed lot option. Everyone else was doing it and our consumers probably wouldn’t notice or care. But we didn’t. Because it was a commitment we made and one that we felt defined so much of what mattered to us. Because it was the right thing to do for the animals and for our planet. And because we were sure that if we could find a way to communicate the importance of it to our consumers, they too would share our passion and be willing to pay more for this better product. 

So we continue to plough ahead with understanding and improving our connection to this promise.

Here are some of the highlights (and lowlights) of this journey for us so far:

  • In 2013 Martin spent about a billion hours (fact) on the phone trying to find someone who could source free range pork and chicken and grass fed beef of the quantities and specs we wanted. We could find grass fed beef and free range chooks, but finding pork was endlessly difficult and initially, for a brief period, we settled on a bred free range product. In this instance, we were working directly with the farmer and believed in value she placed on the ethical treatment of her animals.   
  • In 2015 we finally found a supplier who could source us wholly free range pork products of the specs and quantities we required. From 2015-2018 – we moved between a couple of distributors who connected us to farmers like Borrowdale in QLD who provided an amazing product but still, we felt disconnected to the process and wanted to know more about where our meat was sourced and how it came to us. We continued to seek a direct farm to plate relationship and one that would cut down on our food miles.
  • In 2018, we began working with Adam from Hopkins River Beef. He and his partner are based on the Peninsula but own farms across Victoria and process the meat at a plant nearby that they have invited us to visit. Having a relationship with Adam means we get to ask him directly about the animal, their processes and connect more deeply to our food. Adam is passionate about ethical farming so this relationship makes sense.
  • Just this last month we moved to a new distributor who shares this same philosophy on ethical farming and ethical businesses. And they are providing us free range pork from farms in Victoria that gives us the opportunity to cut down our food miles and connect to the farms in a more meaningful way. 
Cows eating grass. #doingtheirthing

Cows eating grass. #doingtheirthing

So the reality for us is that meat eating and caring about animal welfare DO coincide. For most of us, in fact. And ethical farming and the meat industry need us to say that it matters. The more we do and the more you do through choosing to purchase these items, the more this will be the norm. 3%. Not good enough.

So where to from here?

  • We’re planning a trip to the farm. I wanna see it all.
  • And the abattoir. Yes, the abattoir. All. 
  • We’ll continue to seek a direct paddock to plate relationship for free range pork in Victoria.
  • We’ll continue to shout from the rooftops the importance of ethical farming and will maintain our exclusive commitment to it.
  • We’ll continue to get better at and learn more about how we can be more ethical in our use of food at Red Gum.
  • We’ll continue to ask you to care about it too and to ask your butchers and your supermarkets for it.

And in the meantime – talk to us about our meat. Where do we get it from, how do we smoke it and why does it taste so good (cause obviously, healthy, happy pigs make yummy pork).  Hold us to account and spread the word. Ethical farming matters. Free range matters. Supply and demand – let’s expect more, support farmers doing it better and help to create a more competitive free range industry where everyone benefits! Get on board!

Now, who’s up for some ribs?!  (too much?) 





Ratings, Reviews and Redemption: Easter 2018

Red Gum BBQ in its first year of existence has received much praise, lots and lots of folks love the food, the building and the culture of the business. This has overwhelming been the response. I go to work each day amazed and humbled that people come to spend their time with us and enjoy our hospitality. This is what drives me to continue to learn, research and create the best BBQ I possibly can. I dream of brisket, I spend hours thinking about wood, the species, the burn time, its moisture content and how this makes my food smoky, tender and juicy. I am enrolling in a welding course, so I can build my next pit. I want to build my own cooker, to my specifications, from years of trying to master the art of low and slow and always wanting things to work just a little differently. Stay tuned as I will be chronicling that journey. I live and breathe BBQ, the smoke, the early starts, prepping meat and cooking for hours. I love it and I pour my heart and soul into it. There are no short cuts in the way I cook my Q. It’s cooked by hand, with wood, time and love.

What I have found and continue to find difficult is this idea ratings and reviews. I think this started when I decided that I didn’t have the desire to compete in BBQ competitions. The thought of spending hours cooking and pouring my blood, sweat and tears into my BBQ and then being critiqued… what if the judges thought it was crap? I would be devastated. In the words of my friend and great Pitmaster from Georgia, Mr Bryan Furman of B’s Cracklin’ BBQ, I ‘cook for people and not judges.’ My focus has been on creating the best BBQ I could. And my measure of success is if folks come back again and love what I create - that's my reward. 

