There isn’t much Christian Stevenson aka DJ BBQ doesn’t know about the art of grilling. The DJ and presenter merged his long-held passion for music and bbq food to create his ‘catertainment’ business that’s seen the DJ BBQ food truck become the most popular, not to mention tasty one at all the festivals it travels to.
Christian’s new book, The Burger Book is a mouthwatering celebration of all things bbq, featuring an incredible array of inventive burger recipes with everyone from meat eater to vegan fully catered for.
We sat down with DJ BBQ to talk about how he transformed into a grill master, the ethos behind his cooking, Jamie Oliver’s influence and lots more.
The MALESTROM: So tell us a bit about your journey to becoming a BBQ master?
Christian Stevenson: Well, my parents split up when I was quite young, and I got kidnapped by my Mom, but my Dad found out where we were and he kidnapped me back – he won this landmark court case in the mid-seventies.
So he was like this single parent raising two kids and what he knew from his own father was how to barbecue, so he taught me from a really young age and I got bitten.
I’ve always done bbq for friends and family and little pop-ups and I was DJing a lot as well. I remember being on the banks of Loch Ness at a festival called RockNess and the crowds getting naked and I had a good set going and I’m looking at all these half-naked people and I’m thinking – what the hell am I going to do when I’m 40 or 50? Will I be able to continue DJing to these sorts of people or will it be quite weird?
And I had this epiphany, why don’t I bring my love of bbq and my love of DJing and create this ‘catertainment’ experience, and that’s what I did. In 2012 I decided to invest in the smokers and grills from America and brought them all over we started our DJ BBQ Catertainment business and now we have one of the most popular trucks at all the food and music festivals.
Every weekend we’ll probably put out about 2,500 burgers, the same in pulled pork sandwiches and roast beef. We love our meat, although we do a lot of vegetarian and vegan recipes, we do champion the almighty cow!
TM: So it was a natural progression from all that you experienced in your childhood?
CS: Yeah, and a lot of it was my roommate in college, I lived with this guy called Rodney Bryan, who recently won African American Engineer of the Year, so the smartest black man in America. And he’s from the poorest county in Carolina called Hyde County, where it’s all about cider vinegar and pork, all about the tang.
He taught me all these traditional bbq recipes from his neck of the woods. I knew my father’s recipes, I knew my mum’s side also from the south and it just started this journey of understanding regional bbq. In Carolina, there are so many different regions and then you go to Tennessee, Texas, Alabama and everybody’s got a different spin on their bbq.
TM: So is it those areas you draw your main inspiration from?
CS: It was really Carolina and then what my Grandfather taught me out in Iowa, but that was a bit different, we did a lot of fishing. But, really, it went crazy when I started living in other parts of the world.
I spent a lot of time living in Portugal, seeing how the Portuguese grill fish. Seeing how the Turks cook over a live fire and that actually got me really interested – everybody thinks bbq came from America, but bbq came from fire.
Once there was fire, we progressed and evolved as humans. We were chewing for four hours a day before we invented fire and then that all shortened to 20 or 30 minutes, and that’s how we evolved as humans, that’s a fact my friend.
TM: Yeah, there’s something massively primal about cooking with fire…
CS: People just love to stand around cookers, you guys call them barbecues, I call them cookers. In America, bbq is actually the food itself. Anyway, you always find men congregating around the cooker and just pushing meat around.
It’s just a primal instinct, this is how we evolved as humans and creating fire was such a necessity back in the day. We take it for granted now, we just need a lighter or a pack of matches.
TM: So do you have an ethos behind your cooking?
CS: Yeah, my whole thing is that I’m not a huge gas fan, I can understand people cooking on gas, but I think the ethos is trying to source locally, try to buy local charcoal.
I try to keep my carbon footprint down and find a really good local butcher, so you know where everything’s coming from and just champion small purveyors of food you know. Find a good baker who can do you a good bun, I like a demi-brioche, I like a crusty white from my local old school baker.
But the key to a good burger is beef fat! The mistake people make is they go to their local supermarket, their Tescos, their Sainsburys and they tend to buy the 5% lean beef mince and I just think what the heck are you thinking?
There’s always one pack that’s got 20% beef fat and that’s the minimum I’ll put into a burger. I want 25% to 35% beef fat to tell you the truth, heck I’ll go 40 % if I really want to go crazy because when you render that beef fat down, that’s flavour!
A lot of Michelin style restaurants are always looking for that umami, that taste that kind of encapsulates everything. You get with Worcestershire sauce, you get it with seaweed, soy, a lot of seafood and mushrooms, they give you that umami flavour, like parmesan.
But, if you cook an aged beef fat burger with a nice little crust on there, with a lovely bit of cheese and it melts, that right there is umami! You’ll get that flavour from a perfect cheeseburger. I don’t think people realise that. You can go to a Bleecker Burger in London and buy an umami barm you know?
TM: That’s enough to make you very hungry right there. Is it hard to promote meat in the world we live in now?
CS: I thought it would be, especially when I did my last book Fire Food. About three quarters was meat and the rest vegetarian.
