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Published January 27th 2019
Where there's smoke, there's great BBQ
Source - Red Gum BBQ
A restaurant run along ethical principles always leaves a good taste in the mouth. But having owners with a social conscience is just one of the reasons people are becoming so enamoured with Red Gum BBQ, an American style barbeque restaurant in Red Hill on the Mornington Peninsula.
Owners, Melissa and Martin Goffin have thousands following them on social media or reading Melissa's heartfelt stories charting the couple's journey from tiny start-up to smokin' success.
So much so that Red Gum BBQ gets pretty packed on the weekends, and even on a weekday (I visit on a Friday), most tables are full. Diners have their heads down, forks flailing and everyone is tucking in.
Source Red Gum BBQ
Once you eat at Red Gum, you tend to feel a personal connection, because of your grand eating experience and the friendly staff. Not to mention the people you meet, as given the large communal picnic-like wooden tables, there is a good chance you will chat to others in-between your joyous mouthfuls of southern comfort food.
The initial concept for Red Gum dates back to 2013, but it was a small operation. Martin was on paternity leave and did some catering on the side. A convert to American barbeque after initially tasting it at Melissa's grandparent's home town of Nashville, he started towing a Texan import smoker 'Big Red' to Mornington Peninsula markets and weekend pop-ups.
Melissa was working as a secondary teacher and feeling the weight of all the marking and administration that comes with such a job. One night, she was watching Oprah and had one of those Oprah Winfrey moments. Some might call it an epiphany. The show was all about following your passions and how when you do that everything else falls into place.
Melissa told us this remarkable story when she stopped by our table on her rounds chatting to her guests. 'So I went to see the principal the next morning' she said, 'and after considering going part-time I eventually put in my notice and started helping Martin with the business.'
Red Gum grew exponentially from there. Coming from the southern states of the US, Melissa already had a love of southern home cooking and from her friendly manner, I also suspect an entrenched understanding of what constitutes good southern hospitality.
In order to get ready to open a 'proper' restaurant Martin returned to the States again to do a stint of training at Southern Soul BBQ in St Simons Island, South Georgia, often voted as the South's best BBQ restaurant. So he well and truly spent some time earning his pitmaster-seared stripes.
The couple then opened Red Gum in January 2017, as a BBQ and craft beer joint, naming it after the local red gum they used in their smokers.
Red Gum is located behind a service station. This is in keeping with traditional Southern US food, where you drive in for your 'gas' and break your journey by enjoying home-cooked ribs, pulled pork and chicken wings, cooked in small kitchens and then served at simple tables out the back.
But Red Gum is no small back room. Instead, the couple have converted an old truck workshop into a fully-fledged restaurant
The huge space once meant for accommodating trucks makes Red Gum 'the largest barbeque place in Australia' according to Melissa.
The result could have been alienating but is rather softened by creative uses of natural wood, native flowers, and found objects. Martin crafted all the tables many from recycled wood. The couple collected driftwood from Mornington Peninsula beaches and strung it in bunches before threading through lights. These hanging rafts of wood create the visual image of sectioned eating spaces.
And while she didn't mention it, I noted when Googling her for this story that she was named Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year at the 2018 Women's Agenda Leadership Awards ceremony in Sydney. The judges applauding her as a great role model for those changing careers.
Melissa said the origins of southern bbq cooking came from the plantation slaves. 'They would sometimes be given off cuts of meat by their masters because the meat was low in quality they learned ways to cook it long and slow.'
While all meats at Red Gum are already great quality they are cooked in a way that they either pull apart easily such as in the slow-cooked beef ribs or come in slabs that you can cut through like butter.
All meats are grass-fed, free-range and as locally sourced as possible such as Red Gum Creek beef ribs, Valenca pork from Victoria and Lilydale chicken.
All the meat cookery is done on Martin's pride and joy, the converted LPG containers shipped in from the States and named by customers after country and western singers such as Dolly (Parton), Willy (Nelson) and Patsy (Cline). Due to the open plan, you can view the cooking process from the other side of the room.