Martin Pit.jpg

But actually, it turns out that having a BBQ joint is the ultimate way to be judged and critiqued. Every day you open your doors to the public is an opportunity to be scored, rated and reviewed. I never claimed to have the best BBQ, but I endeavour every day to create the most authentic BBQ I can. Some days I nail it, the combination of that piece of meat, the smoke, the heat, my timing in all the critical moments of the cooking process is perfect and the product is magic. We cook pork butts, briskets, pork ribs, beef ribs, chickens, sausages and sometimes others all at the same time and to a deadline - to get it out to my customers. Sometimes we win and what goes out into the restaurant is the BBQ magic. Sometimes just one of those elements from the core product to the smoke, cook time, resting or the rest is off and the product is less than perfect. Sometimes I or my pit team fall short and it breaks my heart. I want desperately for every person to get the best of what we do and every day I go into Red Gum thinking about and working toward making that happen. My sides are authentically southern, many are family recipes and I love them. We cut our fries by hand from potatoes that we have researched and tested. We cut, blanch, fry and serve every day. They are not bought in frozen, we make them each day, and did I mention they are cooked in beef fat. O.K fries are not O.K. We endeavour to make the best fries we can and sometimes we fall short, but we try our best.

I am so incredibly proud of my business, the food, the space, the look and feel, our ethics and of course my staff. It is better than I could have ever imagined, and my wife is to thank for that. We dreamed it up together, but she made it a reality. Anyway, what I am trying to get at is that Red Gum BBQ is an extension of me, my family, it is not a nameless faceless business but is owned by people who care, who feel and who have risked it all to follow a dream.

This leads me onto Easter 2018. Easter was tough, probably the most tough we have had it in a while. One of our key members of staff left us just days before the weekend, a number of our most experienced staff were granted leave without our knowledge, to say we were understaffed was an understatement. Melissa had to cover lots of shifts and worked herself into oblivion, but she is a legend and soldiered on, never wanting to let me or others down. We have had a lot great press recently, we were on Channel 9’s Postcards, we have had a Broadsheet, a Herald Sun and an Urban list article written about us and there has been a bit of a buzz surrounding the business for quite some time. This combination of factors colluded to create the storm that was Easter 2018. We were busy, super-duper busy, in fact the busiest we have ever been. Many folks who came had a wonderful time, they ate, they laughed, they were merry. They told us how much they enjoyed themselves, how they loved the food, the vibe and that they would be back with all their friends. And some, did not.

That feeling of knowing that you are doing your best and that you are falling short is tough to take. Flogging yourself and knowing that you failed is painful, the desire and want to do right by people and not being able to do so, is agonising. Whilst many had great times the ones that did not haunt you. In the days that followed Easter we heard from people who didn’t enjoy their time with us. They called, sent emails, wrote facebook messages, reviews via facebook, Trip Advisor, Google Business and Open Table. Where we could hear it, we heard it. They left their one-star review and essays about why their experience was less than average. They told us why we sucked. Some considerately, most, far from it. They were angry and frustrated and accusatory. We were 'greedy' and 'horrible' and 'misrepresented ourselves on Postcards in order to manipulate people.' And many had lots of valid points. We know that some food went out colder than it should due to not having enough runners. Sometimes drinks came after meals because we were short staffed, the toilets got neglected due to being under the pump and focusing on bodies and food in front of us. I am sorry about that. Sincerely and honestly. I am sorry that we ran out of meat and ruined people’s dinner plans. I know a 15% surcharge on a public holiday is a lot, but our staff need to get paid by the award rate and if we don't do this on these days, we can’t open. I know glasses were backed up as our dishwasher broke down and kept tripping the circuit breaker. I know that our fries weren’t up to standard as the busyness consumes and standards drop. I know that the Red Gum experience was not what I demand it to be and that my offering was diminished and for this I am honestly and genuinely sorry.

Every 1 star review I receive I take personally, I read it, I lament, and I learn. Today we had a leadership meeting purely focused on Easter 2018. We read every piece of negative feedback - from the food, to the building, to the service and it hurt, it was painful. What was interesting though was that there was no blame but rather solutions. We all recognised that this was not us, nor what we wanted to be. Negative feedback can be hard to hear but I think what is important is to own and learn from your mistakes, in this moment we tried our best, but we fell short. We now have a plan and hopefully we won’t make the same mistakes again, but I can’t say for sure we will not. We will continue to grow, learn and do better.

