REVIEW - KENT BBQ WORKSHOP
Going low 'n' slow with Jackie Weight, our very own world champion smokemaster
We are standing in a garden surrounded by rolling fields near Bethersden in Kent, where so far this weekend it has rained, hailed and snowed. But we are British, and the brief glimpses of sun piercing the clouds tell us that it is barbecue season.
We are in the presence of greatness: A woman who will banish supermarket burgers and cheap sausages from our grills for eternity. She is Jackie Weight, and she's kind of a big deal.
When Jackie's late husband bought her a barbecue lesson in Nashville for her birthday, she harboured a not-unreasonable feeling it may have been bought with him in mind. Naturally, he would be attending with her - just to keep her company, of course.
But she graciously accepted, and that day spent grilling in the Tennessee sunshine unleashed within her a previously repressed passion for laying huge slabs of generously seasoned meat over roaring flames. Unbeknownst to her at the time, a brisket titan had been born.
You see, Jackie didn't just take her newfound knowledge back to Kent to quietly deliver perfect pulled pork to her family and friends. No, Jackie and her husband began to pour their savings and any holiday allowances they had into trips to the Southern states of America, where they would compete in insanely high-pressure barbecuing competitions. And, much to the chagrin of our American cousins, Jackie Weight started winning. A few at first, then more followed, until eventually she amassed enough trophies to earn an invitation to the Super Bowl of competitive smoking - the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue.
And in 2004 - ONE year after her barbecue lesson - Jackie Weight and her husband became the Grand Champions of the world. She was - and at the time of writing, still is - the first female Chief Cook and the first non-American ever to take the title.
With that in mind, we enter Jackie's garden full of trepidation, expecting a fiery, female Marco Pierre-White whose patience will run thin at the first sight of us helplessly hacking away at a baby back rib membrane.
Instead, we're cheerily greeted with a perfectly cooked bacon butty and a cup of coffee, which Jackie delivers in between pouring lump wood charcoal into the various smokers and barbecues that line the back yard.
We're here for the All American BBQ Feast Workshop, but other classes include the Backyard BBQ Workshop, Next Level 'Wanderlust' Feast and even a Christmas BBQ Feast, for those brave enough to grill deep into the winter.
There's precious little time to waste - as anybody who has attempted a low 'n' slow smoke will attest - and as soon as all eight pupils are inside the garden kitchen, Jackie reaches for a 4kg pork shoulder and begins to talk us through her preparations.
She's easygoing and chatty, regaling us with stories of her BBQ competitions in between passionate rants about mustard (don't listen to Youtube videos claiming it's needed to help the rub stick to your meat!), wood-soaking (you're just making steam!) and using chimneys with cold, ceramic smokers (it'll smash!).
With the pork sizzling away, we move on to a brisket, butterflied and covered in Jackie's own rub (available from her website), which will smoke for four hours, and racks of baby back and beef ribs.
We become Jackie's kitchen hands, chopping, mixing and prepping ingredients as she runs us through her dishes. Most is being created for a group feast, but we also get the chance to prepare our own dish - a Meatbomb wrapped in smokey bacon lattice and with a melted cheese centre - before turning our hand to the all-important sides.
Jackie teaches without the pretentiousness often associated with the food industry. "Barbecuing is just cooking outside," says the barbecuing world champion at one point, before adding, "but if you must cook on a gas grill, use some wood to give it flavour!" She talks about her recipes with breeziness and her accolades in the same manner. "Yay me!" she jokes after introducing herself with a quick speech about the Jack Daniel's trophy that sits behind us on the floor, unceremoniously squeezed between a shelf of Tupperware containers and the fridge.
We toss bacon, corn, cheddar and Jalapeños together into a bread 'pudding', and tumble chicken wings around a cornflour coating to create the perfect crunchy exterior. Chocolate brownies are also placed above flames in the garden and we combine to mix a glorious Bacon and Blue Cheese Slaw.
But we are united in praise for one dish in particular. It is as rich as an Oligarch and, we presume, contains enough calories to feed an elephant, but Jackie's Cheesy Mac & Cheese is a revelation. The double use of the word cheese is intentional as - without giving away her recipes - her addition of an extra, sandwiched layer of cheese is the piece de resistance. As a fellow pupil muttered as he took his first forkful: "Mac and cheese? She's literally completed it."
Jackie is, of course, the star of the show, but she's ably assisted by her sidekicks. Her partner, Dave, flits around the room clearing up and loading dishwashers. He's part pot-washer, part comedian and always eager to test the dishes when the chance arises. He might have enjoyed decades of Jackie's grill-outs, but his appreciation for her work seems as strong as ever.
Their two dogs, Daisy and Minnie, also do their best to join the classes as the sweet, meaty scent proves a constant draw and their search for dropped scraps is eager, but fruitless.
The whole class is delivered in a purpose-built, wooden 'classroom' in Jackie's garden, the walls peppered with photographs of our teacher grilling with Heston Blumenthal, meeting Prince Charles and lifting her Grand Champion trophy ("The Americans didn't mind me being there... until I started winning," she tells us with a smile)
She is generous with her time and advice, talking individual guests through specific techniques for their own barbecues and taking questions throughout the day. But for now, the class is nearing an end and we grab beers and relax outside as we wait for the thermometers to signal our meat's imminent arrival.
Jackie's reluctance to open a restaurant of her own ("I don't want the hard work! I've done enough hard work in my life") is a travesty for meat-lovers like me, but is perhaps what makes her barbecue workshops such incredible value for money. What price to have a world champion barbecuer cook a feast so large we will be eating it for the rest of the week? I'd wager a tasting menu could fetch the price of today's workshop on its own.
But we will leave today armed with a snippet of Jackie's vast knowledge, a recipe sheet, customised aprons and a long list of discounted prices for everything from kitchen knives to upmarket, pellet-fed barbecues - all courtesy of brands who work with our host. Oh, and we'll leave with food. So much food.
For the first time, we all fall silent as tray after tray is delivered to our table. We are faced with a mountain of meat, smoked and grilled to perfection. There isn't a restaurant in the country that could deliver a grill like this, and we sit in the chef's garden trying - and failing - to make a dent in the endless pile of food in front of us. Whenever we feel as though we have finished, Jackie reappears with a dish we'd forgotten - the brownies are a sad victim of our gargantuan feast as they receive nowhere near the love they deserve, having been delivered to a crowd of diners with no space for dessert.
Eventually, we drag ourselves from our meat comas and say our goodbyes. I fire off a text home with some pictures of the day's spread as I load a cool box of leftovers into my car.
My phone pings before I even have a chance to turn the key: "You'd better be bringing some of that home..."
The All American BBQ Feast workshop costs £125pp