Field Notes

Sweden's "Holy Smoker" & Mill Scale





WHILE ARCHAEOLOGISTS still debate timing, it’s generally accepted that humans began cooking with fire nearly a million years ago, with some claims of even longer. The earliest widely supported known traces of controlled fire were discovered around 790,000 years ago at Daughters of Jacob Bridge in Israel. It would take roughly another ten thousand years for early humans to utilize controlled fire for cooking food, according to archaeologist estimates. Whether it was over a million years ago or 780,000, we can all agree it was a long time ago. Learning to cook with fire was a gradual process, over a long period of time. Unlike today, early humans didn’t have YouTube with celebrity chefs to teach them how to cook. You can also argue, without early experimentation by humans cooking with fire, modern society wouldn’t exist either. One can only imagine all the burned down huts, carbonized bush meat and forest fires started by early fire adopters. This was a pivotal time in our history. How critical was fire early on? Fire provided heating, lighting, protection, the ability to create tools, along with a means to cook food. That last one is especially crucial, as archaeologists have hypothesized that once we started utilizing fire for cooking, our brains began to expand, as we no longer needed larger jaw muscles to chew food.
Fast forward to now. Whereas fire was the primary method of cooking for thousands of years, it’s now one of several methods. Ovens, microwaves, sous vide, air fryers, gas grills and all sorts of other devices offer far more convenience to people and their busy lives. These devices have also further disconnected people from their food. “Set it and forget it” has been a common goal for decades when it comes to cooking. These days you can even cook through apps on your phone. Live fire cooking has become somewhat of a lost art, which is a shame.   Matt and Caleb Johnson
Nearly a million years of fire cooking only to be relegated to the backyard, on special occasions. We wouldn't be the people we are today without our ancestor's ability to cultivate fire as a means for cooking. That's a fact. But as much as technology has entered our homes, it seems a live fire renaissance is taking place in the culinary world.

Enter brothers Matt and Caleb Johnson of Mill Scale Metalworks in Lockhart, TX. Welders by trade, they’re reimagining the way people use live fire cooking and smokers by way of their array of unique grills and smokers, all harnessing the power of fire. Founded in 2018, Mill Scale Metalworks has worked with some of the most influential food people in the business. And I say food people deliberately, as their tools have transcended barbecue, having been used by the foremost Chef’s in the culinary world today. It all started when Matt got his first MIG welding machine for his birthday, which he then taught himself to use. By 2012, his brother and he were working in a custom fabrication shop in Austin, Texas, where they spent the next five years building custom smokers for some of the top places in barbecue. As is the goal with many entrepreneurs, they knew it was time to blaze their own trail and launched their business from a small shop in the Barbecue Capital of Texas.

Over the last five years their creations have found their way into fourteen countries (and counting) around the world and in many places around Sweden and Denmark on top of all the premier restaurants in the United States. With Holy Smoke BBQ as their partner and manufacturer in Europe, Mill Scale Metalworks has been able to penetrate markets outside of the United States, reducing costly shipping. What started with large offset smokers now includes 9 unique products, such as various customizable smokers and fire tables, along with the El Jefe, Santa Maria and Yakitori grills.

The story of Holy Smoke BBQ and Mill Scale Metalworks goes back to the summer of 2018 when Johan Fritzell and Matt were introduced by a mutual friend. Holy Smoke BBQ was already using two thousand gallon offset smokers from Matt and Caleb’s previous employer. Johan was familiar with the brother’s work. And he knew it was solid. The stars couldn’t have aligned any better. Johan was continuing to grow Holy Smoke BBQ. “We grow every year with people coming from farther and farther away. It’s absolutely crazy,” says Johan. These patrons were craving not just American barbecue, but the complete experience. How could they replicate, as best they could, their Holy Smoke BBQ experience at home? Sure, they could purchase another disposable grill from Ica. Maybe even step it up to a Big Green Egg. But that wouldn’t achieve true low and slow, indirect fire cooking. That’s when the idea of Johan and Matt partnering on Mill Scale Metalworks backyard version of their signature offset smoker, The 94, came up. The 94, which refers to size (in gallons) of its cook chamber, was the ideal take-off product. It looked every bit like the smokers Holy Smoke BBQ was using in their smokehouse, just a tenth the scale. And so, the partnership began.

Much like any marriage, there were some growing pains. While the backyards in Texas tend to be much larger, the spaces in Europe usually are smaller in scale. "We had to learn the European market. We needed to make the trip, so we did.” The brother's and their spouses finally made the trek to Sweden in the Fall of 2022, after many COVID-19 and schedule delays. “We learned so much. We documented our experience in Field Notes on our website,” says Matt. This was the information Matt and Caleb needed in order to better serve the European market. It all tied back to the Yakitori. The Yakitori now coming in three different sizes, perfect for the European backyard environment, also manufactured by Holy Smoke BBQ. “We wanted to make something that fit the lifestyle in Europe. We believe the Yakitori is perfect for the size backyards out there,” according to Matt. He’s not wrong. The versatility of the Yakitori makes it the perfect fit for European cuisine. Whether it’s grilling vegetables or seafood, steaks or chicken, the Yakitori is functional, engaged and easy to use. This all goes back to our origins with live fire cooking. Do you want to be a part of your cooking experience, connected with your food or not? To me, it’s simple. I can recall all the good times I’ve had with my friends and family, over open flames, telling stories. I can’t recall any in front of a microwave. Or sous vide.