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.
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.
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.
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.
9. Can you recommend something that’s a little different?
For something different we have a Beet and Sheep’s Cheese Salad as a side dish. It’s made with a French sheep’s cheese and diced, steamed beets that are tossed in a light, house made balsamic vinaigrette. We use the sheep’s cheese to make it a little different. A lot of people use goat’s cheese. I like the sheep’s cheese because it’s a little softer with a nicer mouth feel that goes with the beet. It’s also more gamey, which imparts a farm-y undertone of flavor. The salad is topped with a little chiffonade of mint to brighten it up and give it a little freshness.
10. Do you have a personal favorite on the menu?
My favorite menu item is the Baby Back Ribs, or any of the ribs. I use a paprika based dry rub on the ribs. They’re smoked for between 4 1/2 and 5 1/2 hours, depending on the size of the rack. The ribs are one of our specialties - they have that melt in your mouth texture. There’s still a little bite to them, but not too much. I don’t sauce the ribs directly but do have sauces on the side for those who want them. I like to let the smoke and the spices do the talking on the meat. That way people can add their own sauces as they like. I make a vinegar based, North Carolina barbecue sauce and a sweet barbecue sauce, which is a Kansas City style sweet sauce.
11. Do you make your own sauces?
Yes. I make the North Carolina style Vinegar BBQ Sauce and the Kansas City style Sweet BBQ Sauce. I also make a house made mustard - it’s not a mustard sauce, it’s a grain Dijon mustard. We make the mustard ourselves. It’s a 7 to 10 day process. We like to partner with local companies whenever possible, and I’ve got a good relationship with Preben at Aardwolf and I’ve been using his Eastbound & Brown beer in my mustard recently.
We’ve also been making a few new things like our smoked apple butters and smoked garlic butters to complement other items on our menu.
12. What will you use the smoked butters for?
I’m going to add our smoked garlic butter to our chicken wings. I do a brined chicken wing. I soak the wings in a mixture of water, sugar, salts, bay leaf, peppercorn, spices and seasonings for 12 to 24 hours, just like I do for all my chicken. When the wings come out of the brine, they go into the smoker for about an hour and a half. After smoking, they’re cooled all the way down before they’re put onto the truck. Before serving the wings we put them in the deep fryer and toss them in our paprika based rub. That produces a dry-rubbed chicken wing that’s been deep fried and smoked. We serve that with our Chili Lime sauce and will be adding the smoked garlic butter as well.
13. What does the brining do for the chicken?
It’s used for tenderizing and as a moisture enhancer to the meat. Smoking can dry out non-fatty cuts of meat such as poultry. Any turkey, chicken or duck that we smoke will be brined.
14. Do you smoke duck for the truck?
Not for the truck. I smoke turkey and duck by special request, usually for holidays and special occasions. I even did a whole goat the other week for Preben over at Aardwolf, when he was hosting a private event. We do play with some game animals, but they are by special order and I generally need at least 72 hours notice for something like that.
15. What are “country cut" ribs?
They're untrimmed spare ribs that includes some of the flat meat from the belly and a lot of the trimmings that normally get cut off if you were served a St. Louis style cut of ribs. It’s more like a caveman style cut. You feel like you’re eating half a pig.
16. Is that how you serve all your ribs?
No, it’s a special style of cut that we normally only offer through our catering. On the truck we have Baby Back and Spare Ribs, but normally only for dinner services because of the amount of time it takes to cook them.
For lunch we serve the meats that don’t require as long to cook, meats such as the chicken, pork tenderloin, and pulled pork. The pork tenderloin is something I cooked a lot when I was up in Boston. People really like the tenderness of it. I use a salt and sugar rub on it before cooking for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. That’s what we use on the Farmer’s Sandwich.
17. What’s the Farmer’s Sandwich?
It’s a sliced pork tenderloin Sandwich with some spicy, green, pickled cabbage which is like a sauerkraut. It’s served on a French Roll with sweet barbecue sauce and house made mustard and a little cheddar cheese. I don’t think there are many other trucks doing a tenderloin sandwich at the moment, so that’s something a little different that we do.
18. What are Smoked Sweet Maple Potatoes?
It’s something we just do for catering at the moment but we are thinking about bringing onto the truck. We start by scrubbing down some potatoes and tossing them on the smoker. The sugars in the potatoes will caramelize as the potatoes cook in the smoke. The result is a potato that's super tender and soft. We do a Sweet Mashed Potato and we also slice the potatoes to do a layered Sweet Maple Potato. I make my own Maple Cream and drizzle it over the sliced potatoes along with some spiced, candied pecans.
19. What’s Maple Cream?
It’s straight grade A maple syrup with a little salt that I heat up in a double boiler. I bring it to just below boiling before removing it and putting it over a bowl of ice. I take a wooden spoon and sit there for about 45 minutes just stirring the bowl as fast as I can. The stirring will elasticize and stretch the sugars which makes it into a light, whipped maple cream or sauce.
20. What are hand-spun, sweet potato curly fries?
They're sweet potato fries we make on the truck. I buy all my produce fresh - I don’t do anything frozen. On the truck I have a spinner, which is a machine that’s mounted in the trailer. It allows us to lock the potato and hand crank the machine to run the potato through a cutting die to produce a round, curly fry. We deep fry the potatoes and coat them in our dry rub.
21. Have there been any surprises on the menu?
I was really amazed at how many people took to the pickles and the pork tenderloin.
