Bluegrass Bills are known for their hearty southern food, but where do they get their inspiration? Travelling America of course! Founder Billy Rose shares everything he has discovered with Pearl & Pear.
Tell us more about Bluegrass Bills…
I set up Bluegrass Bills over two years ago. The 9 – 5 wasn’t for me so with a passion for cooking (more importantly eating), and touring around the USA visiting family and friends, I decided to take to the streets and let others experience the ‘southern hospitality’ style eating experience and bring some of these awesome recipes across the pond.
Why Southern US cuisine, what was the catalyst for your business?
My mum is American and I have a whole bunch of family and friends over there! I’ve spent every summer since I was born in a log cabin in Canada on a lake with a huge group of our closest friends. We fish, do water sports, BBQ, go to a Bluegrass festival, drink good cold beer, and live a laid back lake life for a couple of weeks.
I hated the end of summer as I knew I had to wait a whole year for these good times to happen again, so I wanted a way to bring a little part of it back here. It all came together in the shape of a street food company. The food, the atmosphere, the music, the outdoor vibe. It’s such an enjoyable experience for everyone. The new street food revolution is a new way of eating that is an experience rather than a necessity. It’s creative and adventurous too. Both the customers and myself are always learning in a fun way.
What was the ‘tipping point’ for your business when you knew you were onto something?
Bluegrass Bills got asked to do Secret Cinema. That was a massive step for us. We went from serving at small time craft fairs to a massive production with over 20,000 people. It was frightening to look the end of our queue but we worked like crazy and everyone seemed to love it. Stressful at first but the last few weeks were great fun. Everyone was in 1950’s America dress wear and the tunes were blaring out. People were dancing while they were waiting to be served; it was like living in a time machine.
“An incredible experience and we learnt a tonne too, about serving the masses, fast”.
What was your first job? Have you always been in the catering industry?
A little small time hardware store where I got paid peanuts. My best friend worked there and got me the job. It was a little old fashioned but stacked head to toe with knick knacks, and pretty busy. I learned to drink tea like I was getting paid for it. I guess I kind of was.
My other jobs since then have mostly been catering related. Wimbledon Tennis, Sandown Park Racing, Hampton Court Beer and Jazz festival. Mostly hospitality related, working at all sorts of cool venues. A real mix really, and each an invaluable experience. It’s so important to learn as you work. I was always a question asker and still am to this day. Although, chefs can get pretty mad to talk when they’re not in the mood.
Bluegrass Bills has come so far… and so quickly! What have been the biggest lessons that you have learnt along the way?
Just get out there and do something. You can learn on the job and adapt quickly, but if you wait for the perfect time and keep making excuses then you are only fooling yourself. Really, no one cares if you do or don’t, so it’s all up to you to get going. If you ask questions and seek help then it’s amazing how many people will lend you their hand and offer advice. If you don’t make it happen, it won’t.
What has been one of the best moments in business so far?
Every year Bluegrass Bills do a festival called ‘Red Rooster Fest’, a country and blues Southern festival. We get a group of roughly 14 of us and camp for 3 nights and serve up some awesome grub for a long weekend. We take it in turns to serve and it’s great meeting and talking to the customers. You get all sorts, but they’re all usually all great personalities. That is the beauty of street food, talking and socialising with people who want to learn about and taste your home cooked food (and even pay you money for it). Drinking beer and listening to good blues/southern music in the midst of this is also a bonus. It’s not a massive money maker for us but just a great experience all around.
We’ve seen that recently you’ve been travelling the USA… tell us more about your trip and the places you visited.
Yes, my girlfriend and I went for over for a wedding (my life long American buddy) and turned the second part into a foodie and craft beer tour down the East Coast. We flew into Portland, Maine, and drove through Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, North Carolina visiting all sorts of seafood shacks and incredible authentic dive bars along the way. It was a real eye opener and my head is now buzzing with tonnes of cool funky ideas that I want to bring back and add to my setup and menu. It’s a different world out there, everything is bigger and heartier and … American. It’s great and I want the English people to explore this too.
If you can choose… what was your favourite place, and favourite food?
