I left Ireland to cook meat and build fires in London
Working as ‘pitmaster’ in Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa restaurant is my dream job
Mark O’Brien: ‘I left Ireland to find my dream job. To get out and see the world. To live in other countries and meet new people and try new foods.’ See Mark's recipe for sweet and sticky Carolina-style baby back ribs (pictured) below.
‘I work every day with amazing chefs, cooking stunning quality food. I have met wonderful people and I continue to learn from them.’
I was tempted away from Ireland by a guy from Kerry making me a job offer I couldn’t refuse.
I had been working as a chef in a Mediterranean style place in Dublin, but my heart had always been with barbecue, so when the opportunity arose to manage the demo tent at Ireland’s first barbecue festival, the Big Grill Fest, I couldn’t pass it up.
When I showed up the next morning I was introduced to John, the then head chef of Barbecoa, Jamie Oliver’s high end steak and smoke house right by St Paul’s Cathedral in London. He is one of the craziest, goofiest and off-the-wall characters you could ever hope to meet, from Duagh in Co Kerry.
We immediately hit it off. He was at the festival doing five demos a day, and I was there to assist him in whatever way he needed. We made beer-can chickens and whole shoulders of pork. We cooked steaks, smoked duck breast, and broke down whole lambs into primal cuts and smoked them all day.
The main attraction was a pit smoker made out of cinder blocks. This thing was huge, two metres wide and three long. Into this pit we placed a whole pig, for a Carolina style barbecue. John had previously worked with one of the modern godfathers of barbecue, Adam Perry Lang, and had been running Barbacoa for four years. I learned more about smoking in that weekend than I had in my whole life.
By the end of the first day he was telling me how I had to come to Barbecoa and try the food. “Next time you are in London give me a shout, come in for dinner, see the kitchen.” The next day it had progressed to “You have to come over for a week to work with us, you have to!” That night he started saying jokingly “Well once I get you in my kitchen I don’t think I will want to let you go. You might have to stay and work with us forever.”
I didn’t really consider it an offer, but it stuck in my head. The final night we wrapped up the demo tent and as we were bidding each other goodbye, I asked him, “So about that job offer in London, were you being serious?” Not really knowing what answer to expect, or what answer I was looking for, I waited. For the first time all weekend, he dropped his goofy grin and looked me dead in the eye: “Absolutely.”
Six months later I arrived in London, a bag full of chef uniforms over my shoulder and my knife case under my arm. I walked into Barbecoa in a mingling state of terror and excitement, not entirely sure of what to expect. The restaurant was four times bigger than anywhere else I had previously worked, and it was in a discipline of food I had only done in a very amateur setting.
Also, I had just moved away from my family, my girlfriend and all of my friends. There was a lot riding on this going well.
I had to do a trial shift, just so the executive chef could see what I could do. It did not go well.
Thankfully, they decided to keep me. Over the next six months I worked my ass off in every corner of the kitchen I could, and they soon made me “pitmaster”, which was an incredible honour.
Now I work every day with amazing chefs, cooking stunning quality food. I have met wonderful people and I continue to learn from them every day of the week. I get to spend my days basting ribs and seasoning pulled pork and slicing beef ribs and building fires. I can honestly say without an ounce of irony that this is my dream job.
And that is why I left Ireland. To find my dream job. To get out and see the world. To live in other countries and meet new people and try new foods.
Before I met John I had no idea where my life was going but I did have the thought of moving abroad in my head. Then he showed up and gave me exactly what I wanted, all wrapped up in a nice little package.
Who knows what the future will hold? Maybe a random encounter with another mad Irishman is only around the corner, waiting to whisk me off on my next adventure. Till then, I’ll be happy out in a cloud of smoke playing with meat.
RECIPE: Sweet and sticky Carolina-style baby back ribs
Baby back ribs (one rack per person)
50g black pepper
50g smoked paprika
50g garlic powder
50g onion powder
50g Frenchie’s mustard
50ml Worcestershire sauce
50g dark muscavado sugar
50ml cider vinegar
1Tbsp golden syrup or honey
1. Start off by preparing the ribs. If they have a lot of excess fat, trim some of it off.
2. Next, make the dry rub. In a small container, mix together the salt, pepper, paprika, garlic powder and onion powder. Make sure it is well mixed as sometimes the garlic and onion powder can clump together.
3. Lightly sprinkle a layer of the dry rub all over the prepared ribs, making sure to coat the edges of the meat.
4. Preheat your oven to 140°c. Place the ribs on a wire rack or directly on the shelves of your oven, about 5cm apart. I am incredibly lucky to have a smoker, but if you don’t have one don’t worry; these are still going to taste incredible.
5. While the ribs cook, get to work on the BBQ sauce. Place the ketchup, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, sugar, vinegar, syrup and one tablespoon of the dry rub into a small saucepan and cook over a medium heat until it has reduced and become really dark and thick. Be sure to stir it every five minutes or so to stop it burning.
6. After the ribs have been cooking for about two hours, check to see how they are getting on. Take a toothpick and poke it into the meat: if it still feels firm then it needs more cooking. If the meat begins to feel loose and soft then you are nearly there. Another test is to try to fold the ribs; as soon as they start to break instead of fold then you are good to go.
7. Using a small brush or even a spoon, baste the ribs with the BBQ sauce. You don’t want too much, just a thin coating. Place them back in the oven and continue cooking for 30-40 minutes.
8. Take out the ribs when the sauce has caramelised on the top of the ribs and the meat is soft but not falling apart. You still want the ribs to have a little bite to them.
9. Serve them up with a little of the BBQ sauce and a few pickles or a pile of slaw. Enjoy!
Mark O’Brien’s blog oaksmokeandbbqsauce.com was shortlisted in the diaspora category at Blog Awards Ireland this year.