Food & Drink Monday, November 30th Words by: Adam Knight, pictures by: Mark Bowen / submitted

Turning mince into mortgage payments: An Oral History of The Beefy Boys

Food & Drink Monday, November 30th

Turning mince into mortgage payments: An Oral History of The Beefy Boys

Suddenly every man and his dog knew what a brioche bun was. Going out for a burger was no longer the preserve of the hungover Sunday, but a fixture of the Saturday night.

Sometime soon after Man vs Food landed on our TV screens - and with it a glimpse of Texas smokehouses and secret marinades passed down from the days of Lincoln and Custer - the Brits fell back in love with BBQ.

Reaching out beyond its traditional territory of lay-bys, football grounds and the frozen aisle in Morrisons, ‘burger’ was no longer a dirty word.

“Well it’s still a little bit dirty. In a good way. It’s a burger. It’s supposed to be.”

And Anthony Murphy, one quarter of the Beefy Boys, should know.

The team recently returned from their second trip stateside to take on the Yanks at their own game.

Last year the boys from Hereford were named Best Burger at the World Food Championships in Las Vegas. This year, in Florida, they had to settle for second, their campaign sunk by a grilled cheese sandwich in the early rounds.

Having smoked their first patty at a friend’s birthday BBQ in 2010 - around the same time as the first scent of mesquite began wafting its way across the Atlantic and into East London – their rise tracks that of the burger revolution as a whole.

Now these four friends find themselves at a point where they stand side by side with those who shaped burger culture in the UK. And, crucially, pay a bill or two, as the Boys open their first restaurant.

Here they are – or half of them, at least – in their own words.

Two fourths of the Beefy Boys, Anthony Murphy (left), Christian Williams (right). Not pictured: Daniel Mayo-Evans, Lee Symonds.




Anthony Murphy: Lee and Dan went to primary school together.

Christian Williams: I was two years below you at school.

Murph: Yeh. We kind of got to know each other at youth theatre, and then I met Lee at college, and that’s when we started working together, promoting together.

Me and Lee ran the Jailhouse [editor's note: a historied Hereford nightclub] when we were 18 - we took over the Friday and Saturday nights there for three years. Then it got bought out, and the bloke closed it down and turned it into DV8. When that happened, the Crystal Rooms offered us Saturday nights, so we started doing drum 'n' bass. But after three years, and the 'Rooms shut down. Basically anywhere me and Lee went shut down.

So then we went to Skream, and the guy who owned it sold the lease to me and Lee, for pretty much nothing. I was only about 24 at the time. We used the money we made over two or three years at Skream to go back to the guy who ran DV8 and turn it back into the Jailhouse. We did that for 7 years, and finished last New Years'.

To be honest we just thought we were messing around. I think only really got to grips with what we were doing around about the time when it shut.

Christian: That’s why he shut it.

Murph: Instead of going to university, that time was our university. Trying to run a business when you don’t know what you’re doing – I didn’t even know what VAT was. Seriously. One day we had a call saying ‘where’s you’re VAT bill?’. We got pretty hammered by the VAT man that year. We learnt.

Instead of doing a classic, crap British BBQ, let’s do a proper American-style cooking job with ribs and all that. I’d been watching Man vs Food.

Christian: I went Aylestone, went to the Art College and youth theatre.

Basically, I started going to the Jailhouse. But through youth theatre we were able to put shows on at the Courtyard – Murph set up the production company FourPlay, then the next four people who took it on were me, a girl called Mina, a girl called Lo, and Sam Meeham. [editor's note: Sam was the Rev Run to Murphy’s DMC in another sideline venture, their hip hop group The Anomalies, who once supported Grandmaster Flash and continue to perform intermittently.]

We were all hanging out at the same house on Whittern Way. I worked on the bar at the Lock Up and met Lee, so that’s where we formed a good group of mates.

As for Dan, he's a mechanic by trade. His dad does the cellar gas for pubs.

But I went away to uni, came back did a few things then went away again for a bit. I was a runner on Flog It, the daytime antique show. I started working my way up, did another antique show, then I came out and did films for them – I was 3rd Assistant Director on a few films, one in Herefordshire – the Here and Now film that was out here. And then came back to Hereford again. To do this.

My dad’s got a smallholding, and when I got back from uni the first time round, I bought two pigs. They were called Johnny and Be Good. I was at a party and the head chef from the Wellington was there. We ended up talking and I sold him half a pig.

I rang him up and said ‘do you still want it?’ and he said yeh, and I sold the other pig to another pub. With the money I made from them, I went and bought another 20 pigs. So then for about two years I started breeding pigs, supplying them to restaurants; the Stagg, the Bell at Tillington. I was breeding these breeder pigs that I’d read about Heston Blumenthal using, stuff like that.

That’s when Murph bought some off us and that’s around about the time we looked at starting smoking stuff.

