Interviews

Barbecue in Soho - talking to Pitt Cue Co's Tom AdamsPhotos by thomasbowles.com

When the Pitt Cue Co. Trailer opened on the South Bank under the Hungerford Bridge last summer, it was to almost instant (and widespread) acclaim. The trailer immediately took the crown of best barbecue in London, and the queues were a very good sign of its success. Now Tom Adams has taken the Cue to its permanent home in the heart of Soho (although it’s not the last we’ll see of the trailer). We caught up with him to find out what to expect.

What made you set up Pitt Cue Co?

It was really Jamie's (my business partner) idea to do something mobile in London. His mum is from Georgia, US, and it was pure chance that I had built a few smokers at home when i was 16 so it stemmed from that. Jamie's godson, Jackson Boxer (Brunswick Cafe), helped us get the pitch on the South Bank and we went from there.

We just about saved enough money to put a deposit down on a trailer and the smoker arrived from the States the day before we opened. We had no idea what might come of it, winging it most of the way and now I've got the big fat nerves and stress all over again!

What was behind the move from the South Bank to Soho?

I never in my wildest dreams expected anything like this to happen when we set up Pitt Cue Co.

While we were in the trailer, Richard Turner from Hawksmoor came in and ate with us a fair amount.  Both he and his business partner Simon Anderson, who owns the Albion in Islington, had wanted to set up a barbecue place in central London.  They both love barbecue, and all things meat, and they asked if we wanted to do something.

This all happened in the middle of our run on the South Bank and we started plotting and planning pretty much every day after that.  They have all the know-how to make it happen.  There’s so much work to do and Simon pretty much manages the whole thing and it’s having these people who can make things happen because they’ve got the contacts so that lets us concentrate on doing what we need to do in the kitchen, which is to hopefully make great food. 

They do all the stuff that is really important but doesn’t often get acknowledged.

How long have you been getting ready for your opening?

Barbecue in Soho - talking to Pitt Cue Co's Tom AdamsI’m working with Neil Rankin, who used to be the sous-chef at Barbecoa and we’ve been working pretty much flat to get it right. It was particularly hard keeping things consistent in a trailer with not much power or equipment. The food that’s coming out is much better than the trailer now that we’re in a kitchen. 

I’m starting to look at the cows now (late December) from Matt Chatfield who runs The Cornish Grill, trying to get everything ready for our first orders. We’re telling the farmers that we’re going to be open in mid Jan as we get through quite a few shoulders of pork.  We’re asking them to get the old spots ready just as we did in the Summer because we were going through so many then. We’re using the neck end from Gloucester Old Spots in Essex from the Rare Breed Meat company – amazing pigs.  They’re pretty much our main pork supplier, and for beef we go to Matt and also some great beef from the East London Steak Company.

We’re getting these beef ribs from the rib of the animal and they’re pretty much wastage. When someone takes a rib-eye off the bone, they usually get processed and put into pasties or burgers.  We went down and visited Matt’s butcher, saw the ribs and asked “what is happening to those”?  He told us they were going into pasties (obviously as they’re Cornish!) so now we’re taking them and they are unbelievable.  The depth of flavour is great and there’s lots of fat – so they’ve gone straight on the menu.

What dishes are you carrying over to Soho from the trailer?

We’ll also have a few bar snacks.  These will be little fun things so we’ve got little smoked faggots, bit of liver, sausage, a bit of ox tail, deep fried pickled shiitake.

Obviously the techniques are pretty much the same but hopefully better because we’ve got better kit and more time to put into it.  Last summer we had a two hour period in the morning to get everything ready - we were borrowing a mate’s kitchen for that.  It was carnage - some days we could be two hours late because we were stuck in traffic. Now we can be there every single day and every minute of the day we can be looking in the smokers making sure that everything’s right. It’s a lot nicer.

We’re doing the pork shoulder again, which I love, and we’re also now using the top end of the brisket, the point, which is a pretty fatty bit.  Now we can do this properly rather than salting it before because we didn’t have any space - so it’s all done as should be.  We’re getting lots of ox cheeks and short ribs in, a bit of quail.  We put a lot of ox tail in the smoker the other day and that came out really well.

There will be four mains and a couple of rotating specials, we’ll be doing our own sausages, and there will be a different cut of steak on the menu all the time too.  We’ll also have a few bar snacks.  These will be little fun things so we’ve got little smoked faggots, bit of liver, sausage, a bit of ox tail, deep fried pickled shiitake. We’re certainly not trying to be an authentic American BBQ joint; we grill almost as much as we smoke, I reckon.

What sides can we expect?

We’re doing our coleslaw but it’ll be different from before as we’ll be doing a vinegar slaw. We get a lot of fennel, parsley and red onion, let it down for a couple of days with vinegar and sugar, then redress it with fresh herbs.  It’s just works great with the meat.  We’ve got our beans – fresh turtle beans – and then we’ve got a hock salad which is pickle and smoked hock and anything that’s in season.  So at the moment we’ve been using sprout tops braised down with a bit of ham stock and butter and plenty of squashes.  We’ll have mac n’ cheese too.

