Think of ribs, and you’re likely to picture American BBQ—blue jeans, beers, and pitmasters sweating over intensely smoky racks of slow-cooked meat. In Paris, they’ve taken note of this legacy, with a handful of upstart ‘cue places decorating their establishments with cowboy hats and Texas flags.
You are unlikely, perhaps, to think of England—of an overcast, furiously busy Sunday food market, or a one-legged, foul-mouthed East London butcher stuffing handfuls of dripping rib meat into floury white rolls; slathering each with a vicious, lava-colored proprietary sauce from bottles stamped with the words “Holy Fuck”; and serving them to a steady stream of people that only runs out when he does.
Unless, of course, you’ve been one of those market-goers, are a regular at West Ham United games deep in the East End, or are one of that butcher’s near-20,000 Twitter followers; then, possibly, the word ribs might just make you picture Mark Gevaux—East London’s very own Rib Man.
Gevaux turned to the racks after his left leg was pulverized in a car accident—and subsequently amputated—eight years ago. His meat stall quickly became a legendary street-food operation, and the food he turns out is considered some of the first real BBQ London ever saw—despite Gaveaux having zero interest in paying homage to American tenets. The method he created, and still works to, is entirely his own: unconventional, and, as far as he and several thousand devotees are concerned, unmatched.
Gevaux’s attitude about BBQ flies in the face of purists, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that he still sells on the street to thousands of ravenous customers each week. Being a dyed-in-the-wool East Londoner and supporter of West Ham United, it’s only appropriate that he now sells outside home games before kickoff, and from his original spot at the legendary Brick Lane market on Sundays. We met him at the latter, halfway through service, to discuss the unique way he’s approaching a craft beloved by thousands of devotees across the pond—and find out why he reckons he’s wiping the floor with all of them. “To become ‘The Rib Man of West Ham’ is a dream,” says Gaveaux. “If I could put that on my tombstone, I’d be dying a happy man.”
All photos by Merlin Jobst
Have you found introducing BBQ to London challenging?
Eight, nine years ago when I was first on the street, there was only myself and Pitt Cue, which now has a restaurant in Soho. They were doing their thing on the South Bank, I was doing mine here in Brick Lane. I think people embraced it! At the beginning, I wasn’t even doing BBQ; I was serving the racks fresh, uncooked—I am a butcher by trade, and I was serving them as a butcher would at farmer’s markets. I was cooking them up on these little disposable BBQs, just as samples. People loved it so much they just wanted it there. So I thought, ‘Okay, we’ll go to the next level.’ That’s what we did, and we’ve not looked back. And you can see from the explosion of BBQ in London now—it’s unbelievable.
Is anybody doing it as well as you?
No. Not in my opinion. And to be fair, everybody else is doing American-style. For me, I don’t do that. Everyone always asks me, ‘What sorta style is this?’ and I always tell ‘em, ‘It’s London Rib Man,’ because nobody else has done it, ever, like this.
Personally, I only do ribs. When you do ribs the American way, they’re either smoked, and they’re slow-cooked. You’ve got the racks laying on the shelves, and you’ve ten bones in each rack that all contain that little bit of marrow. That’s beautiful, and that’s beautiful flavor, man. All the meat is cooking in its own juices, from the bones, which they don’t do in America because they love to smoke it, and they love to infuse flavor into meat. Whereas I love to pull it out of it. For me, bone and fat is where all the flavor is—meat is a secondary thing.
Were you ever inspired by American BBQ tradition?
Honestly, no. I’d like to go out to America now and do that BBQ trail and try it all. Without a doubt. But I still believe that what I do is better. I’m sorry, but I do, and any American who wants to come over here and set up a stall next to me, let’s ‘ave it—I love a bit of competition. I’m a butcher. I like the taste of meat. For me, the Americans put too much spice on it. They try and get that thick crust, and to infuse flavor into the meat when you don’t need to—you just need to bring the flavor out of the meat. That’s what I stand for, anyways.
What do you have to say to purists who think BBQ is an American tradition and should stay in America?
[Laughs loudly’ Y’know, each to their own, let them believe what they want. I don’t care, you know, at the end of the day I love doing what I’m doing, and if they don’t—tough, I don’t give a shit. All I care about is that my customers enjoy what I do. I mean, we did West Ham yesterday, in the rain, all the trains were fucked, all the traffic was fucked, and people really struggled getting there and were getting to the game late, and we still sold out.
Honestly, all the Americans that have come here, every single one of them loves what I do. They love it because it is different to American BBQ. I’ve never said that what I do is American, ever, because it’s not. There are loads of guys on the street now doing American BBQ, and fair play to all of them. I know how hard the work is, to actually spend all night cooking it and then go out on the street all day selling it.
“But I still believe that what I do is better. I’m sorry, but I do, and any American who wants to come over here and set up a stall next to me, let’s ‘ave it. I’m a butcher. I like the taste of meat. For me, the Americans put too much spice on it. They try and get that thick crust, and to infuse flavor into the meat when you don’t need to.”
Is it difficult doing all this work on one leg?
It’s very difficult. D’you know, you’re the first interviewer who’s ever asked me that. People either don’t know, or just don’t want to ask, but it is really fucking hard. I was told when I had my leg cut off that every step I take is the equivalent of four of yours, energy-wise. When people see the amount of work I do, they don’t know how I do it. I think it’s just my mentality—every time I get knocked down I just get up, carry on, keep going and going and see how much I can throw at myself. Sometimes my wife is like, ‘Dude, you gotta calm down or you’re gonna kill yourself,’ and it does get like that at the end of the week when I’m absolutely shattered and can’t even walk properly.
I’ll take my leg off tonight when I get home and just be like *sigh* ahh, fucking hell. Thing is though, if it wasn’t for this, I don’t know what I’d be doing. It gives you the energy and the life to carry on, and it doesn’t matter if I’m working or not, my leg still hurts—maybe not as much, but y’know, level of pain doesn’t really matter. Pain is pain, innit. You gotta try and work with it. I had about fourteen, 15 operations after the crash, and in the end it was like ‘fuck it.’ I asked them to cut it off.
Do you follow the American interest in using different wood for different flavors?
Ah yeah, they love things like cherrywood, this that and the other. To be totally honest, when I was using Weber barbecues, I had to use wood as well to keep the heat all night long. With the wood though we’d get so much smoky flavor, and I didn’t like it. That’s the thing—I don’t like that smoked flavor too much, and that used to be the only way we could keep the heat all night. But I switched over to these barbecues called Monolith—they’re amazing. They’re insulated, and I’ve got four of them, so we can a hundred kilos at a time. This way we can close the lids and leave ’em there all night with only a handful of coal, and not get that horrible smoky shit in there.
“I had about fourteen, fifteen operations after the crash, and in the end it was like ‘fuck it.’ I asked them to cut it off.”
It’s not really BBQ then, in the traditional sense, is it?
I mean, you’d never find an American BBQ-er doing what I’m doing, no. We light the coals, put the meat on the grill, it gets a sizzle and a bit of that nice flavor, so in that sense, yeah, it’s a BBQ. But then we wrap and leave it slow-cooking on there all night. You don’t really get that with a BBQ. You get it with smoking, but with smoking you’ll never get the results we get. Our meat falls off the bone and it’s still juicy. That’s fucking hard to get. That’s why it’s my own style, and it’s far-removed from American-style. I didn’t do it on purpose or anything. It’s not like I have anything against the American style of cooking. As you say, America is the home of BBQ; I’m just bringing something different.