David Carter's street food stall has grown into a stylish London spot selling US-style barbecue food, says Neil Gerrard
If you want an idea of just how big the barbecue phenomenon has become, then look no further than David Carter, who dropped a career in fine dining to launch Smokestak.
Carter, who was born in Barbados and studied hotel and restaurant management in Toronto, had carved himself a niche working front of house at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's, the Savoy Grill and as general manager of Roka. But since the age of 18 he had wanted his own restaurant. As barbecue exploded on the street food scene in the early part of this decade, Carter felt himself being pulled into its meaty orbit. After a trip to the US to learn more, he decided, after witnessing a particularly busy evening at Street Feast in Dalston Yard, London, to spend £30,000 on an imported smoker. "We did a few events, including Street Feast," he says. "In hindsight, we had no idea what we were doing."
After that, more travelling ensued, this time to Kansas, Memphis and Austin, Texas, where Carter felt inspired enough by barbecue to quit Roka in 2014 and go full-time with Smokestak. After gaining a name for himself on the street food and festivals circuit, he opened his first restaurant in London's Sclater Street off Brick Lane in late 2016.
iewers like Fay Maschler and Grace Dent of The London Evening Standard were highly complimentary, with Maschler awarding it four stars and Dent giving it 5/5 and commenting on the restaurant's "grown-up" character.
That maturity is undoubtedly a result of Carter's experience. "For me, it was about how we do a restaurant that does barbecue, rather than how we do a barbecue restaurant," he says. "I don't think we could be proud if we were just doing slaw and beans and slop on a plate. Smoking is American to its core, but there is nothing American about us. This is a London restaurant serving barbecue."
The smoker is a huge train-like thing from Ole Hickory in the US, but it's not as big as the one Carter uses for festivals. It can take about 200-250kg of meat, which takes a good 10 hours or more to smoke. The brisket bun with pickled red chilli (£8.50) is probably the best seller and is made with American, grain-fed beef, which has a lot of marbling."When you see a brisket from the US, it is taken off the animal as a prime cut of meat; in the UK, it is one of the last bits to come off and it's a cheaper cut. We had the best results by far with the US meat. Our brisket is salt and pepper and beef and that's it. It goes in the smoker at 6.30am and it is a very long and slow process. You don't just come back after 10 hours and expect it to be ready. It's all about how the meat feels with your fingertips." Former kitchen porters make the best smokers, in Carter's experience. "They are very focused and disciplined and hard workers, but they are not chefs who are creative and want to do a million things. They do one thing and do it really well. This needs that mindset." ter's favourite item on the menu, however, is the crispy ox cheek (£4.50). "It merges where we have come from and where we are now," he says. "The ox cheek starts off in the smoker until it renders and breaks down, but we transform it into a kind of restaurant dish by picking it apart and mixing it with shallots, sherry vinegar, veal stock, beef jus and a bit of barbecue sauce. We then make it into croquettes, which are fried and served with a roasted garlic and anchovy mayonnaise. I think we need to be more creative than just slabs of meat on a plate - we need to have that balance." n fact, just three or four of the dishes on the menu are throwbacks to his street food days - the rest have been created for the restaurant, including the grilled baby gem, walnut gremolata and crispy bacon (£5.50) and the roasted aubergine, toasted cashew and burnt honey (£8). "It's all well and good eating brisket, but you need something with a bit of acidity to balance it and cut through all the fat," Carter says. Even the desserts bear traces of the flames, like the sticky toffee pudding with burnt butter ice-cream (£6.50). To extinguish them there's a selection of six cocktails, 25 wines and beers from 40ft, Kernel and Brew By Numbers. If the recent *Business Leaders Survey 2017* by CGA Peach is to be believed, the barbecue trend is being replaced by clean eating, but if there's one example of the genre that deserves to endure, it's this one. From the menu Pigtails £4.50 Hot smoked salmon, capers, rye £7 Wild mushrooms, beef dripping toast £7.50 Thick-cut pork ribs, pickled cucumber £9 Monkfish tail, romesco £11.50 Heritage tomato, toasted pine nuts £4.50 Jacket potato, smoked rarebit £5 Sticky toffee pudding, burnt butter ice-cream £6.50 Plum crumble, malt ice-cream £6.50 Smokestak35 Sclater Street, London E1 6LBwww.smokestak.co.uk