We were always sitting around talking about food, eating stuff. But doing a few pork roasts, at weddings, at the Barrels, I realised the money wasn’t in farming it, it was splitting it up into portions and selling it. And that’s what I liked doing.

Murph: American BBQ is kind of how we came in to it. All that stuff was kind of going on at the time. The nucleus was that Dan was having a birthday party for his girlfriend - now his wife – and I’m always eating so he asked if I would give him a hand cooking it.

This is four or five years ago. I said instead of doing a classic, crap British BBQ, let’s do a proper American-style cooking job with ribs and all that. I’d been watching Man vs Food.

So we jumped on the internet and researched it all. We bought a cheap smoker for eight quid from J-Mart. We did it and people loved it. People hadn’t really tried that American style cooking. Back then it wasn’t as popular as it is now.

Christian: I was working at Flog It at the time but I was also doing work for BBC development and we were doing this pilot for a meat programme – sort of the Meat 'Man vs Food', in a Top Gear magazine-style. They missed a bit of a trick actually, there’s still a hole in the market for that.

But they sent me down to Bristol to run around with a camera at a festival called Grillstock, shooting a chilli-eating competition. They had this King of the Grill competition, and as Murph had started messing around with BBQ, I told him you've got to do it.

Murph: They have guys flying in from Houston and Alabama, and all over the world. Real big BBQ guys. I mentioned it to Dan and said we need to practice for like three or four years and then try and enter something like this. Then next time I spoke to Dan, he was like ‘ah, I’ve signed us up’.

So we went, with no idea really about what we were doing. Just the four of us and some meat. At that point they didn’t have a burger round. It was ribs, pulled pork, brisket, a seafood round and a desert. We’d been doing it for six months.

They had 25 teams there and we managed to come 7th. It made us think that maybe we did know what we were doing.

Christian: Teams from Bodean’s were there and we beat them – and they had a chain of restaurants in London. Jamie Oliver’s restaurant had a team and we beat them.

Murph: It still didn’t seem like a money-maker, it was more something we were doing for a laugh. There were little bits we were doing in pubs – Dan had the Railway and we had the Jailhouse so every now and again we’d do a pop-up and serve our burgers.

Christian: We were just kind of hooked at that point. This was good fun.

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Murph: As we looked more at burgers, we learned it’s a simple thing to make but it’s amazing how many people can f--k it up. You can go to a couple of chains around here and the meat’s been frozen. As long as you’ve got a good bun and good meat, you should be able to make a good burger.

It ruined burgers for us for a bit. You’d go into a pub and order a burger and you’d just throw it down because it would be kind of awful.

That’s when we started going down to London to places like Meat Liquor and checking out the competition. I remember going there and eating one there’s and thinking, ‘this isn’t much better that what I can do at home’.

When we realised that, we realised that maybe there is a business here.

We first entered Grillstock in 2012, but by 2014 they had decided to put a burger round into it. And we smashed it.

We ended up talking and I sold him half a pig

Christian: We were 120 points ahead of the nearest team. We scored 600-and-something.

Murph: We had a bit of a reputation for burgers even by then. We got into this through the BBQ side but we found that burgers were something that we were good at.

The whole BBQ ‘low and slow’ thing is something can spend 30 years learning. It’s a real art and craft. But we had kind of nailed our burgers really early on, and a lot of the other teams knew that. So there was a bit of pressure on us.

Christian: We had started doing a few more pop-ups by this time. We did the Volly [The Volunteer]. We served 50 burgers and we were all knackered.

Murph: It all accelerated after that. We got on the One Show and we went from selling 50 burgers at a pop-up to 250, overnight.

That was a learning curve. The first time that happened I think people were waiting like two hours for a burger.

Christian: We had this one grill that did all the buns, cooked all the meat, did all the bacon and a queue of 200 people looking at us.

Murph: We all jumped on and did whatever. It started off that I did the cooking but we soon realised that we needed more than one person on the grill so we went out and bought two bigger grills.

It’s how we did it all along really, we never outlaid a large sum of money. At the start we borrowed Dan’s dad’s BBQ and put our flat grate on it, then with the money from that, we went and bought a little grill of our own, and then with the money from that we went and bought two grills. So we never had to borrow any money. Up until now [nervous laughter].

Now we’ve got 20 employeees on part-time basis just to manage what we’re doing on outside catering.

Christian: For us, Meat Liquor’s a great case in point. He started off in a car park in Peckham cooking out of an old, reconditioned ambulance he called the Meat Wagon. Then it got nicked. And in the time it took for him to save up for another Meat Wagon he worked at a mate’s pub and soon there were queues for three hours aound the block. For them it blew up from there. They went on opened up five or six restaurants. They did buy another Meat Wagon in the end but they didn’t need it. Their Oxford Street spot was doing £100,000 a week.

Murph: Meat Liquor was a massive influence on us. He was one of the first guys to be doing proper burgers in Britain, and it was his style I was following on Twitter and on food blogs. We did a pop-up this year and Jani - the guy that started Meat Liquor - was at it selling burgers opposite us. We actually sold more than he did.



