By: Vivienne Pearson
‘It was a life-changing meal,’ says Joel Romo of a dinner he had at age seven. It was his first taste of southern American-style barbecue and he loved it. Why? ‘It was the flavour and the consistency – super tender and super juicy,’ he says.
When Joel moved to Australia in 2001, to be with his life- and now business-partner Simone Helm, this style of cooking wasn’t available, so he decided to do it himself. After initially just cooking occasionally for friends, they started being asked to cook for events.
In those days, smokers were not available commercially, so Joel made one himself with the help of a friend. For the uninitiated, a smoker is a trailer-sized steel box with different compartments and a chimney. In one compartment a wood fire burns, and in the main one meat cooks slowly using indirect heat. Different woods gives different flavours – Joel uses wood from pecan, apple or macadamia trees that has been seasoned for a year.
Several southern states of the USA have strong barbecue traditions. According to Joel, it was initially a poor-persons’ food, using ‘secondary cuts’ of meat cooked in dugout pits.
Joel (also known as JR) grew up outside this ‘barbecue belt’ so he sought out mentors to help him on his smokehouse journey. Even before his love of southern barbecue grew into a business – when he was working in surf and skateboard sales – Joel spent weeks in the US touring old-school barbecue joints and ‘interning’ with the best of the best.
Since becoming an on-trend food, many have tried to find ways to make smokehouse barbecue cooking easier. ‘They’ve tried cooking quicker or hotter,’ says Joel. ‘They’ve even tried using an electric oven.’ Unsurprisingly perhaps, none of these things work. This style of cooking requires time and real fire.
So much time, that Joel will start cooking for an evening event at 4am. Yep, that’s AM, not PM. And, someone needs to stay onsite, so for a wedding on a property, Joel and Simone get to know the couple and their family well by the time the wedding kicks off! They usually take a book but end up not reading much, thanks to the constant monitoring of the fire and meat as well as the preparation of side dishes. (These side dishes are substantial and mean there are vegetarian options available.)
‘We can’t believe how much work goes into the food,’ is a common reaction from those who see the entire process. There’s an element of theatre to it too – the smoker looks pretty mean and the smell ensures that mouths are watering long before serving time.
Joel has even had wedding couples say that they are looking forward to the food more than the ceremony! Maybe, like Joel, their smokehouse experience will be a life-changing meal.
JR’s Smokehouse: www.smokehousebbq.com.au – available for weddings and events. Also at the next Byron Bay Street Food Truck event – 23 Dec 4–9pm at the YAC.