But half the photos on social media of people replicating my recipes were vegetarian and I thought wow, there is a big calling for this, but, farms need animals and animals need farms.
I’m not a big fan of commercial farming, but I love meat, and I know – you can research it – we are meant to eat meat. Meat is good for you!
So long as you can trace it and you know where it comes from, beef is good for the body. But, I love my plant-based diet as well, I love my vegan and vegetarian food, but, I will not give up meat and that’s why I wrote the book.
TM: There are some amazing recipes in there, what’s your favourite?
CS: It’s my Mom’s recipe, its called ‘Momma’s Gravy Boat Burger’. It’s what I used to have as a kid. My Mom used to make this big vat of gravy and these kinds of like beef burgers, but, they’re called Salisbury steaks, but no one knows what those are over here, so I just call them burgers.
She would make all these burgers, throw them into the vat of gravy, and they’d soak up all that gravy, and then you make an open face sandwich.
It’s kind of like a truck stop sandwich in America,two slices of bread or I use a ciabatta, and throw on some mash and then get one of those patties, put on the mash, grab a ladle and spoon gravy all over that burger (see end of interview for recipe).
It’s not a burger you can eat with your hands, but I’m telling you when I taught my crew this recipe, that was the only thing those guys wanted!
TM: Well, there’s a fair old northern influence here at MALESTROM HQ and that recipe stood out to be fair…
CS: I wonder if it came from there originally? My family’s from England, Scotland and Ireland, and I know you guys do love your gravy! You guys love putting sauces and gravy on things, I wonder if it originated from you guys?
TM: Yeah maybe, well, either way, it looks bloody good…
CS: You can also put a bit of caramelised onions in there, give it a bit of tang, there are so many ways you can take that recipe. It’s funny because it doesn’t look like the best recipe in the book, in terms of colours, but for me, it’s the one I want to eat.
But if you want a really quick burger, there’s the fast burger, the smash burger, and the classic DJ BBQ burger. We do a full Sunday roast burger in there and then the fish and chip burger was a pretty easy one to conceive.
I went out and got hammered one night and woke up the next morning and had all these leftover fish, chips and mushy peas and I thought I’m going to put that in a sandwich, and that’s in there as a complete recipe.
TM: So just with the music then, do you think food and music go hand in hand?
CS: Well, you tell me, what’s the quickest way someone’s heart? It’s the stomach and the ears, that’s what we do at the festivals. We don’t just cook really good barbecue, we have a full sound system.
The food truck that we drive around has speakers that come out on hydraulics. So we play good music, we serve good food which equals good times.
That’s why the inside front cover of the book has got ‘the best songs for groove and funk and then the inside back cover is just killer albums to have a cookout to.
TM: Yeah there are some amazing tunes in there…
CS: They’re all on Spotify. Go on Spotify and search Christian Stevenson DJ BBQ and you’ll find all those playlists.
TM: Awesome, oh that’s cool. Get on it people! So if there was one album you were going to cook to, what would that be, or is it too hard to choose?
CS: Oh my gosh man, I mean it’s a tough one… maybe Zeppelin 1. The thing is I love the Beastie Boys Check Your Head, and Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins is like one of my all-time favourite albums…
TM: Oh yeah, amazing…
CS: But I think to cover all music it’s going to be Odelay by Beck…
TM: Great choice…
CS: That was such a groundbreaking album, it had a bit of everything like Novacane, Jack-Ass, it was all the deeper cuts that were so special from that album. Yeah, I think for the complete best album Beck Odelay!
TM: Ok, give us some top tips for people getting out there and barbecuing this summer?
CS: The biggest tip I can give everybody is don’t fill your cooker up with charcoal. Only put it on – I call it the half and half technique – because you don’t need that much fuel, you only need enough to get a good sear on your grill.
But, don’t do the whole bottom part as charcoal because, what happens is, if you’ve got really fatty foods like chicken or beef mince, all those flares are going to kiss the coals and you’ll get these big flare-ups and things are going to get out of hand. Now, you need a safe zone, or I call it goofproof cooking.
You need a place to go where there’s no direct heat, that’s why I always put charcoal on one side, that way, it’s also good for doing big hunks of meat as well. So if you’re doing a whole chicken, a topside, you can cook that on the indirect side. So, I always have a safe zone, or where I can put my food if I need to get the middle bit cooked.
More people go to the emergency room between the months of June and September from improperly cooked bbq, and that’s all food poisoning. People cook their chicken and they put the barbecue sauce on way too early, thinking that’s what you do. You know, when you go to a butcher and see all these meats that are marinading in these sweet sauces, stay away!
All that sugar is going to do is burn. That’s why you’re going to have black on the outside and raw in the middle. When you add barbecue sauce or any kind of sauces to your meat, you want to do it right near the end. And if you do it, you want to add it only on the indirect side, otherwise, the sugar is going to burn.
TM: So you wouldn’t glaze the meat beforehand?
