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Hearth & Home May 2019

Live-ly Fire

By Lisa Readie Mayer

DJ BBQ, a live-fire expert, grills meat to the beat and attracts an international audience.

With his outlandish spandex jumpsuits, crazy antics, and high­-energy persona, you might assume Christian Stevenson to be a radio shock-jock, over-the-top TV entertainer, or extreme­-sports snowboarder who just nailed a difficult half-pipe run. All would be true.

Also true: Stevenson is a serious and widely respected expert on barbecuing and live-fire cooking. The American-born-and-raised, and now London-based, professional pitmaster has authored two barbecue cookbooks, appeared on countless television cooking programs, cooked at numerous food and music festivals, and amassed a huge, worldwide following on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook.

He is credited with helping to ignite a passion for American-style barbecuing, smoking, and live-fire cooking in the UK, where he is practically a household name.

These two worlds collide when the mild-mannered Stevenson grabs his cape and tongs, and adopts his alter-ego DJ BBQ.

From Stage to Smoke

Stevenson’s path to smoking-superhero-dom started as a boy in Maryland, where he was raised by a single dad, a former Naval officer. He says, growing up, his family loved fishing, camping, and cooking outdoors on the standard-issue natural-gas grill that was post-mounted behind their, and every other house, in the neighborhood.

“The only thing my dad knew how to make was barbecue, and when I was about eight, he started having me cook dinner on the grill,” Stevenson recalls. “When I was a little older, I bought a Weber charcoal Kettle and thought, ‘This is way better!’ That started my love of cooking over live fire and I never went back to gas.”

Stevenson earned a degree in radio, TV, and film media from the University of Maryland. Working in restaurants along the way to pay the bills only strengthened his appreciation for food and cooking. He went on to become an extreme-sports filmmaker, always packing a grill on the bus they used for traveling from skateboarding to snowboarding shoots.

“Whenever there was a break in the action, I would cook and entertain the crew and the kids we were filming,” he says.

His extreme-sports expertise led to a stint as the host of “RAD” and “RAD: The Groms Tour,” two hit action-sports TV series that aired for 15 years in the UK. He also spent years as a popular radio DJ with a large fan base on the Kerrang! Radio network in the UK; was a DJ-host at major music festivals, X-games competitions, and other large-scale events throughout the world; and even performed at corporate events, including for Microsoft. Wherever he went, he brought along his Weber Kettle and cooked for staff and fans.

Stevenson says he noticed his food was becoming as big a draw as the music. So he ditched his steady radio gig, invented the moniker DJ BBQ, outfitted a food truck with three wood-burning Lang Smokers imported from Georgia, and hit the festival circuit, spinning records and cooking and selling barbecue.

“At these events we create a juke-joint area where we cook a whole leg of cow on a rotisserie, as well as other traditional low-and-slow barbecue,” he says. “We always cook over a live fire. People come for the music and stay for the barbecue, or the other way around. We call it ‘catertainment.’”

His “BBQ Zoo Crew” includes Chris Taylor, a.k.a. “T-Bone Chops,” whom Stevenson met while working on the British TV show “BBQ Champ,” fire master Matt Williams, a professional roof thatcher turned natural-charcoal-maker and owner of The Oxford Charcoal Company, as well as other practitioners of “live-fire grilling and general food badassery.”

For years, the team has hit the road all summer long with their tricked-out DJ BBQ Fire Food Truck, cooking and entertaining at major UK festivals such as Grillstock, The Big Grill barbecue and craft beer festival, Ramblin’ Man Fair music festival, SpeedMachine rallycross event, and Meatopia festival of “fire, smoke, and multi-genre live music.”

They sell plates of their signature spit-roasted beef, as well as pulled pork, burgers, and other fare – not to mention trucker hats, t-shirts, and related swag – to eager fans who line up to watch the live-fire spectacle.

When Stevenson is not cooking at festivals, he’s often hosting them. He regularly appears in his custom spandex onesies on the main stage at serious food festivals in the UK, conducting demonstrations and discussions with gods of live-fire grilling and barbecuing such as Francis Mallmann and Billy Durney.