The people dissecting the bad and making good. 

The people dissecting the bad and making good. 

What I think is important is for reviewers to know that when their words are mean and bitter and that their anger and vitriol is palpable through their tone, people are hurt. There is a person who is working their butt off and more often than not they know where they have failed daring to try and it cuts deep. Feedback is great. Allow me to learn from your experience and I promise I will try to do better next time. I know that you might be angry, disappointed or upset, in that same situation I might be too but please don’t be rude or antagonistic as your thoughts are valuable and they may fall on deaf ears. In the age of Facebook, Trip Advisor, Google Business, it is all too easy to give a review that is negative, but I would encourage people to have the conversation with the business either at the time or later and for us to make things right rather than finding out via a poor review. We send out replacements and fix our mistakes when we're made aware of things. We'll do everything we can to make your experience wonderful when you're with us. Give us that opportunity. And if you want to leave a review, imagine that you are standing in front of us - the people who built this business from nothing to something and speak with us in mind. Speak like you would if we were there with you. 

We will continue to pursue our dream, dare to be brilliant and not to take what we have for granted. And where we stumble and fall short allow us the privilege of redemption through kind and considerate conversation. We'll do the same for you. 

I am not much of quote man, but Melissa found one recently that is resonating with me now:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 

- Theodore Roosevelt

We’re in the arena. And we accept that this exposes us to critics. We expect the best of ourselves and you should too. We have one simple request: Be kind.

A Thanksgiving Tale, from Miami to the Mornington Peninsula

Thanksgiving is all about family. More than Christmas - that's been tainted by rampant consumerism and tales of flying reindeer (don't get me wrong, we love it) - Thanksgiving is about two of Red Gum BBQ's favourite things - family and food. 

The main attraction is the meal. End of story. And our tobacco chewing, Uncle Jimmy's inappropriate swearing. Oh, and women gossiping. When I think of Thanksgiving - I think of chaos. Of Mom or Grandma frantically cooking from the crack of dawn in their search of Southern perfection, surrounded by the other women in the family - while the men folk are firmly planted on recliners in front of the TV - beer in hand, watching the Thanksgiving Day football.  As a child I was just a spectator to all of this - shifting between sitting in on the family gossip, visiting Granddaddy on his recliner (a spot nobody but I was allowed to inhabit) or playing with Cousin Angie - usually wandering off, as children did then, exploring  new paths and creeks in the quaint Savannah neighbourhood, Grandma & Granddaddy called home.  While the hours passed over creaming and roasting, stories of family continued...Aunt Vic's dwindling, precious family heirlooms were lost forever to Cousin Kay.  The sad story of Uncle John, lost in the dead of night, found some days later, dead under a bridge (alcohol can get anyone). There's even a story of an ax-wielding ancestor but we're not allowed to talk about that - no seriously, we're not allowed to ever mention it. In and amongst the doom and gloom, there are conversations about pregnancy, infidelity and divorce. And whether the mash needs more mashing. 

Everyone in position.

Everyone in position.

Lunch begins peaceful enough - with everyone sharing their reasons for being thankful. Traditionally this goes along the lines of - 'for the food we're eating, for the blessings of health' some mention of God... but as the wine and beers flow the responses become a bit more interesting and a bit more truthful (particularly when blessings are less abundant). Hopefully we make it around the table without someone being genuinely insulted. Unlikely.

The meal is the star attraction. The bird is ceremoniously carved by the elder male - who provides his singular input into the meal. My spot at the table was identified by the mayo jar sitting at the top, ready to put my turkey into a sandwich - an act that provided years of taunting by my brothers (who were professional taunters). I still have an extraordinary love of sandwiches - though have matured in my tastes and prefer gravy and dressing to bread for my turkey. 

On the table is the same casseroles we remember from year after year and that we may only have on this one day. Southern women pride themselves on a casserole and this meal is like the Superbowl of casseroles. The most controversial dish at the James/Cobb Thanksgiving table was Cheese & Peas. A simple dish of baby peas, chopped sharp cheddar, diced onion, mayo and salt and pepper. Served cold. My brother thought it was worthy of its white trash reputation. I thought it was heaven in a salad. I shared the recipe with friends over the years. Some loved, some recoiled. But everywhere Peas and Cheese went, excitement followed. We renamed it on occasion to Petit Pois au Fromage in order to class it up but this just felt fake. Cheese and Peas, I found out later, a classic Southern dish (of course it was, my grandmother and mother always made it) is what food should be. It is simple and real and makes no pretense otherwise. 