When your meat arrives, some cuts have a bright pink even red tell tale edge, known as the smoke ring. This is just under the bark (the outside of the meat that has been rubbed with seasonings).
But the meat is completely cooked as it has been cooking long and slow, often from 6 am that morning. The colour is the reaction between the pigment in the meat and the gases produced from firing the wood. In the world of barbecue, this smoke ring is one of the most sought-after properties and can only be achieved by a master pitmaster.
If you catch Martin he can tell you more about it and yes he does run classes where you can learn all things barbeque including how to use rubs and sauces and as well as advice on smokers, wood temperatures and cooking times.
The accompanying sauces are also brewed in-house. There's Red Gum Gold a tangy mustard BBQ sauce from a South Carolina recipe, Red Gum Classic from Kansas City (tomato based with a bittersweet taste from apple cider vinegar and brown sugar molasses), and Red Gum Fire (laced with dried cayenne pepper) an ode to North Carolina's fiery sauces. You can also purchase bottles of these authentic sauces to take home with you.
Everything else is also made in-house. No mass-produced frozen fries here. Martin heads off once a week down the road to a local potato grower and loads up the back of his vehicle. Chips are then hand cut.
There are loads of sides on the menu such as traditional bean chilli, fried pickles, broccoli salad with a buttermilk dressing, green bean salad with jalapenos, corn cobs with creole butter, cornbread with whipped honey butter and Red Gum's famous mac and cheese, a favourite with kids and plenty of adults. While primarily a meat orientated restaurant, the range of hefty sides ensure vegetarians will not go hungry.
If at all possible, leave room for dessert. There are daily specials such as chocolate brownies or pecan pie. I was lucky to find coconut pie on the menu - something I had never tried before. It was a memorable delight with a thick, white custardy filling and topped with toasted coconut.
The wines are so local you will possibly drive past the wineries such as Mornington Estate, Paringa Estate (Red Hill) Underground Wines (Mount Eliza), and Main Ridge amongst others on your way to the restaurant.
But in the world of BBQ, beer is meat's best partner. Although you won't find any cloned mass-produced beers here. The team have spent hours labouring over (and I'll bet enjoying the taste testing) of the very finest craft beers by certified independent brewers. Again, these are as locally sourced as possible from brewers such as Bad Shepherd Brewing Co (Cheltenham), Mornington Pen Brewery, and Kaiju (Dandenong South).
If you are not the designated driver, go for one of their paddles (5, 150 ml glasses of beer or cider). It 's attractively served on recycled floorboards (I kid you not). I am not usually a beer drinker but after my first sip of the Red Gum BBQ Oak Pilsner, I slammed the rest of that glass. On the other hand, the Two Brothers Brewery Kung Foo (a low gluten rice lager) brought with its hints of passionfruit and rockmelon and had to be lingered over
The B Grading
Red Gum is Australia's first B-corporation certified restaurant and that's a big deal.
It is about business owners serving ethical products but also about a connection to place, reducing the miles the produce comes from and lowering one's impact on the environment.
A number of restaurants are now beginning to make moves in this direction. But Martin and Melissa follow the principles to the letter and go that step further, even to how they hire and treat their staff.
They employ workers from all backgrounds and experiences using disability employment agencies to find workers who are sometimes over 'a certain age' or perhaps might have an issue such as sight impairment.
I guess you can probably find cheaper barbecue places than Red Gum, but behind the pricing are the facts that the owners do pay solid wages, value kindness and use ethical products.
Which is why so many patrons are drawn to the genuineness and authenticity of this business and become repeat customers. It not just about the food, but because people become interested in cheering on and supporting this couple's endeavours and the journey that has taken them from simple startup to smokin' success.
Where:87 Arthur's Seat Road, Red Hill, Mornington Peninsula. Turn left onto Arthurís Seat Road in two kilometres on the left youíll find Red Gum BBQ located behind the main road gas station (just like any good Southern-USA barbeque joint).