“We have fire going and I dress in crazy outfits and we have fun,” he says. “This is what I love. I take my food and my fun seriously. My thinking is, if I make it fun, I can attract women and younger people along with the 50-year-old guy who’s typically into grilling. I want to make it inclusive. I want to have more women chefs involved in the festivals, and more women cooking over fire at home. Because, who controls the purse strings? Mom!”

Smoking Star

Today, Stevenson is a bonafide barbecue celebrity. His DJ BBQ YouTube channel has 180,000 subscribers, who eagerly await the weekly drop of a new video on topics such as “dirty-grilled” vegetables cooked directly in the coals; pulled pork with Southern Comfort Creole cider; lamb chorizo burgers with apricot salsa; and massive, grilled tomahawk steaks with spicy cabbage.

His 350-and-counting videos are also featured on renowned chef Jamie Oliver’s Food Tube channel, with more than 4 million subscribers. In addition, Stevenson has hosted a six-part video series on outdoor cooking for the television network in the U.S.

To date, his videos have racked up a total of 12.2 million views. The YouTube star has over 58,000 followers on Instagram, 18,000-plus on Facebook, and 10,600 on Twitter.

American barbecue pitmaster, restaurateur, and cookbook author Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe, whom Stevenson considers a mentor, says DJ BBQ’s background as an entertainer helps him connect with consumers. “He’s obsessed with live-fire outdoor cooking and makes it fun and interesting,” Lampe says. “People love to watch him and want to try his recipes and techniques themselves. Christian is helping Europe develop its own barbecue identity.”

Stevenson’s first cookbook, “Fire Food: The Ultimate BBQ Cookbook,” released last year, promises to help readers “ace the art of handling live fire (to) grill, smoke, and slow-roast meat that’s out of this world.” His latest effort, “The Burger Book,” was published in April and features recipes “for anything that can go between a bun.” Both books are peppered with DJ BBQ’s entertaining stories and photographer David Loftus’ drool-worthy food shots.

The books have been published in eight languages, according to Stevenson, testament to his global popularity. “I’ve sold the same number of books in the U.S. as in the UK,” he says. “Because of YouTube and social media, the audience is global.”

Indeed, Stevenson has done DJ BBQ-related projects in Mexico, Brazil, and Germany, and helped promote musician Kid Rock’s “American Badass Grill” in the U.S. He has collaborated with mayonnaise and barbecue-sauce company Hellman’s, auto-maker Renault, hat-manufacturer Stetson, and kamado manufacturer Kamado Joe. He has a line of DJ BBQ spice rubs available in the U.S.

The 51-year-old, single dad of three boys, Blue, 18, Noah, 15, and Frasier, 12, lives in what he calls a “tiny-ass house” near London. His “even tinier” backyard is home to a gaggle of grills, including three Weber Kettles, a Pit Barrel Cooker, Smokey Mountain Cooker, Gozney wood-fired oven, Kamado Joe ceramic kamado, Drumbecue horizontal barrel grill, and a tandoor oven.

“My dad learned to barbecue from my Grandpa, and then passed that knowledge to me, and now I’m passing it on to my boys,” Stevenson says. “My youngest has been barbecuing since he was five. He learned to butcher a chicken and make his own sausages at eight. Barbecue brought my father and me together and it still connects us. I’m hoping to create that bond with my sons.”

His next project will require a move from London to Sussex, England where he will partner in a farm-to-table restaurant with pal David Wright. Wright, a third-generation baker, was named Baker of the Year at the 2017 Baking Industry Awards in England. The venture, located in a renovated fire station next to the bakery that Wright’s grandparents founded in 1946, will specialize in “awesome burgers, pizza, sandwiches, and smoked meats prepared in a wood-burning Gozney oven,” according to Stevenson.

In spite of the new, more conventional work gig, Stevenson has no intention of giving up his spandex, nor his sound system. He says DJ BBQ will continue to create content for YouTube, and, he and his crew will still crank out tunes and serve up great live-fire food and “catertainment” at festivals and events.

“This is fun, and I’m still a teenager at heart,” he says.

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