We don’t want to kill people because the smoke flavour is so rich – that’s the last thing we want to do.  So you get pickles as standard with every meal – these are salted cucumber and onion but we’ll also be pickling shiitakes, fennel, kolhrabi, pumpkin – and these freshen everything up. We’ve been making lots of cider vinegar so I’m pretty keen to try pickling anything I can! Everything also comes with a little brioche bun so you can make your own mopper.

The menu does seem quite different from anything else that’s opening in London.

Every is cooked with charcoal and wood–we just hope its tasty on the day! I guess the flavours might be a bit different because of this but most of it is pretty simple home cooking.  

How about take-out?

Take-out is just buns – and these will be sold upstairs from 12-6pm.  So this will be pulled pork or brisket. That’s what we’ve been feeding people who have come in to try something.  That’s with pickled coleslaw, pickled mustard seeds, slaw, pickles, bbq mayo and a great bun. Oh, and it's pretty messy.

Barbecue in Soho - talking to Pitt Cue Co's Tom AdamsAnd how much is this all going to cost your customers?

The aim was to feed people for a tenner – so when you’re eating in you get meat, sides, pickles and a bun so that’s about nine quid – something like that.  The pulled pork bun for take-out is £6.50 which we think is about as good as we can make it – and really stretching ourselves.  By the end of January we’ll have a better idea of how it’ll work going forward.

Will there be puddings <hopeful face>?

We’ll have things like salted caramel bourbon pudding and peanut butter brownies.  We’ll also be taking the unused brioche buns and making French toast with marmalade and lemon pie ice cream. We’re working with Ice Cream Union on the ice cream and we’ll be creating a few fun meringue messes with those.

What kind of drinks will you be serving?

We’re doing five or six beers – all pretty much local.  All our beef is British and we’ve tried to do that again with the beer.  There’s lots of bourbon, which is our obsession. We’ll do the picklebacks again, because we’ve got lots of pickle juice, and there will be boiler makers.  We’ll have about five cocktails – short, strong, cheap cocktails. The drinks are done by Jamie and Fran – they’re simple, strong and tasty – we’re not trying to be a cocktail bar.

Reservations or walk-ins?

Yes – for the type of food, we can’t take bookings really.  We can seat about 15-16 downstairs (and some more upstairs) and people might only be in there for fifteen minutes, eat some ribs and leave.  On Sundays, though, at some stage we will filter in bookings because we want to do big Sunday lunches.  You can pre-order and get a whole belly pork or chicken that we’ve barbecued – we think that’ll be really fun.

When were you last in the States?

We went out recently to Kansas.. We hung out with the CookShack guys for a couple of days, just listening – it’s all invaluable. It’s intrinsic to everything they do so we’d be fools to go over there and not listen and learn anything.

We went out recently to Kansas – you just end up eating like an animal.  The Kansas Royal was massive, it’s the biggest.  We hung out with the CookShack guys for a couple of days, just listening – it’s all invaluable. It’s intrinsic to everything they do so we’d be fools to go over there and not listen and learn anything. Everyone down there is amazing as they all want you to get involved.  So we’re back out there in May in Memphis at the Barbecue championships. 

We are hoping to do Grillstock in the UK this year in Bristol, I just need to get round to entering! And we’ll be back in Kansas in September – it takes a lot of time out of the schedule but we try to get out there a couple of times a year.

New York’s great too – not so much for Barbecue maybe – but you get so many ideas from other places too.  They just do things well over there and the service is phenomenal – if we could offer service like that in the restaurant, I’d be over the moon.  Service is as important as the food – the customers are more important than anyone else as they’re paying our bills.

And finally, where have you been to in London recently that you really rate?

I’d say MEATLiquor but that almost seems too obvious – but I do love it and it’s right next to work now, which is great.  I love Ba Shan and I went to Copita recently and I thought that was great.  I’m also a massive fan of Lucky Chip – I cooked there for a night but I was terrible.  First kitchen I ever cooked in when I was sixteen was a burger kitchen and I clearly didn’t learn enough!

But for a staff night out, it’s definitely the Big Sleazy on the King’s road.  The Big Easy is the best and worst of everything American.  Super cheap drinks, cost price wine list – and then a gigantic bowl of deep fried prawns and lobster.  It’s like a barbecue diner - it’s really fun, but it’s a love/hate thing.  It’ll keep going forever – it’s been around for ages and me and my friends used to go there for a pint of margarita and a lobster for £20!  And I don’t know how they’ve managed the amazing cost price wine list.

I’m really looking forward to Jeremy Lee at Quo Vadis.  I can’t wait for that.  Jeremy is amazing and working with him was a great, great thing.  And if he does his eel sandwich as a bar snack – alongside a Negroni, I’ll be in there every day. It’s my favourite thing ever.

Pitt Cue Co opens mid January, at 1 Newburgh Street, London W1.

What to order? See what we thought - read our Test Drive of Pitt Cue Co.

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