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John Hargate: a story of travelling, music and barbecue
Adie Platts lead me to John Hargate as his successor in the trail of passion. I have to admit that I had never heard of the man before. I’m not in competition BBQ scene and he left before I started following from a distance. Yet he embodies what I was aiming for with this trail of passion. An inspiring man on many domains. While working on this post he inspired me for vegetarian BBQ ideas, got me in contact with the real “deep house” music and proved to be a verry accessible person. For this reason I want to start by saying thanks for leading me to an interesting path. Sit back and relax for a well illustrated portrait brought by the man himself:
First of all I want to thank Adie for nominating me for this . It gives me a chance to thank all those people in the BBQ world who have given me the opportunity to do all the things I have enjoyed doing over the last 10 years.
John Hargate on how it all started:
I had been cooking meat directly over charcoal,like most people, for a number of years. My first experience would have been at church youth club barbecues , aged about 8 or 9. Even then though I realised that the sausages still tasted better than they did when cooked in a pan or under a gas grill.
When I left home and started to travel, one of my first port of calls was Denmark and it was there that I first learned how to cook larger pieces of meat over the coals. In particular, the traditional Danish dish , Flaeskesteg, or crispy belly pork. My first real obsession though would have started when travelling in Asia and particularly Thailand where grilling was a real art form. Whilst living in Bangkok, I took a Thai cookery course and on returning to England, I wandered around London asking Thai restaurants to give me a job. At this time there were only around a dozen Thai kitchens in the capital but eventually, after having my request laughed at 7 or 8 times,I was given a job looking after the starters. I worked with Thai people for over 5 years and when I finished there were over 100 Thai restaurants in London. I realised then how fashions in food can grow so rapidly.To this day, Thai grilled chicken is for me the best way to cook a bird. This concise recipe, if followed correctly, will produce mind blowing results and in my humble opinion beats any American competition style BBQ chicken that I have tasted. Another of my favourite
Thai recipes can be made with all your little offcuts from ribs or pork butt and is quick to prepare and delicious to eat. Again this recipe is concise and easy to follow.
How John Hargate got vegetarian for a while:
My travels to Asia however resulted in me taking an interest in meditation and I became a disciple of Osho Rajneesh. I immersed myself in his ashram, working in the communes across Europe: Copenhagen, Hamburg, Berlin, Amsterdam where I mostly worked either in the kitchens or in their discotheques. Whilst living in the communes, I abstained from eating meat for 7 years but this gave me a great opportunity to learn about vegetarian diets which in turn has helped me to prepare interesting and exciting side dishes to serve alongside smoked meats today. When Osho died and I left the commune, I began working full time as a dj as I had amassed quite a record collection over the years and my independent ways meant that I found it difficult to work 50-60 hours a week for low wages in some commercial kitchen.Music had always been my first love and the house music scene had taken off in England. I found myself in demand as a dj throughout England and Europe and when I was offered the opportunity to tour America I jumped at the chance.
John Hargate learning all about American style BBQ:
We had been touring the states for about 2 years, travelling and sleeping on converted yellow school buses, when we arrived in Houston for the second time. We got a park up for our buses at a former aeroplane hangar and it was whilst we were there that I got my first taste of Texas brisket. The owner of the hangar had a small offset on which he had cooked this brisket for a family gathering and we were giventhe scraps. I knew immediately that this was something I needed to learn how to cook but I had to wait some time for a teacher. Here in Houston, the gigs dried up and one by one we managed to send the crew home to Europe and ship back all our equipment. We were just a handful of crew remaining , without any money, when I was offered 3 weeks work and the chance to buy my ticket home. The work was in a renowned Houston eatery called The Ashland House Tea Rooms and it was here that I could first begin to learn about Texan food and in particular , smoked meats. The 3 weeks passed quickly and when it did, I didn’t want to go home. The restaurant owner, Mrs. Linda Williams said I could stay on and so I did. One day, I was asked if I could barbecue chicken and I replied ” of course ”. I went across the yard to the offset and began to build a fire. It was then that the kitchen porter came running across. ”What you doing boy?” he shouted. I looked at him quite puzzled. ”That’s the food chamber” he said. ”This is where you build the fire” he shouted pointing at the smaller chamber of the smoker. He then taught me how to smoke whole chickens. A job that I went on to do twice a week for the next 2 years.
Linda Williams was to become my biggest inspiration in the kitchen. She went on to teach me how to smoke brisket, pork loin, prime beef rib, pork spare ribs and so much more. It was through her that I discovered the spiritual side of BBQ and the kindness and community spirit that goes with this form of cooking. She will always be one of my biggest BBQ heroes . She was like a second mother to me. In Houston I ate…a lot. To be honest I was 9 stone when I arrived and 14 stone when I left just a few years later but I had developed a serious love of Southern cooking. From meatloaf to fried chicken, crawfish to candied yams and of course, burritos to barbecue. We travelled all over the southern states visiting shacks and taquerias, breakfast bars and mom and pop diners but what really fascinated me were the old BBQ joints of East Texas. Nowadays it’s the likes of Aaron Franklin, Myron Mixon and the new school who are in the news but back then BBQ wasn’t getting the major press it does now. I must have visited over 100 BBQ joints in Texas and for me the best eats were City Market in Lulling and Louis Muellers in Taylor. The greatest experience however , was at The Taylor Cafe where I sat and ate sausage sandwiches for breakfast whilst being granted an audience with Vencil Mares. This man is a true legend of BBQ and has been around smoking meats for more years than I would hope to live. Here he is on a short video which captures his personality quite beautifully…..
