Written by Laura Drummond / Photography by Scott Speakes

The tantalizing smell of smoke and meat slowly cooking over a pit draws you in. From the outside, County Smoak in Lynchburg, Virginia may look unassuming. On the inside, however, classically trained chefs and husband-and-wife duo Ken and Jess Hess serve award-winning barbecue and innovative, handcrafted sides.  

The Hesses invested almost everything they had into this endeavor, opening the restaurant in February 2020. “If we didn’t start selling barbecue the day we opened, we weren’t going to pay the bills. It was sink or swim,” recalls Ken. Shortly thereafter, the pandemic hit, and they could have easily been sunk—but they swam.

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive. We got a lot busier than we ever thought we were going to be very quickly,” says Jess. “We’ve gotten a lot of recognition for our food and our service.” With that being said, these two are far from an overnight sensation. 

Ken and Jess were both classically trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and each has decades of experience in the restaurant business—as chefs in fine dining and catering—and now ownership. “We know what we’re doing,” says Jess.

How did two experienced chefs end up in the smoking-hot, competitive, finger-licking world of barbecue? That journey has been years in the making. After culinary school, Ken developed a love for barbecue because it was a departure from the classic French and American cuisines he had studied. “It was just fun,” he says. 

Working as an apprentice at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, he learned about how to butcher and smoke meat from his mentor Ethan Hileman, who was the Catering Chef at the Greenbrier at the time. Ken bought his own smoker so he could hone his skills on his days off, coming up with his own techniques and rubs. In 2002, he formed a barbecue competition team, and his first contest was in Lynchburg—the future home of his restaurant. 

As he moved up the ranks at the Greenbrier and became more well-known on the competition circuit, Ken had the opportunity to connect with and learn from barbecue experts like Steven Raichlen, who wrote The Barbecue Bible, and Dr. BBQ himself Ray Lampe. 

When he had the opportunity to join pitmaster Chris Lilly at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Alabama, Ken jumped at the chance. There, he got to cater for NASCAR, the NFL, and the James Beard House. He was also part of the team that twice won the Memphis in May International Festival World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. “That gave me a crash course on volume and quality of a high level for barbecue,” says Ken.

By this time, Ken and Jess were planning what was next for their careers and their family, and barbecue seemed to be the right avenue to pursue. Jess had acquired years of catering experience, and “Ken already had a large degree of visibility and recognition,” says Jess. They had lived all over the country due to the nature of their work, but they thought it might be time to put down roots. In 2016, their oldest daughter, who was only 13 at the time, got into college at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia. They chose Lynchburg for its proximity to their daughter. 

The summer before relocating to Virginia, Ken and Jess packed up their three kids and dog in a camper and traveled across the country, hitting notable barbecue hot spots, like Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Kansas City. “We learned a lot. We noticed that a lot of places either had really good meats or they had really good sides, but it was tough to find places where everything was quality,” recalls Jess. 

They had planned on the trip preparing them for a barbecue venture they were in talks to launch with a restaurant group once they settled in Lynchburg. When that deal fell through, they decided to figure out how to build their own business without partners or investors, investing in themselves and opening County Smoak independently. “We don’t want to be beholden to someone else. We don’t want someone else to dictate what we can and cannot do menu-wise,” says Jess. They started operating as a catering business and hosted pop-up events locally until they were able to afford their own space. 

Their success has been in large part to the quality of their food, which has been their top priority from the start. They pull from years of study and experimentation, incorporating what they’ve learned from barbecue traditions in Alabama, Kansas City, North Carolina, and South Carolina into their own menu items. 

One key to their success is their willingness to try new things, make mistakes, and improve—and their unwillingness to settle or to rely on shortcuts. “As chefs, we have constant drive to improve and to innovate,” says Jess. “The hardest thing with barbecue is there are so many variables. To make it consistent, we have to not just be trying to make the best flavored food, but we have to be willing to work at figuring out how to do that every single day.” 

What makes their food so good is their time-worn process—from the grade of meat they select, the butchering process, to the seasoning—everything is carefully thought out for the most flavorful, most consistent results. “Everyone’s like, what’s your trick for brisket? There’s 20 or 30 steps to our brisket process—that’s the trick,” says Ken. “By having the background in cooking, we have a different advantage than most people do.” 

A lot of other barbecue restaurants they’ve encountered were launched by folks who competed in barbecue contests as hobbies or side projects, so they don’t have the expertise to also whip up delicious sides. At County Smoak, what you think of as typical barbecue sides like baked beans and coleslaw have their own delicious, well-planned recipes that utilize their sauces, leftover meat, and complement the flavors of the barbecue. 

With an expansive menu, it can be hard to decide what to try first. Ken and Jess prefer the chicken and turkey, respectively. They consider their signatures to be the pulled pork sandwich, the bacon bleu cheese slaw, and the fire and ice pickle relish—but they admit their mac and cheese is also a top seller. They love trying new things, and their regulars have embraced the experimentation. “Because of the quality of the service and quality of our food, people trust us with crazy specials here,” says Ken. Their sauces and rubs have become so popular that they offer them for sale separately. 

Now, customers will have even more dishes to try, as the Hesses are opening a new restaurant this fall called County Sunrise, serving up breakfast food, including made-from-scratch biscuits, chicken and dumplings, and creative spins on classic dishes.

County Sunrise is a spin-off of their original restaurant’s name, County Smoak. Ken and Jess chose that name in recognition of two aspects of barbecue history, which they learned from Virginia Barbecue: A History, by author and award-winning barbecue cook Joseph R. Haynes. 

In the book, Haynes asserts that Virginia is the birthplace of barbecue. As one piece of evidence, he cites one of the earliest documented descriptions of barbecue, in a letter from a woman visiting Virginia to her brother back in England. The spelling of smoak is a nod to the spelling in that first reference. They also learned that some counties would have one centralized smokehouse where people could bring their meat to be smoked for preservation. The idea of the community smokehouse felt appropriate, as they want to provide a sense of community within their space. 

And they do. County Smoak has become an integral part of the Lynchburg food scene, providing mentorship and advice to up-and-coming food trucks and restaurants. They also partner with local bakeries to supply their desserts. In addition, County Smoak has done collaborations with other small businesses, like Outside the Cone, an award-winning ice cream shop in Lynchburg. They came up with a flavor combination that includes brisket, cornbread, smoked bacon toffee, and vanilla ice cream. “It’s the fastest selling ice cream flavor that they’ve ever had,” says Ken. 

Ken teaches staff members how to smoke meats in months-long training sessions before they prepare food independently. Ken and Jess also impart their formal training on their staff members, in terms of culinary skills and customer service. “We are a little shack, but there’s a level of professionalism and polish that we try to maintain,” says Jess.

They also support causes that address food insecurity in their community, including the Lighthouse Community Center of Lynchburg, which serves 300 to 500 meals each day. “Our mission is hunger relief,” says Jess. In accordance with that mission, County Smoak has a no-questions-asked policy to serve meals to anyone who can’t afford them at no cost. 

It started during the pandemic when Jess noticed on a Wednesday that they had a lot of leftover smoked turkey. They put out a message that anyone in need of a meal could come get some at no cost the next day, and the Thankful Thursdays program was born. This quickly transitioned into an ongoing offering—in which anyone on any day of the week can call or come in and mention “Thankful Thursdays” for a free meal of their choosing. 

“We really try to be a part of our community,” says Ken. “Our community accepted us in a really hard time and has supported us for the last three years. We’ve been gracious about returning the favor.”