Today we want to introduce you to Ken Hess. We met Ken in Virginia when we attended Rich Rossendale's BBQ Master Class. He is an awesome, down to earth dude and one of the best Pitmaster's we have ever seen.
What was your first experience in the kitchen? When did you know this is what you wanted to do?
I started out as a dishwasher at a small restaurant in Brooklyn, NY, called Garden Cafe when I was 15 years old. Working my way up in the kitchen, I just knew I wanted to be a chef. My parents were adamant about a traditional college education first, and fortunately Oklahoma State University had a solid Hotel & Restaurant Program where I was able to qualify for in-state tuition since both of my grandparents and uncle were alumnae. Coincidentally, this is also where my love affair with barbeque began…
After OSU, I continued my training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park NY. During my time at the CIA I was able to secure an externship at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, WV. While on my externship, I earned a spot in the Greenbrier’s Culinary Apprenticeship Program. Immediately after graduating from The CIA, I started my Apprenticeship.
How does Ken Hess go from working at the Greenbrier to the BBQ Circuit?
As a young apprentice, I rotated through the various departments of the Resort. We prepared world-class cuisine, but the one thing I missed the most from my time at Oklahoma State was barbecue! Working to make the most of my time as an apprentice, I approached Ethan Hileman, the BBQ Chef when I was at The Hotel, and he mentored me on how he prepared all the meats. Spending time with Ethan inspired me to start cooking BBQ myself.
I purchased a small Brinkman at Walmart and got to Smoaking! On my days off, I would smoak different meats and then bring them to Ethan for critique. The Brinkman was incredibly difficult to control in temperature. Quickly, the BBQ hobby became a “side gig”, and I started researching smokers to buy and designs for potentially building a bigger smoker (read: have one built). This led me to Billy Leval, a dairy farmer who was starting his own side-hustle building smokers in the area. Billy built me a smoker out of a 650 gallon stainless steel dairy tank. Once the smoker was built, I decided to try competing on the BBQ Competition Circuit.
Actually, for some of our readers... What is the BBQ circuit? How do you get into it?
At that time (early 2000s), BBQ Competitions were more secretive than they are these days. There weren’t expensive, multi-day BBQ classes to take, so you only got better by trial and error and sharing your BBQ with other competitors.
The late nights and the highs and lows of serious competition draws teams together, and the circuit feels like a big family that hosts reunions every weekend across the country. The friends I met on the competition circuit helped me hone my craft, and the friendships I made will be lifelong. The skills I built allowed me to assume the BBQ Chef position, once Ethan moved into management. Through my early days on the BBQ Circuit, I met Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe. Our friendship led to offering BBQ Classes at The Greenbrier with Ray, Chris Lilly and Myron Mixon. At this point, I knew I wanted to open a BBQ restaurant someday.
After several classes together, Chris Lilly asked me to work for him in Decatur Alabama at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q. The opportunity to work at one of the top BBQ restaurants in the country was one I couldn't pass up! Jessica and I had previously met through a mutual friend and CIA fellow alum when I crashed on her couch in Kansas City during a BBQ tour across the country. We reconnected in 2010 while I was doing a contest in Kansas City with Big Bob’s. After spending seven years in Decatur and starting our family, we decided to move. Ali, our oldest daughter, got into Mary Baldwin University at the age of 13, so we packed up and headed to Virginia. In 2018, we started doing pop-ups as County Smoak on a street corner in the parking lot of a dive bar here in Lynchburg. After a couple of years building a local following (and extremely motivated by Covid job loss), we decided to buy a food truck and opened our doors on May 12, 2020!
What is County Smoak? Can you tell us a bit about your business?
County Smoak is a Chef-driven restaurant focused on quality and authenticity, using all wood and charcoal for our Smoaked Meats. Our unique and flavorful sides are prepared in house everyday, and all of our sauces and rubs are signature blends and recipes. We strive to deliver great service to all of our guests, and we stand by our products 100%. We train our staff to be extremely friendly and knowledgeable about our products, creating a great experience for everyone who comes through our doors. As a business, we make sure to own our mistakes, and make things right.
Jessica actually came up with our name after reading Joseph Haynes’ Virginia Barbecue: A History. In Colonial America, when you lived out in the country and had a pig or cow butchered (or did it yourself), you brought your meat to a Smoak Hause for preservation. You would come back to pick up your smoked meats, and that would get you through until next season. People also used to have large barbecues out in the County where they would Smoak whole cows, pigs, goats, lambs and chickens. Serving guests at our restaurant, we feel like we are welcoming people into our home, and we wanted homage to Virginia’s rich BBQ history, so she came up with County Smoak for our name!
To some people, County Smoak seems like it just popped out of nowhere in Lynchburg, Virginia. What people don’t see is the years it has taken Jessica and me to develop our style and recipes. The drive that we have as Chefs constantly makes us strive to get better everyday. This same drive we push each other with, is also what we show our team. Restaurants struggle to be consistent day in and day out, and BBQ is even harder to get perfect every day!
What would you tell any aspiring chef or pitmaster?
First, I would say take the time to learn the basics.
Yes, peeling vegetables, and learning how to make simpler dishes seems boring, but cooking is a craft, and it takes years to hone and get great. Carpenters don’t start by building a vaulted ceiling in a Cathedral. They spend the first years just learning how to measure and sand pieces of wood. Then they progress to advanced techniques and develop their technical skill. Those who take the time to become Masters of the Craft, are the ones who get to do the amazing designs and complicated builds. Every recipe or dish we serve has gone through multiple trials and errors until Jessica and I got the results we were looking for!
Buy a smoker, the best you can afford, to get yourself started. The most expensive piece of equipment won’t make you great, but lots of practice and mistakes will. Buy a great thermometer like a meater or a Thermapen by Thermoworks. Then start burning some coals and wood. Keep the smoker closed, so that you have consistent cooking temperatures.
Take notes on each cook, only change one or two things max on each cook. Too many variables, and you won't know what is working and what isn’t working!
What is your favorite cut to barbecue?
Well there or so many, but here are a couple: I love the feeling I get from taking a brisket and turning it into something moist, tender and smoaky. I feel like pitmasters are the alchemists that man has been searching for centuries to find.
No, the briskets don’t turn into gold, but it's the closest we can get! When I’m purchasing a steak I prefer a Ribeye for a straight-up, simply grilled steak. If I am looking for a steak to impart flavors into through marinating, I prefer skirt steak.
By far, the coolest and most unique cut I have had this past year, I would have to be the Secreto Iberico Pork Collar from Meat N’ Bone. Even as a chef for most of my life, this cut was new for me. It's a traditional cut from Spain that you don’t see from American Butchers, the cut is so well-marbled and the breed so unique, even a simplistic preparation yields a phenomenal result. The Secreto was most definitely the highlight for me for meat cuts in 2021!
You can meet Ken Hess and his wife Jess at County Smoak in Lynchburg, Virginia. You can also buy his BBQ rubs here at Meat N' Bone: