EatDrinkJax.com talking wood smoked BBQ with Kelham Stephenson of Smoke It Up BBQ.
1. Tell us about Smoke It Up BBQ.
We’re a mobile barbecue kitchen specializing in wood smoked meats, from-scratch sauces, and gourmet side dishes.
We cook everything on our mobile kitchen except for our meats, which are smoked on a Lang Smoker Cooker. What makes the Lang Smoker special is that it’s an all wood fired smoker, also known as a Stickburner. This means we have a live fire in our smoker, and the only fuel source is split hardwoods. We don’t use any propane or charcoal. We use hardwoods such as cherry, hickory and pecan as these woods impart a smoky sweetness that really enhances the flavor of our meats.
We want to bring a fresh, flavorful barbecue option to the community - something that’s mobile, but brings back some old school cooking techniques that you don’t often see anymore - things like pickling and preserving. In an age where many of our diets consist of artificially colored and flavored ingredients, we want to bring back the idea of making things from scratch and help others understand that good, inexpensive street food doesn’t have to come from a packet, and it don’t have to be processed.
Whenever possible we’re using local, organic, freshly farmed produce from around the Jacksonville area. We buy from local farmer’s markets and from our partners at Grassroots Market who order a lot of our produce. Our dishes are all about the natural flavor - we use smoke, spices and sugars to enhance your BBQ experience. We want to hit all levels of your flavor palate.
House made Beef Pastrami with Piccalilli
2. Why not use charcoal or propane?
Hardwoods are all natural, heat consistently, and add a beautiful aroma to our food. Most charcoals are made with unnatural elements that we don’t want around our food and propane is best suited to grilling at higher temperature, not low and slow smoking, in my opinion.
All of our smoking is done low and slow unless we’re grilling steaks or vegetables. But even our steaks and vegetables are cooked over wood.
We smoke our meat at temperatures between 225F and 250F. It’s a very labor intensive process with a live fire. The smoker itself needs tending to every 45 minutes just to keep the temperature consistent and if we’re towing or traveling around we need to stop every 20 minutes to check the fire. Unfortunately, running an all wood BBQ doesn’t allow you the luxuries of setting a timer and leaving the smoker to cook, but I also believe that the time, attention and this style of cooking leads to a superior smoked product.
Lang 84 Deluxe Smoker and Smoke It Up BBQ truck
3. Can you tell us about your barbecue style?
Everyone who cooks barbecue has his own background. To me, barbecue has always been an exciting food. When you mention barbecue to people they naturally smile and it makes them happy. It’s something people can relate to. It’s something you enjoy with friends and family.
I’ve done some traveling and have eaten barbecue in a lot of different states. What I’ve done is to take my experiences, and the best parts of what I’ve liked, and put my own spin on things using my own recipes. It may sound funny, but I’m actually British and I have a lot of British traditions that I also bring to the truck. People laugh when they hear that a British person owns a barbecue truck.
Part of my style is that I don’t add any sauces to my meats. I try to bring a sweetness and smokiness through the wood. I start by using a homemade spice rub to help tenderize and flavor the meat. All our meats are dry rubbed about 12 hours before smoking. They then sit overnight to marinate in their own juices, which helps to tenderize them a little bit more.
Barbecue is a very personal thing for me - it’s what I’m passionate about and what I spend all my time doing.
4. What sort of British traditions do you bring to a barbecue truck?
We do a lot of pickled vegetables. It’s something I think I inherited from my family. I grew up eating a lot of pickled vegetables - pickled beet root, pickled onions, cucumbers and lots of sauerkrauts and cabbages. I believe it to be more of an English or European tradition.
It was important to me was to create a tangy, crisp, flavorful cucumber pickle, as that is what most guests are accustomed to having pickled. We also wanted to offer something a little different, not a bread and butter or a traditional dill pickle.
We get a lot of positive reactions from our Caraway pickles, a lot of “wow! That’s really tangy and different.” I’ve tried to partner that with our barbecue to give people a different perspective on some of our flavors. A lot of our food is out of the norm from what people are used to. Once people start trying the different menu items we tend to see them keep coming back to try the next seasonal item we’re cooking or to try something they’ve never had before.
Home made pickles
5. Do you sell your pickles separately?
We do sell them as a separate side. Customers have been asking to buy them in a jar so we’re working on some labels and we’ll fresh pack them on the truck and sell them that way. We always have some containers that we sell in pint, quart and gallon sizes. We don’t boil, can or jar our pickles very often, so they’re very fresh, but that also means they only have a shelf life of a couple of weeks in the fridge from the time they’re sold off the truck.
6. How did you get initiated to an all-wood style of smoking?
I got my start in commercial barbecue working for a family friend out of Boston, MA. Elaine Murphy owned a roadside BBQ called True Blue, which served all-wood smoked barbecue. It was a cargo panel trailer with a pop-up side window that was set up on the side of the road in Kingston, MA. Elaine smoked her meats over apple, pecan and hickory hardwoods because those were the local woods she had available to her. I attribute a lot of my cooking style and love for BBQ to Elaine, as she was the first one to introduce me to the commercial side of BBQ, and helped prepare me for running my own mobile company.
7. How did you come up with your menu for Smoke It Up BBQ?
I wanted to give guests a variety of options, including everything from meat options to sandwiches and salads to BBQ platters. The challenge was to create a lot of variety while still making everything from scratch and serving it all in a mobile environment. That’s how this kitchen came about. I wanted the kitchen to be able to encompass everything. Having a larger area with more room for equipment allowed for a lot more flexibility and options for what we can prepare.
We currently offer lunch and dinner throughout the week.
8. What would you recommend to someone coming to Smoke It Up BBQ for the first time, to get a good sense of what your cooking is all about?
For a first time visitor I’d like to recommend any of our BBQ meats - they are all tender and smoky.
If I had to recommend a lunch option I'd suggest trying The Traditional sandwich or slider, which is our pulled pork sandwich. It’s a pork butt that we smoke for 13 hours over a cherry, hickory and pecan wood mix. We pull the meat off the smoker and remove the fat cap before we hand shred the pork. The meat is served on a toasted French roll. You also get a little bit of home made vinegar barbecue sauce. It’s a tomato based BBQ sauce and is quite runny. We shred cabbages and carrot and toss them with our chili lime mayo to make our house coleslaw. The Traditional is topped with that slaw. That embodies a true, North Carolina, pulled pork sandwich to me. It’s messy, juicy, tangy, and comes with a little creaminess from the mayo, but not too much. All that flavor, along with the sweetness and smokiness that comes with the pork, mmm.