When we think about barbecue in Ireland, we might conjure up an afternoon spent in the back garden with family or friends, cooking supermarket sausages and burgers over a gas grill, and a table adorned with some Irish salad bits and bobs: coleslaw, shredded dry iceberg lettuce, slices of tomatoes, cucumber and potato salad. Shop-bought BBQ ketchup optional.
At least that’s what my barbecue memories are. Thankfully, Irish barbecue has come a long way. It’s fair to say that COVID-19 had a hand in helping us appreciate our outdoor spaces a lot more and with that, cooking outside more frequently.
The rise in popularity of all forms of cooking outdoors, from grilling to smoking and cooking over fire, has grown hugely and influences from other countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Japan have shown up on grills here too.
Adding fuel to this fire is the pair behind the Wexford-based BBQ manufacturing and education hub – Smokin’ Soul. I first met Pat Conway and Jim O’Brien at Big Grill Festival Park in Dublin a few years ago and knew immediately that their names would be popping up on my radar again soon. Apart from exuding passion for all things related to cooking over fire, they are two of the soundest people you can meet. They’re on a mission and it’s garnering a lot of support, with their own handmade smokers being shipped all over the world and their 2023 BBQ masterclasses – both day and weekend experiences – selling out for almost the entire year.
Smokin’ Soul HQ is in the townland of Cloonagh, which is home for both Pat and Jim, who have known each other since childhood. Pat grew up on the farm in Cloonagh and Jim grew up in Tipperary, but would spend summers on his uncle’s farm, which was the neighbouring farm to Jim’s family’s.
“Pat’s father and my grandfather farmed together,” Jim tells me. “My father, who is in his late 70s now, always said that you wouldn’t know which farm was being farmed because they brought the hay and corn in together… they just ran them together. Pat’s father had tractors, whereas my granddad got on a tractor once and it ran down the hill and so he went back to his horses! My granddad farmed in very old school ways.”
Both men left Ireland to travel and work for many years. Pat has a degree in agricultural science and travelled in the middle east and Europe with work related to stormwater attenuation and containment areas for mines. Jim, meanwhile, travelled all over the world as a cook, but also worked on farms, building sites and doing carpentry as he’s fully qualified in this also.
However, they serendipitously came home within a couple of weeks of each other in 2013 after they had both inherited the farms they grew up on. Being left in this scenario of figuring out what to do with the farmland and yards, they came up with the idea for Smokin’ Soul.
“There was just two weeks between us coming home from different parts of the world, not having clapped eyes on each other for about 20 years,” Jim recalls.
“When we got back here in 2013, I suppose, you always have that kind of childhood memory of how things used to look and that they used to be so great,” says Pat. “But because the farm had been leased and whatnot, there wouldn’t have been any preventative maintenance on the sheds and yards, and it hadn’t been kept as a working farm. I felt a little bit sad about that because I remembered it looking a lot better.
“Over the two years in the build-up to when we finally launched Smokin’ Soul in 2015, we kept thinking, ‘What can we do with these sheds? How can we do something with them?’ We wanted to bring the place back up to scratch again and have it looking like we remembered.
“We decided, rightly or wrongly, that the only way we could upkeep the farmyards [the land was leased], would be to spend time in the yard doing work in the yard. After thinking about what potential partnership we could do to utilise the sheds and bring everything back up to spec… It just dawned on us one night, while we were barbecuing - ‘We both like this, we’re both pretty good at it’- because we had great experiences all throughout the world seeing different versions of it, and when we went looking and did a bit of research on the food sector and what was out there, we realised there’s an opportunity here.”
There are three main parts to the business, starting with the BBQ masterclasses, which Pat says have been “unbelievably successful.”
“It’s mad because we’re insanely rural and we even make a joke with people that half the adventure of coming on a Smokin’ Soul course is getting here! I think it’s a testament to the product we currently have, with the courses, and to the people that come here, that there is a real want and a real love to get back to what is just very simple, high-quality food, done quite simply over fire.”
Pat and Jim have been handcrafting all kinds of grills, barbecues and smokers from the outset. Initially it was just to use for themselves, but their fabrications soon caught the eye of many in the business and consumers too.
“People saw what we had built and asked, ‘will you build us one?’ We were very hesitant to do it, however COVID-19 kind of brought that process forward. We had two years of just working hard on fabrication. We were very lucky with local suppliers who were able to keep us going.
“We’re currently shipping units to Sweden, UK, Italy, Greece, and all over Ireland. Our repertoire of units keeps growing and sizes keep growing also because we have the commercial element where we’re supplying to restaurants, pubs and hotels, and we become consultants to them, and then we have the domestic trade, where people are buying fabulous barbecue units and, essentially, they’re using it to adorn their back gardens. Again, the pandemic had that kind of a bombshell effect for people where they realised their back garden is an extra room in their house.
“The third part of the business is us getting out and about doing demonstrations, like we do at All Together Now, Big Grill and Electric Picnic festivals. We do some small events, as well. To be able to talk to locals and let them know that we exist and the kind of points that we’re putting across is massive.”
Restoring and rebuilding
While their friendship and sense of family are what gives their business its heart and soul, their varied experience combined has been invaluable in restoring the farmyard to create a manufacturing centre and education hub that is now Smokin’ Soul HQ.
“The old cow shed and milking parlour got turned into what is currently our workshop and the workshop storeroom,” explains Pat.
“We decided to focus on what we could do in the sheds that were in pretty good repair, so we ended up building an EHO [Environmental Health Office] registered kitchen in one and a dry goods storeroom in the other that is attached to that. In one of the old cart sheds – that would have had horse-drawn carts stored in it and we used to play in there – we turned that into our first smokehouse. We just made it a bit bigger, but we kept things like the pillars that have date stamps on them so you can see how old it is; there is one from 1823.
“The shed we do our BBQ masterclasses in now used to be the hay shed, where all the hay and straw was kept. We’ve diversified completely the whole usage of the farmyards and turned it into what is currently our business.”
“It just happens faster on TV programmes that you watch, where they take a year, ours will take us 20 years. We don’t have half a million Euro,” Jim laughs.
The BBQ masterclasses and pitmaster courses that are taught by Pat and Jim are educating people on how to cook over fire and smoking meat and vegetables, something they believe is part of our heritage and has simply been forgotten over time.
“You only need to go back two generations … your grandparents and your great-grandparents would have cooked every meal over open fire,” says Pat. “It’s funny, cooking over fire is currently seen as more of a masculine thing or men being connected to it, but I guarantee you it was your grandmother or great-grandmother who was the real pitmaster. She was cooking breakfast, lunch, dinner, and baking over fire.”
Butchery is another skill taught as part of the courses with a particular focus on product sourcing.
“A lot of what we talk about is the fact that we’re using quality produce from quality craft butchers, coming from farms where farmers hold their animals in the highest esteem, where they’re proud to be producers of beef, lamb, pork or chicken, and the vegetable farmers as well. Those guys are rock stars, in my opinion, because that’s almost harder than any kind of animal work,” explains Pat.
“During the workshops, we’ll have a bit of fun and we will talk to people about cooking, but there’s some very serious notes as well. There’s a huge disconnect between the consumer and the producer and we really want to highlight that.
“A lot of consumers don’t realise that everything is pinned up by agriculture and will always be pinned up by it. We’re a country designed for agriculture, an agrarian society. We should be the breadbasket of western Europe, exporting our produce all over the world. Rules and regulations in this country mean we have some of the greatest products.”
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