I met Adie Platts at the very first BBQ competition that I entered which took place in Ilminster, Somerset in 2008. He had come to judge at the competition which had been organized by Ian McKend from Macs BBQ. Ian is a really nice guy whose influence on European BBQ should not be understated . It is largely down to him running Britain’s first internet BBQ forum and the competitive prices on his Pro Q smokers and in particular the XL20, that many people have been able to get into grass roots BBQ throughout Europe. I had recently purchased a couple of Traeger pellet smokers from Jackie Weight, Britain’s only true BBQ legend. Jackie of course had been Grand Champion at The Jack Daniels World Championship in Lynchburg, Tennessee a few years earlier and I think remains the only non American winner of this title.
To this day, I would still consider her to be one of my greatest influences and somebody I can always call upon for good advice. I always enjoy seeing her and catching up over a drink or two. With these 2 Traegers to accompany my heavy Oklahoma Joe offset, I felt I had a formidable arsenal and with the knowledge I had gleaned from my stay in Texas, I thought I was in with a fighting chance of getting awalk in at least one category. Competing that day were about 16 teams including Toby Shea and Big Al Demarky. Though I was happy with the food that I cooked, I had no idea at all how to present meat for competitions and I bombed, probably finishing way down the list. I had, however, had a fantastic time meeting like minded souls and whilst thoroughly exhausted and dejected with my results, I was determined to dust myself down and prepare for the following year’s competition. The winter of 2008-2009 proved to be a very interesting closed season. Dissatisfied with some of the ways that the Ilminster competition had been run, Toby Shea formed The British BBQ Society , developing a BBBQS internet forum and creating the first ever British competition circuit. In doing so, Toby sacrificed the chance to compete with his British Bulldogs BBQ Team for some years but the work he put in proved to be the foundation stones for the American style BBQ phenomenon that exists in the UK today.
John Hargate ’s runner up for the trail of passion:
The first year of British BBQ Society events was a lot of fun. We were like a family with each competition like a social event. We would stay up all night tending our smokers, playing cards and sharing drinks and food. Everybody involved would get a walk in one or other categories every so often. We shared tips and scoured the internet for any advice we could find from the states.
We were all improving our game but when I first travelled to Lynchburg in 2010 to compete at The Jack, I soon realised how far away from the American standards I was. The hospitality we received though was amazing and I will take this opportunity now to thank Wayne and Maria Lohman and Bill and Debbie Gage for all their encouragement and the care they took in making our stays in Lynchburg the memories that they are. The last time that I competed at The Jack though, in 2012, I was looked after by Byrom Chism, someone who many BBQers in Europe will have met. To say that I was humbled by this man’s kindness would be an understatement. His whole being is overflowing with generosity of the soul and I would like to think that spending time with him has made me a better human being. If there is one person that I have met through BBQ who would be considered my ultimate BBQ hero it would be Byrom. He would also be my nomination for continuing this thread.
Byron of course first came to the UK to compete at the Grillstock BBQ competition, an event started by the wonderful team of Jon Finch and Ben Merrington. which has gone from strength to strength as a BBQ and music festival in the UK. These festivals have brought with them the opportunity to taste real American BBQ for thousands who would otherwise never have had the chance. In doing so it can be said that Grillstock has been a huge influence in the growth of American BBQ within Europe. Another American BBQ star affiliated with Grillstock, who I am also proud to consider as a friend, is Ray Lampe AKA Dr. BBQ. Ray’s charisma and larger than life personality has been at the forefront in presenting The Grillstock ”King of the Grill” BBQ competitions to the public.
About John Hargate ’s withdrawal from competition BBQ
After my 3rd visit to The Jack in 2012, I decided to concentrate less on competition and more on my commercial venture , Bar-B-Q Shack. There were several reasons for this but the overwhelming precedent that comes to mind is the use of phosphates and nitrates as injections for the meat and the prolific use of store bought BBQ sauces in competitions. I have always felt that rubs and sauces should be made from scratch by each entrant and simply mixing together 2 store bought sauces does not mean that a sauce has been made from scratch. There are other reasons though that have caused me to withdraw from the competition circuit and even change the way that I cook for the Bar-B-Q Shack business. Most of those reasons can be found here described much better than I ever could in this article by Robb Walsh, the Texas BBQ author and aficionado ….
I will always try to visit as many BBQ competitions as I can, especially in Europe, as it is a great opportunity to meet up with old friends who I have met along the BBQ trail. I also feel that as standards rapidly improve, Europe could lead the way in World BBQ by affecting changes more easily than the USA regarding enhanced meats and store bought sauces and seasonings. I would also always encourage any newcomers to BBQ to try and compete as much as possible and to read up everything one can on the science of smoking meats. When asked for the best advice I could give to any newcomer, it would be to read the website Amazingribs and to follow the KISS method.
The KISS method you ask? Keep It Simple Stupid! Enjoy your BBQ. Don’t take things too seriously. Winning isn’t everything. Oh..and don’t forget some music.
Note from John: ”A big thank you to everybody who I’ve met along the way who I haven’t mentioned.I hope to see you all this summer. You never know, maybe I might come out of competition retirement for the odd contest or two.”
Thanks John for the great story! After this read I think people will understand how you seem to be an inspiring person. Hope you all enjoyed the read. Don’t hesitate to leave a message or showing some appreciation by spreading the word if you did.