Yes. Those are marshmallows.

Yes. Those are marshmallows.

What's apparent as the day goes on is that family, particularly from those across the wide US political spectrum and alcohol -  should really only get together once a year. And this time is Thanksgiving. When the love that binds us as family, with all of the shared history of lifetimes and generations - is what trumps all. 

And that pie heals all wounds. 

And that turkey, like shrimp, a' la Gump - can reinvent itself in endlessly, wonderful ways. 

And that nobody better eat the last cheese and peas. Or else. 

Today Thanksgiving in Australia looks a little bit different. Martin is intimately involved in Thanksgiving prep - he's the man on the meat, of course. And I'm on casserole duty. A tradition I happily indulge and one that connects me to Mom and Grandma and the Americans at home and abroad, busily pulling together the meal of the year. We still have casseroles, sweet potato with marshmallows and of course, Cheese & Peas. Where we can, we host our own Thanksgiving - or attend one with some expat friends. It's wonderful to now be able to share this with our little Aussie kids - who are learning that they have histories beyond these borders. We share stories of thankfulness and most importantly, take time to gather with friends and family over wonderful food - the trifecta of joy and life that is at the heart of all cultures and that reminds us of what is really important.  Pie.

Our American/Aussie Thanksgiving

Our American/Aussie Thanksgiving

Southern Lovin BBQ Tour 2016 - So far so BBQ

I have been in the US now for about 2 weeks after flying from Melbourne via Brisbane, LA and onto Miami, a mammoth trip with two small children.

My wife as a native Floridian, born and raised in Miami, first requested we find Cuban food. So my first meal state side was black beans and rice and grilled chicken – so simple but somehow the Cuban flavours bring it to life and make you come back for more. After spending a couple of days in South Florida we headed to Disney, this part was for the kids but who knew Micky is a Pitmaster?! Disney rocks a Back Yard BBQ, ribs, brisket, pulled pork, fried chicken with all the ‘fixins. It was decent looking BBQ but not quite the quality I’m accustomed to but did get me excited about my travels and all the southern food to come. Ps. Disney World is awesome. At any age.

Shrimp n Grits

Shrimp n Grits

Next stop: Amelia Island, Florida. My mother in law lives in Fernandina Beach, a small island community just outside Jacksonville. This is where our southern food adventure begins. This town is not about BBQ but all about shrimp. You see shrimp boats moored in the harbour here, straight outta Forest Gump. My first real Southern feed is Shrimp and Grits. My wife had been trying to convince me of grits for years, unsuccessfully. if you’re unfamiliar – they are cornmeal, a little like polenta, usually drowning in butter, maybe cheese, served warm and usually with breakfast. True Southern food! These grits were nestled under some shrimp, pan-fired in garlic and the winner was the white wine heavy cream andouille sausage gravy. Unreal. Nuff said. Other notable mentions have been the fried shrimp and hush puppies and the staple burgers and hot dogs on the fourth of July.

From Northern Florida, to Southern Georgia and Saint Simons Island and Southern Soul BBQ. We arrived mid-afternoon and decided to have dinner at Southern Soul. I introduced myself to the staff and am told to be there in the morning, 6am. Bring a meat probe, note book and pen.

Southern Soul BBQ lunch crowd on a sweltering summer day.  

Southern Soul BBQ lunch crowd on a sweltering summer day.  

For dinner we ordered the St Louis style pork ribs, BBQ beans, mac and cheese, brisket, slaw and potato salad. Just a few things; the toddler is a big eater. Everything was top shelf - especially the ribs - ridiculously good. I go to bed just a little excited. I set my alarm for 5:15 am and jump on my purple beach bike that is at the house we rented and head to my first day at Southern Soul BBQ.

