For Nawaf Refai, few things cut across countries and cultures as powerfully as the age-old tradition of grilling meat. When the co-founder of much-loved food truck 2 Smokin Arabs was growing up in Belmore, in Sydney’s Western suburbs, nothing bound his family together like gathering around the backyard barbecue. He couldn’t have predicted how this simple ritual would later shape his life.
“My family comes from Lebanon originally, we’ve been in Australia since ‘76 and, every second day, there was a barbecue at my place,” he says with a laugh. “My mum used to go to the butcher and my dad would start up the barbie, chop the wood in the backyard. Later on, we would have barbecues at our local mosques and when I got older, I would organise barbecues for local youth. But [at my house] we don’t cook everything and [put it on the table] – everyone just eats off the barbecue when the meat is ready.”
Barbecue, of course, has always been part of Lebanese food culture. There’s djej mishwe, the legendary chicken dish marinated with lemon and cinnamon and cooked over charcoal. There’s kibbeh, a grilled concoction of ground lamb, onions and bulgur. But for the last few years, however, Refai has become captivated by American-style barbecue. The art of cooking meat low and slow in a smoker, which partly owes its identity to African-American pitmasters who first cooked whole animals on Southern plantations, best captures the informality and spirit of invention that’s part of the form. In 2017, Refai, along with his wife Sarah, founded 2 Smokin Arabs, a food truck that dished out fall-apart serves of beef brisket, beef ribs and burgers, across car parks and festivals around Sydney.
Two years later, Refai, whose meat is 100 percent halal, and has around 5000 followers on Instagram, is part of a thriving community making American barbecue their own.
“The difficult part of getting it right is learning how to control the heat and the flavour – I started on a Weber and [moved onto] a bigger smoker and now I have a Yoder smoker on a trailer,” says Refai, who recently cooked at the Churrascaria festival in Brazil, alongside friends from the barbecue community.
"Every second day, there was a barbecue at my place.”
He tells SBS that he’s also scouting locations for a standalone shop. “I registered the name and my wife said, we can’t call it that – but I said, ‘We’re Arabs, we need to tell people who we really are!’ The first event I did was at the Ramadan night food festival in 2018 and at the beginning, no one knew what it was – they were like, ‘what is brisket?’ and I’d say, ‘it’s the chest of the cow.’ My first competition was in February 2018 in Gosford and it was fabulous, people loved it! The name had stuck.”
In May, Refai won a people’s choice award as well as first place for his brisket at Meatstock, the cult Sydney barbecue festival. His secret? He skips the fancy glazes and elaborate rubs.
“Barbecue should be moist and flavoursome, but it’s easy to overdo the flavours,” he says with a laugh. “All I use is salt and pepper – it’s the best flavour you can get.”
For Refai, barbecue is about the community that grows around it.
“If you’ve ever been to a family barbecue, you’ll know that everyone is standing around having a chat, but it’s a joint effort,” he says. “Everyone brings a little something with them.”
To find out where 2 Smokin Arabs is cooking next, follow the food truck on Instagram.
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