Barbecue is steeped in the history of the New World. The word itself has Carribean origins; “barbacoa” was Taino for meat fire-grilled on a wooden grate. Modern BBQ, however, is a mishmash of Old World influences, including techniques brought to Texas by Czech and German immigrants. The cooking style is a perfect metaphor for America – a single new thing created from a confluence of cultures.
BBQ has returned to the heart of Old Europe in a big way. In Prague, the newest kid on the block is Big Smokers in Holešovice, a joint venture between Tomáš Oujezdský, the man behind the wildly successful Mr.HotDog in Letná, and chef Silva Jackson. Old friends from Přerov (a small city outside Olomouc), the duo have known each other for years and have a shared sensibility when it comes to food, championing basic, no-frills eats.
The new restaurant has already seen a flood of loyal Mr.HotDog customers since opening its doors in mid-November. Service is quasi-cafeteria style – order here, pickup and pay over there – and everything’s served on a tray covered in butcher paper. It’s all very informal and approachable with experienced Mr.HotDog staffers manning the open kitchen.
Barbecue was a natural extension of Mr.HotDog, says Oujezdský. “I’d already experimented with creating my own sausages and things like this at Mr.HotDog,” he says, “and then I contacted Silva and she agreed that this was the next thing to do.”
Jackson, who married an American, spent 15 years in kitchens in the U.S. starting in Florida, where she worked under ACF-certified master chef Jack Shoop. “He showed me everything,” she says. “I didn’t have a cooking background.” Shoop ignited her passion for cooking and service, and she knew right away this was what she wanted to do.
After he passed away, Jackson cooked around the U.S., notably in Philadelphia and Texas, before ending up in New Orleans, running multiple restaurants and learning the secrets of Andouille sausage and gumbo, both of which were on the Big Smokers menu the night we spoke.
Oujezdský had originally wanted Jackson to be part of the Mr.HotDog venture, which he opened in 2015, but she wanted to increase her knowledge of southern cuisine, barbecue in particular, first. A few years later, she told him she was ready to return home and bring what she’d learned. Thus, Big Smokers was born.
Naturally, the element that’s most essential to the Big Smokers operation is its smoker. Jackson was helping a friend in Baton Rouge when she noticed his “beautiful grill.” Made by the amusingly-named “J&R” in Dallas, Texas, she also discovered that the beechwood logs it uses last for about an hour each and that the smoker retains heat well, making temperature control easy. (“If you’re looking, you’re not cooking,” she says.)
Jackson hopes to introduce her fellow Czechs to the Texas method. She says that traditional smoking in the Czech Republic involves a long brining process and then cold smoking at 50 degrees. “But Texans smoke the food with a dry rub, right away, at 130 degrees (266 Fahrenheit),” she says.
Texan pitmasters explained to Jackson that this was a method of preserving beef, since cows provide a lot more meat than pigs, and it would often spoil in the hot Texas climate. “And the meat gives you a lot of energy,” she says. “You can eat 200 grams and go and work hard. So it was for the workers, really.”
But Big Smokers isn’t trying to replicate U.S. BBQ, just use those techniques, along with local ingredients and traditions, to create a new hybrid. “We make our own sauces,” Jackson tells me, “But we don’t call them Carolina, Tennessee, or Texas; we call them mustard, hot, and sweet. We don’t want to follow exactly what they do in Texas, because we are not in Texas; we are in the Czech Republic.”
In that spirit of pride of place, Big Smokers locally sources meat from Amaso and Robertson’s. “Someone might look and see we have only four types of meats – beef, pork, chicken and sausage – and wonder why we don’t have more,” says Jackson. “We want to wait until the butcher says ‘Hey, I have this great cut of meat,’ and then we can smoke it and try it.”
Organic potatoes and other produce come from Pesema Farms, a family-run venture in Semice. Even the delicious Hawaiian rolls, Jackson’s recipe, are made on-site by a local baker. The koláče, though, some of the best I’ve ever had, are made by Oujezdský’s sister, a chef, and baker who runs Hostinec u Olinka in the tiny village of Lhotka.
The tasting platter (550 CZK) is a great way to sample everything, including the incredible andouille sausage, and has enough food for two and sides: burnt-end beans, which have bits of meat from the cutting board (so not actually burnt), coleslaw with a hint of lime, creamy potato salad, house-made pickles, a small pot of smoked veg, and that classic of the American barbecue, a wedge salad.
Vegetarians could probably fill up quite nicely on those sides (all of which except the beans are veggie-friendly). Big Smokers also does sandwiches, one of which is filled with smoked veg. While the meat is the star, everything is very, very tasty.
One thing die-hard BBQ fans might find missing is a beef brisket. Czech cows “are too lean, there’s not enough fat on them,” Jackson responds. “We’d rather focus on making good food than try to force anything just because it’s traditional. Maybe someday we can get a farm to raise some nice, fatty Texas-style cows for us, and then maybe. We’ll see.”
Oujezdský has spent as much time and effort getting the right look and feel in place as Jackson has creating the menu. Unlike the rather cramped Mr.HotDog, Big Smokers has plenty of room, hence its no-reservations policy. Seven long picnic-table benches in the back seat eight (ten if they are all really good friends), plus three more benches up front, and five stand-up tables that could fit six each.
Benches and tables are made of oak supplied by Jackson’s uncle, a lumberman from the Jeseníky Mountains in Northern Moravia. Some of the industrial elements of the original space have been kept and deceptively simple elements (like industrial-sized rolls of paper towels) make it feel like a cross between a restaurant and a big backyard.
With a menu that’s wholly in English, expats are obviously a large part of the initial customer base, but both Jackson and Oujezdský want to appeal to their fellow countrymen.
“I want Czechs to like it as well,” Oujezdský says. “We wanted to make it not too easy for them, but we wanted to do it simple, like it is everywhere you can find barbecue in the world. So when Czechs travel and they go to a barbecue place, it will all be familiar to them.”
He’s aware that some Praguers might balk at the prices. “The prices actually reflect the quality we are going for. Meat here is already expensive, and the meat we buy even more so.” Even the beer, from Clock Brewery in Potštejn, is 55 CZK and up.
“To keep the beer as fresh as we can requires a lot of equipment and work and time. We try to keep the prices as low as we can, while still keeping true to our standards.” They also serve local wines and have a New Orleans-style daiquiri machine.
Local reaction has been very positive. On the two occasions I visited Big Smokers, I overheard comments ranging from “Very interesting” to “Wow, that’s fantastic.” It may not be traditional Czech cookery the way grandma made things, but to quote Mark Twain, “tastes are made, not born.”
Big Smokers is currently in discussions with Paul Day of the Real Meat Society, Bad Jeff from Bad Jeff’s Barbecue and other culinary innovators to try and develop a locally-focused, barbecue-forward food movement in Prague. Additional future plans include occasional chef’s tables with special menus.
But the restaurant’s focus will always be on casual food and the feeling of an American barbecue spot. “We want to remain true to the basic idea of what barbecue is,” says Oujezdský. “It’s a coming together.”
Dělnická 643/40, 170 00 Praha 7-Holešovice
Open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 am-10 pm