I roll up on my sick new ride and say g’day to my new crew. We get stuck in straight away, the pits are already up to temp. We are burning Oak which has been double split and is sitting outside the restaurant. They run four pits, three Lang reverse flow offsets and a rotisserie smoker. First job is to rub butts (don’t you love BBQ speak?), these get stacked in the rotisserie smoker, then briskets go in the first Lang, ribs and chicken in the second and the third pit is not being used today. I spend most of the morning prepping ribs and briskets. Service starts at 11am and before I know it we are getting smashed but it is a well-oiled machine, with Chef Leo at the pass, Big (that’s his name) slicing brisket and ribs, Terrance on sides, Dan on sandwiches, Joe and I smashing out prep and Q (yes, his name, Q cooks the Que) managing the pits. I spend most of my day answering questions about kangaroos and Australian BBQ.

Me, Pitmaster Que and some burnt ends

Me, Pitmaster Que and some burnt ends

I leave at 3pm after picking Leo’s brain about service and hot holding and go home to see the family who have spent the day at the pool, hiding from the 100 degree Fahrenheit heat. Pizza for dinner tonight. Back at Southern Soul, 6 am tomorrow – more from me tomorrow night! 

Southern Lovin Barbecue Tour 2016

Join us on our Southern Lovin' BBQ Tour 2016! We'll be eating our way across the Southern US of A in just a few weeks time and you can follow along. What's the next best thing to escaping a cold and wet winter for a meaty, smokey summer BBQ adventure? Well, seeing pictures and hearing all about, of course! 

So the Red Gum BBQ Crew (aka, Mr & Mrs. Pitmaster and Pitmaster Jnrs.) are off to the states to visit family, friends and of course, hit up some BBQ joints. We are to do a whirl wind tour of Northern Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.

 What I am most interested in is more than BBQ but also southern cooking in general. I hope to get some more family recipes, get info from about their favourite southern recipes, speak to chefs and cooks and of course learn from some awesome Pitmasters.

 I am off to work with Harrison Sapp, Pitmaster and owner of Southern Soul BBQ on Saint Simons Island in Georgia. This place what southern-style BBQ is all about! Named Best BBQ by Travel Magazine, Best Ribs by Southern Living Magazine and the rest. They have been kind enough to invite me along to hang out for a week and I'm just a little bit excited about this opportunity. I will be posting pictures and blogging so you can keep up to date with my BBQ adventure.

I will be coming home with some killer new recipes, techniques and knowledge that I will be showcasing at a one off event, Marty’s BBQ Return to Oz – tickets will be available soon.

Martin (Pitmaster and Southern cooking lover)

Realising a BBQ Dream

Once upon a time there was a girl from the South and her man from across the pond who had a dream of bringing BBQ to the masses. But more than just BBQ, we imagined the whole, real deal. The kind of venue, food, music, drink and people that created that special something. A place where people felt they were with family - where the meat, music and merriment was in plentitude - and where people left with full bellies and smiles on their faces. This was the dream that became Saturday Smoke. 

Sometime in 2013 we visited Commonfolk Coffee and were excited to find a place that we felt was really doing things right - or at least right in our very not-expert opinion. The space, the food, the feeling that you got when you walked in the door - like you could kick up your heels and make yourself at home. And let your kid eat off the floor - bonus. When we thought about where we would like to do a pop-up on the Peninsula - this venue was top on our list. Sam - the mastermind behind Commonfolk was so generous of his time, his advice and his space. After much consideration for how the event would come to life; Saturday Smoke was born in May of 2014. A night of Meat, Music and Merriment - where a 3-course family style dinner was presented amongst the wide open space, long bench tables and open air outside of the venue. 

We fed and fed - until people could be fed no more. We adorned tables with hessian runners and herb plants. Sourced local craft beers, wines and ciders and connected with our Peninsula roots. We got some of the best bluegrass and folk singers around to come add their strings, voices and soul to the night and by the end of the evening we knew we had made our little BBQ dream come true. What began as an unsure organiser, a hesitant but hopeful Pitmaster and Chef, a new and inexperienced staff and a room full of curious strangers - ended with a community of friends, of glowing compliments and of a thrilled and tired Mr. and Mrs. Pitmaster. This first Saturday Smoke turned into a monthly event - where we trialled a continuous stream of Southern cooking to overwhelmingly kind praise. But more importantly, what never faltered but in fact grew, was the sense of family and community we found in the event. We believe that BBQ brings people together and is best amongst friends and Saturday Smoke was the testament to this. This BBQ dream realised, we're onto the next! Saturday Smoke will live again. Watch this space. And stay tuned to see more of our dreams come true.