Chef Mark O'Brien chats to Dee Laffan about an exciting menu concept that he introduced to Counter Culture last year with owner Robin Gill; the latest style of cuisine has been a huge success and one which Mark is particularly passionate about.
Counter Culture restaurant is the baby sister of The Dairy in Clapham, restaurants owned by chef Robin Gill, in which Mark O'Brien has worked for over a year. Last year, the two Irish chefs introduced a new concept for the smaller 13-seater restaurant, an evolving menu, taking a world tour through cuisines, changing every 2-3 months.
"In March last, just before St. Patrick’s Day, Robin Gill, the owner and executive chef of The Dairy, came to me and suggested that we change our little 13-seater sister restaurant, Counter Culture, into an Irish restaurant in the lead up to St Patrick’s Day. We created a menu highlighting the best of Irish produce, including Irish snails and oysters and lots of great Irish produce for the week. It was a huge success, everyone loved it. It created a whole new sense of creativity and excitement around the restaurant."
"From this, Robin had a great idea and that was a really strong objective for us, to highlight the cuisine of one country at a time. We thought about it some more and decided that we should change the cuisine of Counter Culture every couple of months to give us more creativity and direction with it. After the Irish menu in March, we changed to a Mexican menu, then we did a menu from Provence in the South of France, and from there we went to the Caribbean as we had a chef who was born and raised in the Cayman Islands. They all went from strength to strength and just as Robin had predicted it created such a brilliant buzz around the restaurant and loads more people were coming in to see what new dishes and food we had on and it built up from there."
Mark has always loved barbecue food, but especially since spending three months travelling around the southern states of America in 2017 and getting to eat the incredible food and experience the barbecue restaurants there, he is passionate about this style of cuisine. Mark also had a pop-up restaurant stand at The Big Grill Festival in Herbert Park in Dublin last August.
"One of the first things I had suggested to him was American barbecue. I really wanted to bring the food that I had tried to Counter Culture and thought I could do it really well. He loved the idea and I put together a menu. I was trying to do a high-end thing first and after a while, I realised that what I love most and what I settled on is just great barbecue, so I had to figure out how to turn the 13-seater restaurant into a barbecue restaurant. I knew I needed to get my hands on a smoker, so I got in touch with Christian Stevenson, aka DJ BBQ, and he very graciously gave us a loan of one of his smaller smokers for the winter months."
It's the whole hog, baby
"Next, we needed to decide on the style of barbecue and out of all the places I went to that really inspired me were places like Rodney Scotts BBQ in Charleston, South Carolina and Buxton Hall Barbecue in Asheville, North Carolina… these places do whole hog barbecue, and that alone. They get a whole pig in, they smoke it in big square pit smokers for 18-20 hours, they season the meat really well with vinegar, pepper… a light seasoning, nothing too crazy strong… and that’s their barbecue is smoked whole hog, or pulled pork, essentially.
That’s what I loved when I was over there and that’s what I wanted to do my own version of. Unfortunately, in such a small dining room and a small smoker, we weren’t going to be able to feed that many people at a time, so I had to think about how I can do whole hog barbecue, but not in the normal way.
I also wanted to highlight things I’ve learned in The Dairy. We decided that what we needed to do was get in whole pig carcasses each week and break it down into their constituent pieces like the shoulder, loin, ribs and belly… we’ll do two of these different parts of meat every night on the menu and we’ll use up everything throughout the week.
For example, we make the skin into pork rinds for a little bar snack, we render the fat and use that to make cornbread, we use the head for a smoked pork terrine, we make a stock from the bones and use the stock to make collard greens and serve with traditional bbq sides and we use all of the organ meat and trim and belly meat to make a smoked sausage."
"So it is very much in the style of whole hog barbecue in that we’re getting in whole really high welfare animals, really great pigs, and cooking every ounce of that, but in the best possible way that we can, and in doing so, bringing a really interesting and diverse menu to this little restaurant.
We take walk-ins and bookings… We try and get as many people in a night as possible and because the menu has been designed in such a way, it’s easy to execute, while still being incredibly high-quality food that people really love. Just come in and enjoy really great barbecue, that's very accessible from a price point perspective and it’s not a menu that you’ll spend all night eating; you come in you eat, have fun and leave. Because the menu changes every day, we’ve found people coming in, again and again, to try and get to taste everything."
Themes within a theme
"I am really focusing on the barbecue from the southern states like Carolina, but one of the great things about working so closely with The Dairy is that a month ago we worked with a farmer called Tom Jones who has a very small farm, but an incredibly high-quality welfare stock of animals and every now and again he brings us some of his pigs and cattle. They got a whole cow into The Dairy, so we took all of the briskets in here and for one night only we did a Texan-style brisket menu. We got a load of extra people in and it was so exciting and a lot of fun and it was only something we could do working in conjunction with The Dairy.
At the end of November, we did a Thanksgiving Day menu… we got two incredible turkeys from a farmer who is a neighbour of one of our chefs in Surrey. We did a whole menu based around them, turkey gravy, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, cornbread stuffing, the whole business, even pecan pie for dessert. That was one of the most fun nights we’ve had in fact, it was packed and everyone was in a great mood."
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Continuing the world tour
"We’re keeping the barbecue theme until February and then it’s up to Robin as to where we go next! We’re not sure yet, but it’s exciting and fun for us to anticipate it and do something different and experiment every few months, you get to try different cooking techniques too.
The barbecue one has been so much fun though and everyone has enjoyed it so much that I don’t think it’s the last we’ll be seeing of that one. We might come back to it again. The food we’re producing is great, it’s a great expression of the lessons I’ve learned from Robin and all the team of The Dairy and of Robin’s company as a whole, so I don’t think we’re going to be seeing the end of the whole hog barbecue just yet."
For more info on Counter Culture and to book in, visit their website or if you can’t make it to London to try it out this time, make sure and follow on them Instagram to keep up to date or at the very least drool over at the amazing food photos!