Jamie Oliver's head chef brings barbecue to Cork

John Relihan is cooking low ’n‘slow at Holy Smoke barbecue restaurant in Cork

Real barbecue is about great of hunks of pork shoulder, racks of ribs, and slabs of brisket, isn’t it? It’s a carnivore’s carnival. So why is John Relihan, the hottest barbecue chef in the country, who has just opened Holy Smoke in Cork, waxing lyrical about cooking for vegans?

“I am a meat-eater, a true meat-eater, nose to tail. But I love cooking vegan food and vegetarian food because it’s challenging. Chefs need to be creative, and they need to look after the people who pay the bills. We’re a smokehouse, so even for the vegans and the vegetarians, we can play with the smoke and be creative,” he says.

Relihan opened the 88-seater in the Mardyke Entertainment Complex in Cork on Easter weekend and it has been mobbed ever since with diners keen to try authentic low ’n‘ slow American-style barbecue.

Mostly, they’re here for the meat, of course, but the vegetable sides and salads on the menu are interesting, too, and the reverence shown to them is a pointer to Relihan’s training with Jamie Oliver and the Fifteen Foundation in London.

The then 17-year-old, from Duagh in Kerry, discovered his interest in food through cooking for his mother. “She used to work a lot, overworked herself really, to provide for me. She was a single mother, so I was cooking for her a lot, and it made her happy, and I got a little addicted to that,” he says.

“My uncle gave me a Jamie cookbook for my birthday, and then I saw the first TV programme about the Fifteen apprentice programme. So I wrote them a letter . . .”

Soon the small town teenager found himself heading for the bright lights of London and the start of a friendship with Oliver, who he describes as “one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met. He’s a very inspiring person”.

The Fifteen apprentice scheme made a man out of the Kerry teenager, who graduated with a mark of 98 per cent and a newly acquired worldliness, thanks to some of his savvy classmates, including "bad boys" Aaron Craze (recognisable from his Market Kitchen and Food Network TV show appearances), and Dennis Duncanson, a former joyrider who had been in trouble with the police, and who became a lynchpin in the JO organisation, leading the roll out of Jamie's Italian in the UK and Australia.

“They were looking out for me big time. Aaron used to teach me his streetwise game and Dennis, you know, not to walk around with my wallet hanging out of my pocket.” The unlikely trio struck up a bond, and are still in regular contact, with Craze recently visiting his pal in Cork.

Five years after graduating from Fifteen, with stints working with Chris Cosentino in San Francisco – “I was in love with the place, the people and the food” – and with Fergus Henderson at St John in London – “I’d walk in in the morning and there’d be 50 rabbits for me to skin and gut” – Relihan got a call from Oliver. “He was opening up Barbecoa and asked if I’d like to be sous chef there.”

The 300-seat restaurant in the City was where Relihan honed his barbecue and grilling technique, collaborating with American expert Adam Perry Land and ending up as head chef. Then a chance meeting with journalist Caroline Hennessy at the Big Grill Festival in Dublin put in motion a chain of events that would bring Relihan home to Ireland. Hennessy put him in touch with Eddie Nicholson, owner of the Mardyke complex, who was looking for a chef to open a barbecue restaurant, and Holy Smoke began to take shape.

The 88-seat restaurant is already turning all of its tables at weekends, and the venture has success stamped all over it. Expansion looks likely. For Relihan, it’s a chance to do what he loves, back home.

“Last night it was really, really busy and we were basting up the barbecue sauce on the ribs on the grill, and me and the other chef just looked at each other and we’re like . . . Yes! There’s no other way to make a living, in our eyes.”


Jamie Oliver gave Relihan the nickname Johnny Pickles, due to his enthusiasm for the process.

Here is Relihan’s recipe for an all-purpose pickling liquor:

500ml cider vinegar,

200ml water,

100g white sugar,

Aromatics of your choice – eg rosemary, thyme, garlic, red chilli, mustard, fennel and coriander seeds are all good.

Bring to a simmer and stir till the sugar dissolves, then pour over chopped veg in a sterilised Kilner jar.