Brad McDonald is scribbling on a piece of paper trying to explain the dark art of barbecuing by way of a roughly sketched graph. On the x axis is the number of hours meat is cooked while on the y axis is the temperature of the meat, and he is painstakingly describing what happens to different meats during the cooking process.
Despite my nodding and murmuring in what I hope to be the right places, the soft spoken chef from Mississippi probably feels like he’s trying to explain advanced algebra to a five-year-old, such is the detail into which he goes and the growing look of puzzlement on my face. Sure, I understand the rudiments of the barbecue‘sweet spot’ temperature and the notion of ‘low and slow’, but this impromptu lesson in the smoking of meat goes well beyond that.
“Barbecuing becomes about touch, time, temperature and manipulation,” he explains, putting yet another squiggle on to the graph. “It is as technical as any fine-dining cooking. I’m fascinated by the technique.”
Suddenly, with a flourish, he screws up the bit of paper on which he has been scrawling and tosses it aside with a sigh. “Barbecue is not understood here like it is in the US. A huge amount of skill and work goes into producing great meat, which is often not appreciated. I’m not enthralled with molecular cooking. If you use foam or xanthan gum it’s easy, you just whip it up. It is much harder to cook a piece of meat.”
Instead, McDonald talks animatedly about preparing beef cheeks (“it takes time to break down the collagen. It’s like trying to cook down a rubber band”) and with putting duck in a smoker (“if you cook it above 55°C it gets a livery flavour”).
He also describes his current wranglings with some of the more challenging aspects of barbecue, such as using British grass-fed beef rather than USDA, saying he has spent two weeks and a lot of cash trying to ‘decode’ Dexter brisket.
“The thing about brisket is that grain-fed animals put on more intramuscular fat than those that are grass-fed. US brisket retains that elasticity over time but brisket with no fat needs to be eaten instantly. Once you break the seal it dries out. But I refuse to let it defeat me.”
Not just another barbecue joint
McDonald is a barbecue fanatic, in case you hadn’t realised by now. The fact that he smokes all of his meat in the tiny Shotgun kitchen over wood rather than pellets for better flavour being just another example of the lengths to which he goes to perfect his approach. He is also something of a fried-chicken specialist, evidenced by the success of his southern fried chicken at Marylebone restaurant The Lockhart, where he also oversees the kitchen.
With his southern US tone, de rigueur bushy beard and short hair he looks every bit the part, too. Yet his style, and that of Shotgun, the newly-opened restaurant on Soho’s Kingly Street in which he is currently sitting, is the very antithesis of the current crop of barbecue-led joints opening up across the country.
Where most US barbecue places (and often their owners) are bold and brash, with the restaurants housing enough neon lighting to stand in if Piccadilly Circus were to be hit with a power cut, Shotgun, like its chef, is charming and understated. Named after a narrow style of building popular in the southern states of the US where diners get a straight ‘shot’ view from one end of the room to the other rather than being a macho reference to firearms, the new opening is more chic than shriek in its style. A beautiful marble-topped bar is a main feature of the narrow room, which is also home to dark-wooden furniture and low-lighting. It’s Deep South meets Soho, and is pulled off with panache.
McDonald is no typical barbecue chef, either. With a CV that includes time spent in the prestigious kitchens of Per Se in New York and Noma in Copenhagen and having been part of the team behind Brooklyn restaurants Colonie and Gran Electrica, he has a strong cooking pedigree well beyond that of a pit master. His most recent project before coming to the UK was Governor, the Brooklyn restaurant he opened in 2013, but which closed after just three months following flood damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.
“It’s been a long journey,” he says. “Everything I do today is about regaining that momentum and that experience I had at Governor. That was my first restaurant and to have it taken away so soon was quite an experience for a young chef to go through (he was 31 at the time). Once it fell flat I realised I wanted to move away from New York.”
Initially coming to London as a consultant, McDonald quickly realised that his cheffing days were far from over. He started looking at places in London, including the Redhook site in Clerkenwell, which unfortunately was beyond his means. “I loved that space, it really ignited a spark,” he recalls. Initially working for Ricker Restaurants as culinary consultant, a role which he did for eight months, he then heard of a restaurant serving food from America’s Deep South in Marylebone that needed some help, which is when he got involved with The Lockhart.
“The maitre’d at The Lockhart reached out to me over Twitter and said ‘we’ve got this project, it started well but it’s gone a bit tits up’ and asked me if I’d be willing to have a look at it. I did that for a couple of months and finally decided to come on board.”
Here McDonald made an instant impact, and a name for himself, not just for his cooking but his business acumen that helped put the restaurant back on the right track. Located in the now up-and-coming restaurant area of Seymour Place, home to recent new openings Lurra and Bernardi’s, the restaurant had struggled with its identity, he says, as well as with attracting customers to the area.“
From their opening days, restaurants establish an identity very quickly. But at The Lockhart it was neither clear nor well executed. The first time you walk into The Clove Club you know straight away that the team has confidence about what they want the place to be. The Lockhart lacked that. Even though it was American owned it had English people running it. The chef had been to Texas, but only for a few days. I’m not saying it was heartless, but it didn’t have enough soul. People like a story. They want to know why you are doing southern cuisine in the Marble Arch area.”
Gunning for more
In his role at The Lockhart, McDonald went back to basics with a menu that matched the restaurant’s more ‘country store’ interior, as he calls it, and then slowly moved beyond the iconic southern dishes of fried chicken and shrimp and grits with an offer that had a wider focus.
“The food is now more a section of snacks, starters and mains that are led by seasonal ingredients but with a southern influence,” he says. “It’s British food seen through a southern lens.”
For The Lockhart’s owners McDonald’s intervention proved a masterstroke, with the restaurant garnering a lot of positive press as a result of him being behind the stove. For McDonald, however, was there a feeling that he had taken a step back, by going from having his own – albeit short-lived – restaurant to running the kitchens for someone else?
“Consulting had become a bit of a niche speciality for me,” he says. “It was an easy way to market myself. Colonie had a chef who couldn’t make the right decisions and didn’t get on with the owners, but I had a history of being able to see things from both sides. As executive chef I appreciated the numbers as much as I did the cooking. I liked being involved in the business and the operation beyond the food.”
This experience in running a restaurant rather than just cooking not only served The Lockhart well, but it inevitably led to its Texan owners, Lonestar Food Company, and McDonald looking to work together on future projects. “Shotgun came about from a pure intention to grow as a company and for me to branch out and have more breadth and depth,” he says.
“We had a number of concepts we put down on paper, such as a fried chicken and doughnuts, which would be a much more fast-casual offering based on chicken we serve at The Lockhart and the doughnuts pop-up we do (McDonald and his wife, Molly, also run 1235 Donuts selling doughnuts from their front door on Hackney’s Columbia Road). But we decided to do barbecue.
The owners are from Texas and are big barbecue fans. You could say that it’s on trend, too, but we were not really thinking about that.
“Barbecue is a fun second concept that we knew we could wrap our heads around quite easily. I don’t like using the word authentic when describing the food, but it’s authentic in blood line at least.”
Chef turned restaurateur
That said, McDonald and Lonestar are at pains to ensure that there is much more to Shotgun than just its approach to barbecue. Despite his pedigree, it is certainly not a chef-led restaurant, he asserts, with the design, the service and the menu all being pulled together to create a space where people will want to hang out throughout the day.
“I’m over the whole chefiness of the industry. I want to operate a good business where we cook fantastic food and focus on hospitality and the experience as a whole rather than it being just about the food on the plate. I’m sick and tired of it. Even as a chef I honestly feel that you go to a restaurant once for the food and come back for the service and come back a third time because you feel comfortable and welcome. So many chefs miss that part. I hope the restaurant does not survive solely on the food.”
With this in mind, McDonald has created a food offer that chimes more with its Soho setting. As at The Lockhart, Shotgun’s menu features a number of drink-friendly snacks, such as the devilishly moreish pimento cheese served with Ritz crackers, the oft Instagrammed glazed pig’s ear and sour pancakes, and broccoli and cheddar soup (“it seems so beta and basic but it’s great”) before leading on to a tight selection of mains, including chicken, baby back ribs, duck breast and Boston butt, served either as 120g, or as a half or whole portion.
Where McDonald really works his magic, given Shotgun’s location and lunchtime trade, is with its range of sandwiches. The restaurant serves four different types – pulled pork; belly bacon BLT; fried bologna; and smoked ox tongue – served in a potato bun and accompanied by either one or two sides. As well as helping attract the time-poor lunch diner, the sandwiches also form the main part of Shotgun’s late-night menu and also its takeaway offer.
“With the food I’m confident that the restaurant will be busy. We keep the doors open till midnight and at 10pm switch to snacks and sandwiches. I want Shotgun to be a place where people who have been out for a binge in Soho can come and get some solid, late-night food. There aren’t that many places around here that do that.”
The refined look of Shotgun and the dominance of its bar also distances itself from solely being seen as a place for a pig out, as so many barbecue joints market themselves. Indeed, McDonald believes that having a strong bar offer is essential for success in today’s fiercely competitive eating out market – an opinion clearly shared by Shotgun’s new neighbour Dishoom, which has also placed great emphasis on its bar area.
“The bar makes Shotgun stand out and it is imperative to staying afloat. No matter what level the restaurant, people know how much they are going to spend the minute they walk through the door – they don’t even know they do that. You need to be inviting and having a welcoming bar at which people can sit can really help set the tone of a place. As more and more chefs become operators they realise it’s not just about the food.”
If this sounds very grown up then that’s the idea, says McDonald. With the brilliant Jon Cannon having been drafted in from Restaurant Story as the group general manager, Shotgun has designs on being better than your average US-themed operation. “We’ve already had a lot of people walk through the door of Shotgun, and they don’t mean to be insulting but it kind of pinches a nerve when they say ‘oh wow, I didn’t know you were capable of doing something like this’. The Lockhart looks like a country store but this a grown up restaurant; it’s sexy and well designed and it fits in with its Soho setting. It’s a grown up restaurant. For me that is the most uplifting thing.”
There could be many more uplifting moments on the horizon, too. McDonald says that if Shotgun proves to be a hit then it has a natural fit in the City and other parts of London. He’s also expressed an interest in pushing in other directions, with his love of French cooking and the Deep South meaning that a New Orleans style restaurant might not be completely out of the question in the future.
Whatever his plans, it’s more a question of when rather than if, he hints: “I don’t see how I can stop once I have the momentum.”
This article first appeared in the December 2015 issue of Restaurant magazine.