How Red Gum BBQ Brought Southern-Style Barbecue to Australia
Back in 2005, Martin Goffin was craving Southern-style barbecue. He had just returned to his native Australia after living in the United States, and he couldn’t find smoked brisket or pulled pork anywhere. So, he set out to cook it himself in his backyard. He immediately hit a snag: finding the right meat.
“I used to print out a picture of a Boston butt and take it to the butcher shops,” Goffin recalls. It wasn’t a cut that any butcher down under had seen before.
“Brisket was literally a meat that people had never heard of,” Goffin’s wife Melissa adds. “Martin would have to set up times to meet with butchers and walk them through it.”
I met the Goffins a few weeks ago at Firebox, a barbecue festival on St. Simons Island in Georgia. Hosted by the team behind Southern Soul Barbeque, the event brought together two dozen noted pitmasters from around the country to cook under a canopy of live oaks. Among them were Martin and Melissa, who now operate Red Gum BBQ in Red Hill, Australia.
Melissa Goffin grew up in Miami, and her family has roots in South Carolina and Virginia. (“There were lots of Southern cooks in the family,” she says.) Martin first encountered American barbecue while visiting Melissa’s family in Florida. “I thought it was the most amazing thing in the world that you could go to a restaurant and order a big slab of ribs,” he recalls. He was hooked.
The couple moved back to Australia in 2005, and at that time, Martin says, “you couldn’t get barbecue anywhere. Literally nowhere.”
American-style barbecue, that is. Australians have a long tradition of barbecuing meats— yes, that “throw a shrimp on the barbie” thing—but it’s nothing like the slow-smoked delicacies Martin had fallen in love with the South. A typical Australian barbecue features sausages seared on a hot plate and served on slices of white bread. Families might cook lamb chops or steaks on a gas grill in their backyards, but almost no one had a charcoal grill, much less a wood-fired pit.
When they invited friends over for barbecue, Melissa says, “We would have to explain what they were in for.”
“Can I bring snag?” a guest would invariably ask.
“Leaves your snags at home,” Melissa would say. “Martin has been cooking ribs all day.”
Martin’s backyard hobby became an outright obsession after the birth of the Goffins’ first child. “I went on paternity leave with my son and got to hang with him,” Martin says. “My boy slept and slept for hours and hours during the day. There’s only so much laundry you can do.” He filled the spare hours perfecting his barbecue technique.
“Then I came home one day,” Melissa says, “and Martin said, ‘I want to open a barbecue restaurant.”
Both were working full time jobs, and it took every penny of their savings, but they decided to give it a shot. “The hardest part,” Martin says, “was trying to find a guy to build me a pit.” They tracked down the only person in Australia making custom barbecue rigs, who was thrilled to see a potential customer. “He couldn’t give one away,” Martin recalls.
Martin bought a small Texas-style offset smoker mounted on the back of a trailer. With that and a three-meter by three-meter marquee (that is, a tent), the Goffins launched Red Gum BBQ and started cooking for pop-ups events at local markets.
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That first pit didn’t have enough capacity for even a small crowd. “I would cook for three days just to have enough for the event,” Martin remembers. “Sometime I wouldn’t even sleep the night before, but I was perfecting it and getting all the timing right.”
The timing was definitely right. Interest in American-style barbecue was growing in Australia, and Red Gum was soon drawing long lines. Martin went back to the same craftsman who built his first pit and to see about buying a bigger one. “You can have one in a year,” he was told. The pit business was booming, too. Martin ended up ordering a reverse-flow smoker from the East Texas Smoker Company and having it shipped all the way from Tyler, Texas, to Melbourne.
After four years of pop-ups, the Goffins were finally ready for a brick-and-mortar location. But first, in the summer of 2016, they took a trip back to the American South.
“I could cook barbecue,” Martin says, “but I wanted to learn how to scale and run a large barbecue business.” He signed on for a short stint working with Harrison Sapp and Griffin Buffkin at Southern Soul. “Harrison and Griffin welcomed me with open arms and shared everything,” he says. He even learned Southern Soul’s mac n’ cheese recipe, which they serve at Red Gum today.
Back in Australia, the Goffins signed a lease on a large metal building that had formerly housed a truck repair garage, complete with high ceilings and three roll-up bay doors. It’s now filled with wooden benches and picnic-style tables, and all the food comes out on big trays that encourage sharing.
“It’s all about Southern hospitality,” Melissa says. “How do we create the South in a big shed in the middle of the wine region in South Australia?”
Red Hill is about an hour’s drive south of Melbourne, and Red Gum has become a popular destination for visitors after they tour local wineries. “In the beginning,” Melissa says, “everything was different and weird for our guests. They were sitting next to people they don’t know. Why is the meat served by weight? Why is it coming out on a shared tray?”
But their customers quickly took to American-style barbecue. “The pork rib is the gateway drug,” Martin says. “That’s going to get you.” They then move on to brisket, pulled pork, and housemade jalapeno-cheddar sausage.
The Goffins are introducing Australians to Southern side dishes, too, like mayo-based coleslaw and sweet cornbread with honey butter. First-time guests can find these baffling, Melissa admits. “The banana pudding they usually think is meant to be warm,” she says, “because pudding in a British sense is a warm bread pudding.”
“We have to make our own vanilla wafers, too,” Martin adds. “Because you can’t buy ‘Nilla wafers here.”
There are a few Australian accents to the offering, like the wood that gives the restaurant its name. Red gum is the most common firewood in Victoria. “It gives you a distinctive kind of flavor,” Martin says. It’s very dense, so it burns hot and for a very long time—much longer than the oak and pecan typically used in the United States. “It’s more in line with mesquite than hickory, but you can burn it very clean, so you don’t get much smoke.”
Local lamb often finds its way onto the menu, too. “When spring comes around,” Martin says, “We’ll do lamb plate ribs—like little meat lollypops—and pulled lamb shoulder. We have a Carolina-style pig cooker and will occasionally cook a whole lamb.”
By and large, though, the Goffins are sticking with the Southern classics. “My ethos is that it’s traditional,” Martin says. “It’s not Aussie fusion. This is American.”
Looking back, the Goffins are amazed at how barbecue has blossomed down under. “Its been really cool to see the journey,” Melissa says, “It’s now a burgeoning industry.” They’ve even started teaching the Southern style to a new generation of Australian cooks through a series of pitmaster classes. The syllabus includes a section called “the language of the butcher.”
Outdoor stores in Australia, it seems, now sell plenty of bullet smokers and pellet grills alongside the gas-powered barbies, but it’s still hard to get your hands on a proper Boston butt.