Murph: Any good BBQ chef will only ever tell you 80 percent of what they know.

Christian: So we learned as much of everyone else's 80 percent as we could. Everything we know, it’s all out there on the internet mostly. But you’ve got to let your tastebuds guide you through. That's what got us here.

Murph: And get a good relationship with your butcher. We have gone into Neil Powell's butchers and got him to mince up rib-eye steaks and shins of beef and all this other good stuff, then gone back home and fried it all and sat around eating it trying to remember which one’s which.

There’s some serious research.

I actually remember in the early days that I got some crap, plastic American cheese imported just to try it out. In fact having been to America, what I would say is that a lot of what happens here is that Britain tries to ape the American food, but actually what we are making over here is generally better quality.

Christian: But it’s a massive place.

Murph: Yeh. And when they get it right they get it really right.

Christian: Next year we’re playing a trip through the South – do a bit of a pilgrimage. And it will give Murph a chance to complete the trilogy. [editor's note: At each World Food Championships the team has brought a film crew of one with them, scripted and shot a feature-length mockumentary - the first of which will be screen at The Courtyard this month. But more on that later..]

The cool thing about the films is that while they seem like they’re off on a tangent, we’ve kind of built up this whole mythology around it. And it’s going to appear within the restaurant, within the menu, the merchandise.

Murph: It’s like a bizarre version of Ronald McDonald and the Hamburgular – we’re going for the 18+ version of that. 

We’re going to have things for kids to colour in, but it’s going to be a picture of all of us running away from a psycho BBQ killer.

There’s a lot of these gourmet burger, BBQ places around at the moment, we wanted to think how we could stay ahead and make it different.

Everyone who has done well out of this whole scene has really had a passion for it. Up and down the country there are venture capitalists who have watched Man vs Food and wanted to open a burger shop. Most of them are nice guys, but they haven't worked a grill.


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Murph: Even though it’s good food and it’s well-sourced, burgers in general are kind of a vulgar type of food. But it’s a nice vulgar. You want your burger to be massive and dripping with cheese.

Christian: It’s accessible. One thing I think’s happening with all the streetfood is that taken the stuffiness out of going out to eat. It’s not the kind of thing where you’ve got all your cutlery laid out, and you’re polite to the waiter as he takes your jacket.

This is just, ‘I’m having a burger, I’m having a drink, I’m having a good time’. It’s really good food but I’m getting the quality back from it.

Murph: You don’t have to be dressed up, you can drop in with a hoodie on and just eat. You can be sat next someone in a suit, and it’s all good.

For the restuarant, we’ve gone for this slightly punky, DIY, old school hip-hop kind of thing which fits in with the Beefy Boys/Beastie Boys things.

Christian: We’re trying to keep it a bit cool and a bit edgy. We've got a load of reclaimed wood, and this massive steel sign from the Cattle Market that we're going to put up. Food-wise, it’s not about making the quick buck, it’s about turning out something you know is quality.

Murph: It’s like ribs – I’d make them at home – but I’d want to practice for at least a year before I served them in the restaurant. And you just can’t get that if you’re paying chefs minium wage. 

It’s been a baptism of fire over the last 12 months. As the pop-ups grew we had to get better at what we did to the point where we were cooking up 1, 500 burgers a day at festivals in London or Bristol. Just me and him. Two of us on a grill. When you do that, you get to the point where you can just look at it tell you how cooked it is.

That’s our next challenge. We’ve got however many thousands of hours logged and we’ve got to get the chefs up to that level.

Christian: And we need to, in order for us to level up the business and grow it further. If you don’t step back a bit, you end up not owning a business, you’re owning a job.

Murph: But for the first six months of the restaurant we are going to have be all hands-on, getting it absolutely nailed so we could roll it out to another city. The long term goal in the next five years – if this is a success – is to two or three more in this part of the world. We’re looking at Cheltenham, Bristol, Cardiff.

We've been doing the pop-up down at the Left Bank every week since June. The amount of covers we do down there is mad. One Saturday we did 800, which is f----ing mental, but it's the location, down by the river.

We're going to have to shut it down when we open - but we're looking to start again sometime late March. And we’re going to look at doing things down there that we can’t do at the restaurant without burning the place down – set up big fire pits, reposado cooking, we're in to all kinds of street food. At the restaurant we’ll have a sit-down meal, then down there we’ll have a BBQ.

On the Old Market, they are all chains. If they want to do anything they have to run it by head office and nine times out of ten they’re going to say ‘no’. Here we are looking at one-off events - steak nights with Neil Powell’s 100-day aged steaks, mojo pork cubanos, all things we can do that fit with the brand – so for the next 12 months we will be experimenting on the customers quite a bit.




[The Beefy Boys open in January.]




Click here to read the second half of the Beefy Boys story - where the 'Boys take their burgers to Las Vegas to compete in the World Food Championships.






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