Like I mentioned earlier, we wanted to do something that was sweet and tangy but we also wanted to get away from doing a dill pickle or a bread and butter pickle. That’s what people are used to; but we’re all about introducing people to new things when they come to our truck. If they try something different and it becomes a new sandwich for them, that’s fantastic, but every time someone comes to the truck we try to push them in a new direction. If you had pork last time then we want you to try the chicken this time. We want to get people to try as many of the items we cook as possible. We want them to experience different things and different flavors.
22. Are people adventurous or do they like to stick to their favorite items?
It all depends on the customer. Some people like to stick to something they know they’ll like. I have other people who come to me and tell me what they want to spend and ask me to make up something different. They don’t even pick from the menu. They just want something different from what they’ve had before.
23. How did you learn to cook? Did you go to culinary school?
I started working in restaurants when I was 13. My first job was at an Italian restaurant as a dish washer and a busboy. About a year after I started at the restaurant I got really lucky when a spot opened up on the pasta line and I was able to step into that role, even though I was under the age of 16. I spent my years at that Italian restaurant. I moved around once I hit 18 and did different jobs in various kitchens, including prep, pantry and eventually a management role.
Growing up I always said that I’d never cook food for a living, that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I had a hard time convincing myself to attend culinary school instead of an Arts based program but I signed up to Johnson & Wales University in Providence, which is a culinary based school that also offers hospitality management. I did 2 trimesters in the culinary program before switching into hotel and hospitality management. When I was in Providence I started working for Elaine at True Blue. That’s where I really learned about barbecue. In my second year at True Blue I was managing things. Elaine did the catering events on the weekend and I was running the truck. After completing my sophomore year in Providence I decided to transfer to the Johnson & Wales campus in Denver.
I finished my degree with a Bachelors of Science in Hospitality Management and started working at the Westin Hotel in downtown Denver where I focused on Guest Services and Security for about 3 years.
A few years ago I was in a really bad motorcycle accident and that was a really big wake up call for me. It made me question why I was working so hard and for so many hours for someone else. Everyone in my family has been self employed. My father’s an entrepreneur who owns his own business. I’m only 25 but it was one of those wake up calls that made me ask why I wasn’t working and doing something I really loved. I’ve always loved barbecue, even from a young age. It’s something I enjoy spending my time doing. I figured if I loved it that much, why not do it as a job?
In 2012 I started my own catering company. I wanted to work for myself so I invested in the smoker and went through the process of setting up a company.
24. What brought you to Jacksonville?
I had actually planned to open a business in Denver. I’d helped a few friends who were running a food truck when the Denver scene was taking off. I saw what my friends were doing and that really got me interested in having my own truck. After starting my catering business in Denver I actually bought a mobile kitchen there. Unfortunately I had a lot of issues with the builder and the trailer was never made food service ready. I’d been in Denver for 6 years and it was time for a change. I’m a big believer in travelling and living in as many places as you can and the opportunity arose to move to Jacksonville so I took it. My sister goes to Flagler College and my family visits the area a lot. My girlfriend also works for the Jaguars. Moving to Jacksonville was a natural choice and represented another opportunity for me.
I brought my catering business from Denver to Jacksonville and eventually decided to buy a whole new kitchen. It was a tough start at my expense and we have had a lot of big setbacks in the first year, but the catering has been steady since we opened and we have had a great first 3 months in the Jacksonville food truck scene.
25. Who’s your audience for catering?
We do a lot of different events including birthday parties, a lot of graduations, wedding receptions and backyard BBQs. We can drop off the food or we can do a fully inclusive event from setup to cleanup. We’ll tow the smoker in and bring the whole buffet line along with carving stations. We do it as a very interactive experience. People get to spend time around the smoker, the wood, the spices and the meat. It’s not just walking down a buffet line and grabbing some food. We can also build the food truck into a catering experience as well.
26. Have you found your locations for the truck?
We’ve found a few but we’re still looking. We’re still dealing with city issues about where you can and cannot park. In Denver we could serve at a parking meter for up to 4 hours as long as we fed the meter. That allowed us to serve people from the sidewalk. City council in Jacksonville has made us work a lot harder.
On Wednesday Nights we’ll do an occasional batch night at Aardwolf when they tap their limited batch beers. Alternatively, we may serve lunch at the Beaver Street Fisheries, which is a site we’re trying to build with the Jax Truckies. We also serve in St Augustine on Wednesdays.
On Thursdays we’re at Key Buick on the Southside for Lunch from 11-2. On Fridays we’re at PSS McKesson from 11-2. Saturdays we reserve for festivals and catering events.
Sundays we will be out on Food Truck Row at your Jacksonville Jaguars games!
27. What about the Beach?
We’d love to be at the Beach, but it’s a 45 minute drive for us. On top of that you have to register yourself as a whole separate entity to work at the Beach. That introduces a whole new set of startup costs and red tape we need to go through as a very small business. In time we’ll probably make it to the Beach but it’s not our top priority at this time. One other thing about the Beach is that they don’t allow a group of trucks to park together. From my experience in Denver I saw that when trucks could congregate together it worked really well to attract people to a single location, instead of being spread all around trying to bring in. When people know that a group of trucks will be at a certain spot at a certain time that makes it better for everyone.
28. Do you ever see Smoke It Up BBQ as a brick and mortar restaurant?
In the long run a brick and mortar would be nice although I really enjoy the mobile side of what we do. I like the fact that we can go onsite and set up a full party for someone at their house or at an event or a venue, and that we can transform that venue for someone. That’s the magic of what we do. Doing a brick and mortar is a whole different beast but it’s something I’d like to eventually tackle. There would still be ties to smoked meats, pickles, beer, whisky and bicycles - the good things in life!