CS: You can add marinade, but you don’t want to marinade in a sauce that’s got a whole load of sugar, it’s better to go with more vinegar marinades. A little bit of sugar’s okay but you’ve got to be careful. I do rubs with sugar, I do a pulled pork sandwich that’s brown sugar, salt, pepper, onion granules, garlic granules, but, that sugar will create a bark, and it’ll go black. So, you’ve got to be careful what your temperatures are when you’re dealing with sugar.
TM: That’s sound advice, it’s definitely a mistake a lot of people make. So just going off tangent slightly, your background’s in extreme sports and all the show’s you did, back in the day, any parallel’s there with what you’re doing now?
CS: (Laughs) Well, I spent my whole life living on a skateboard or snowboard and travelling around the world and putting myself in very dangerous, precarious situations. I think dealing with fire, a live fire, is pretty much the same, it’s a dynamic thing. I think it’s the outdoor pursuit, it’s about getting back to nature, getting primal.
I think that’s one of the reasons I love bbq, and I love jumping off big cliffs on my snowboard. When I did a lot of those shows, I used to make snowboard films for a living and then I made the TV series RAD for Channel 5 for 10 years, but, I always took a grill on tour.
I thought if I feed the crew fast food, they’re going to be great for an hour and then they’re going to die on me because they’re not getting any nutrients. So I’d take this grill on tour and cook proper food.
TM: Is it true you made the snowboard film Odd Man Out?
CS: (Laughs) Yeah, I produced and shot Odd Man Out! How do you know Odd Man Out??
TM: We used to watch it every week (laughs)…
CS: Shut up!
TM: Seriously. Did you have anything to do with Daytripper?
CS: Yeah, those were my movies, all shot on 16mm film. That’s my background.
TM: So It must feel good that you were basically responsible for getting a ton of kids on skateboards and snowboarding?
CS: It’s one of my greatest achievements. I was also the team manager of Vans for 10 years. So I ran Vans skate and snow. One of my guys Ben Kilner. I think he’s done three Olympics now, I signed him as a grommet. BBC asked him what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given, and he said, “It was my Vans team manager Christian Stevenson who said go fast and take chances.”
TM: You’ve inspired a generation of people…
CS: I wish I could have carried on it that world of action sports, but as you get older you don’t bounce like you used to. But, with food, you can grow old gracefully. And I’m a single parent raising three boys, so, I’ve got an 18, 15 and 12 year old so a fulltime parent as well.
TM: All power to you man…
CS: Ah yeah, it’s crazy… but you know, we skate, we snowboard, we ride BMX and we camp. I’m teaching them how to cook over live fire. At the moment we just launched a Kickstarter campaign for our first restaurant. So we’re trying to put a restaurant over in Woodbridge, Suffolk.
Our baker, who does all the bread for our festivals, and in the book. He’s got his grandparents bakery and he wants to convert it into a bbq burger, pizza joint. A lot of people ask, where they can get the food full time, but at the moment there’s no restaurant to do that. So we’re thinking of heading to Suffolk and starting the first restaurant.
TM: Brilliant, well just to finish up then we should mention Jamie Oliver, he’s been a big help?
CS: Yeah well it’s funny, I was doing some pilots with his production company and I was asked to DJ at his 15 Minute Meal book launch, and he never had a party for any of his books. It all came about weirdly as when one of my best mates Tim Warwood (voice of Snowboarding at the Olympics & Ski Sunday) got married and it was one of my first gigs as DJBBQ.
I’m catering, doing my twenty hour pulled pork sandwich, DJing and the brides best friend is Jamie Oliver’s food stylist. So she goes back to headquarters and goes I know the guy for Jamie’s party and I get this phone call. So the first time I met Jamie Oliver was DJing and we got on like a house on fire.
They’d launched FoodTube, his food channel on YouTube and I got signed up to the network. He was excited because I knew how to talk on camera, I’m not classically French trained, but I’ve worked in kitchens all my life and I knew how to present. So, we went from a couple of hundred thousand subscribers to the number one food network in Europe with five million subscribers.
Then we launched my YouTube channel and it went crazy, so, Jamie was like let me give you some advice, “the problem with you is you’ve got to be awake to make money”, and it’s like well yeah that’s how life works, and he’s like “well you need to learn to make money while you’re sleeping,” and I was like, “well how do you do that?” And he said, “you write books.”
He got me my very first book deal with Penguin The BBQ Book, then there was Fire Food and that went crazy and now we’ve got The Burger Book, so, I owe it all to Jamie. He got me that foot in the door, got me on the book ladder and I owe a lot to that guy.
He’s a good man, some people give him stick, but they don’t realise how good a guy he is. He’ll talk to the bin man for two hours, he’ll talk to anyone, he’s got no false pretenses, he’s a good-hearted dude who just wants to help the earth.
TM: You can see that, it’s good to hear. So we always like to finish up with some words of wisdom, a bit of life advice…
CS: I always say – go fast, take chances, remember you can’t get hurt in the air and speed is your friend!!! (Laughs)
The Burger Book by DJ BBQ (Quadrille, £12.99) is out to buy now.
Check out the DJ BBQ YouTube channel HERE. And listen to some of DJ BBQ’s classic playlists to cook to on Spotify.
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