They are the first ladies of barbecue, owned a restaurant that was fully booked for seven years, and won the prestigious title of best restaurant in the UK at the Observer Food Monthly Awards. But one year ago Shauna Guinn and Sam Evans took the surprising decision to pull the shutters on Barry’s Hang Fire Southern Kitchen smokehouse. Do they regret it? Not one bit.
The pair, who historically are not averse to making big life decisions (back in 2012 they jacked in careers in graphic design and social work to travel to America’s deep south to learn the art of barbecue), tell me that the past two years have allowed them to “dream again” and since closing the doors of the smokehouse they have very much turned into ‘yes’ people – appearing at festivals, on TV shows like MasterChef: The Professionals as judges, and pursuing TV projects. While opening a restaurant is the pinnacle for many chefs in the industry Sam and Shauna switched up that thinking and Hang Fire can definitely be seen as a stepping stone for a career they have worked tirelessly hard to be brilliant at.
Sam said: “When you have a restaurant and are the exec chef, the front of house, and the business owner the option of being able to do external stuff is always limited and we’ve always wanted to do other stuff but a restaurant was such a mammoth beast. It’s been such a taste of freedom for us.”
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That freedom comes, as always, from “thinking outside the box” – something which hospitality has had to become accustomed to over the past two years thanks to Covid. Sam and Shauna are masters of defying expectations. The assumption that they are going to open a new venue is never far from people’s minds but if anything they’ve been there and done that and they ended it on a high.
“We were massive career-changers,” added Shauna. “Prior to coming to the food industry we’d worked as a social worker and a government policy advisor and graphic designer and worked our way through. And so for us closing the restaurant was a very difficult decision to make. But we kind of felt like we’d done it – part of us going to Barry was to put it on the foodie map and we kind of felt like our job was done. We were fully booked for seven years, had a three-month waiting list for seven years, and it felt like ending on a high, make a controlled exit. Not many people have been in that position . When people close restaurants it’s usually for bad reasons like they’ve run out of ideas or money or customers. But for us it was more about ending on a high and ending it on our own terms.”
Sam interjects: “And we finished that restaurant fully solvent, everybody was paid, and with money in the bank. I didn’t intend, and I’m sure I speak for Shauna as well, to run a restaurant forever. I don’t think you have to think like that these days. Listen – the situation was unfortunate but Covid, if I could say this, almost did us a favour and allowed us the ability to dream again, to think bigger, think differently where it can feel like a crisis to some and I’m sure there are some people now in hospitality who are feeling extremely claustrophobic by the situation. But really food in the UK the landscape is vast and wide and generous and there’s room for everybody to step outside the box. And you don’t have to be a restaurateur anymore if you don’t want to.”
While they are inevitably proud of the restaurant and everything worked for up to that moment, over a decade, Shauna tells me that having a restaurant is the antithesis of “thinking outside the box”. “A restaurant can become very introverted and introspective – that’s all you can think about,” she said. “I feel like by freeing ourselves from the restaurant we’ve got back to freeing ourselves up to think about what the next big thing is.”
Never ones to rest on their laurels Sam and Shauna’s past 10 years have seen the couple forge ahead with bringing excellent barbecue to Wales from pitching up at Splott pub The Canadian at weekends to being in demand at food festivals across the UK, writing a cookbook, filming three series’ of Sam and Shauna’s Big Cook-Out for the BBC, which saw them travel around Wales to celebrate community champions, as well as opening the beloved smokehouse. They are good at what they do and pick their projects with care but do they ever just kick back and take any pride in their achievements?
“Sometimes I’m talking to a stranger and we’ll talk about all the things we’ve achieved over the past 10 years and sometimes I can’t believe it myself,” Shauna confessed. “I’m exhausted. It’s been a decade of blood, sweat, and tears and I feel it’s really paying off now. The opportunities – like being brand ambassadors (Sam and Shauna work with Maple From Canada) and travelling the world, meeting other chefs, and breakout of Wales a little bit.”
Showing off Welsh produce and Canadian maple syrup is just the sweet tip of the iceberg of Sam and Shauna’s post-Hang Fire career. To date they have judged the Observer Food Monthly Awards, the Welsh Street Food Awards, and MasterChef: The Professionals’ street food round. They have just sat on the panel for the fifth time at the British Entrepreneurs Awards and also have the European Street Food Awards coming up in Munich. Their enthusiasm is part of their appeal – no-one comes away from spending time with them without feeling pumped up or inspired so it’s no surprise they are still in demand. So is their food, though, and you can see them next at the Abergavenny Food Festival (September 17 and 18) or, if you’re in London, at TV chef Jeremy Lee’s Quo Vadis restaurant in Soho on September 20. They are also taking an all-female team to huge food festival Meatopia on September 3 and 4.