As we were by the coast the whole way we indulged in as much fresh seafood as we possibly could. In Portland, we found this bar called ‘Benjy’s’. It was a dive bar that was recommended to us by this young local kid who was an oyster shucker in a touristy overpriced place. ‘Good luck coming out of Benjy’ standing’ he said. We followed his directions and found this place. It was rammed packed out the door! We managed to get a table right by the window. It was loud and the music was fantastic.
They had a big board of all the ‘specials’ and array of cocktails behind the bar (which they free pour by the way). We ended up having oysters, Atlantic king crab legs, lobster and of course french fries. It was soo incredible that we went back there 3 times, almost until we were sick of lobster. It was sensational, and he was right, we had a little trouble standing on the way out. The locals know best, always.
It all sounds so delicious, has this created some big changes for the Bluegrass Bills menu?
Absolutely. I am now looking and experimenting with new seafood menu ideas. Surf and Turf style. I want to partner up with a cocktail maker and offer amazing cocktails to go with the food. I have learnt it’s the experience as a whole that makes the difference. Especially something like oysters. It’s the atmosphere and surroundings where you have them (I think) that really makes them taste good. As long as you’re with good people, in a good place, eating local good food and laughing a lot, then this will heighten the food levels of sensation.
What new treats will we be seeing soon from Bluegrass Bills?
Lobster rolls, oysters (and champagne), crawfish gumbo, king crab legs and maybe some seafood clam chowder. That is a staple over there and it’s just soo tasty. The UK is an island so we shouldn’t have trouble sourcing good seafood. Just need to find a local and ethical supplier and then we’re good to go. Oh and of course buffalo chicken wings. I want to open an ‘all you can eat wings’ hole in the wall somewhere in London and just do buffalo wings, smothered in Frank Red Hot sauce.
What do you think are the perfect ingredients for a tasty sweet treat?
This is a tricky one as everybody has a different sweet tooth. I like stuff with honey in and am a massive chocolate fan. Something like a Mississippi Mud Pie dripping with melted chocolate, made from crushed Oreo’s. Or a thick vanilla based overflowing milkshake with a mountain of whipped cream and maple syrup on top is my thing. I want to introduce milkshakes as an after dinner treat soon, with a massive stripy cup and ridiculous straw.
Where do you mainly get your catering inspiration from?
Everywhere. My mum, touring the USA, other street food vendors (there are some amazing guys out there cooking up some storms). Man Vs Food – gotta love it. I love Jamie Oliver too, bish bash bosh. He is quick and easy, no nonsense cooking. I think he’s great. Being 6ft 6 I first started cooking (whilst growing) and I wanted to make something big to eat as quickly as possible, and he was the new chef in town that ‘boshed’ up a hearty healthy meal in 15 minutes. Ideal. I have slowed down my eating since but I didn’t have time when I was growing up – so much to do, I didn’t want to spend my time eating when I could be playing sports.
Finally, you showcase some fantastic recipes on the Pearl & Pear site… crafting the perfect American style feast is no way as easy as it looks, do you have any insider knowledge to reveal?
Sure, I’ll tell you a secret 😊 when I cook I don’t like to tamper with the food too much. I think some chefs can play around too much and can be a little bit arty farty. I’m more caveman style, I like to let gorgeous natural ingredients cook inside themselves and in their own juices. Low and slow. A little preparation work and seasoning to help it on its way, but then let the fire and grill caramelise the meat and the smoke to infuse all the flavour inside. Have the fat drip away and cook it naturally (how the cave men did – over fire). With vegetables too, all the goodness gets lost when over boiling and ove cooking. Keep it whole, eat it naturally.
If you have ever heard of a ‘low country boil’ you should give it a try. It is a great no nonsense way to feast with a big bunch of people, a real deep south thing. Essentially you have a big stewing pot and you add in potatoes, corn, shrimp, sausage and crawfish into the same pot at different intervals. After about half an hour you drain the water, pout it over a table lined with newspaper and chuck salt, pepper, butter and a little BBQ sauce over it and your good to go.
“Drink and beer, have a laugh, eat the southern staples and enjoy the ride”.
In conclusion, hear more from Bluegrass Bills through their Pearl and Pear profile here.