But while delicious barbecue food will always be by default a part of Sam and Shauna’s legacy it is by no means the only part and their attitude to furthering their careers in a way they enjoy and carving a path for those to come is tangible. This year they’ve already been part of book about a group of women who are redefining the food scene in the UK called The Female Chef. “It’s a celebration of the 31 most influential women in hospitality and we are two of them,” Shauna said. “I’m very proud to be part of that. I’ve been doing a lot of work around feminism and hospitality and the Me Too movement and hospitality and just trying to attract more women into this industry because we’ve got a massive crisis in cheffing. And I believe that women are part of the solution to that.” Sam’s ambition is to create a non-traditional route for women into a foodie career.
And taking the theme of empowering other women Shauna’s next project is a BBC Wales documentary on Welsh strongwomen Sue Taylor-Franklin and Sam Taylor, which is due out on September 12. “It’s a story of the relationship between mental and physical strength. And I think a lot of people can identify with that,” said Shauna, who Sam revealed was constantly behind the camera studying the filming process while they made their Cook-Out show. “I think we always like to see the underdog do well in Britain. And I think it’s a brilliant story of two women who prior to meeting each other had very, very difficult previous lives. And for whatever reason then they’ve met each other and they’ve rebuilt their lives through the strongwoman competition. And in that process they fund a strongwoman community. One of the things they’re going to be doing for Women’s Aid is an event happening where they’re going to lift a combined 10,071 kilos with a variety of other women because that represents every woman and child who has been the victim of domestic violence in Wales in the last year – 10,071 people have been the victims of domestic violence. So for me that’s another coming full circle, starting as a social worker and working with many of those women. And now here we are 20 years later still lifting other women up.”
Constant cheerleaders for Welsh produce and community, too, Sam and Shauna tell me that they’re also involved in the 2022 BBC Food & Farming Awards, which is coming to Wales later in the year. “There’s always a huge representation of Welsh talent from best producer to best chef or street food,” Sam said. “Bugger football coming home – food’s coming home to Wales and we’re getting recognised for it. I’ll be working with some catering colleges to produce canapes for the night and I’m hoping we can get young people enthused about the awards and actually about a career in hospitality.”
Sam also hopes that her and Shauna’s perhaps unconventional route into hospitality, and what followed on from that, can inspire the next generation who may be unsure what’s the right path for them. “We’re probably a good example of a non-traditional route,” she explained. “You imagine a kid at home thinking: ‘Right, I make a wicked spag bol – I’m going to do a street food stall’. And they do the stall and are really successful and think they’ll open a restaurant and thinking that’s it. I’d like to think we are examples of a career in food not having to be one-dimensional. It doesn’t have to be bricks and mortar. If it’s giving people an insight into food and cooking and thinking outside the box, being able to promote sustainability, and really look at their environment in terms of what they are producing there’s an absolute smorgasbord of stuff you can do if you’re into food and it doesn’t have to be a traditional route to market.”
As we meet for a chat on a sunny August Friday the pair seem relaxed and it’s a novelty to actually see them sat down for a change. But there’s still talk of the umpteen other projects mooted for the near future, another cookbook, a potential barbecue school, their own brand of Moonshine spirits, and more TV plans. So I ask them that question everyone might flinch a little at – are they happy or, actually, are they at last relaxed in their careers?
“Yeah, definitely,” Sam answered. “I don’t think anybody had a good time the last three years in hospitality. Not the consumers, not the restaurateurs, and I don’t think anybody enjoyed what I call the ‘Covid Hokey Cokey’. I think it highlighted for people who worked in hospitality that you can actually have joy in life. You don’t have to be a slave to this grind. Since giving up I am definitely happier. I can see the future a lot more clearly. And I want that to be a blueprint for other people if they didn’t feel that the restaurant world was for them – there’s lots of other fun stuff you can do.”
Shauna concluded: “We grew up, Sam in Merthyr Tydfil and me on a council estate in Belfast, and every single thing that we’ve done in our lives we’ve just grafted and worked and worked and it just feels like this is a turning point now where it feels like all of that hard work is starting to pay off. And now we can focus on the type of work that we want to do and the stuff that we enjoy doing. It’s not just work for the sake of it anymore – it’s work because we actually enjoy it.
“So we’re feeling in a very privileged position. Listen – it’s all hard work, everything. If it’s not it’s not worth it. We quit our careers to be masters of our own destinies. And what happened was we got sucked into working at the coalface and I can remember being in the restaurant thinking: ‘This is not why I gave up my career. I gave up my career to be a free spirit and do what we want.’ And it just feels like here we are 10 years on and we’re finally getting to that point where we can do the stuff that we want to do.”