Brian Cox looks like he belongs in front of a smoker. With thick black hair greying at the tips and a powerful build, he’s like some combination of a Food Network show host and the latest Wolverine movie. From the quick smile to the passion in his voice, you know this is a man who loves his job and the city in which he does his cooking.
“We’re true advocates of bringing people to White Bear Lake, and that’s what I want to do. This is a great town—it’s fun. It’s great for families,” says Cox.
Born in Texas and raised in Texas and Colorado, Cox says he can remember racing inside after playing football to taste what was cooking, and pulling up a chair to watch over his grandmother’s shoulder while she worked a full stove.
“I come from a cooking family,” says Cox. “Obviously—I’m from the South. Everyone cooks.”
After Cox went to school for law enforcement, he moved his family to Colorado. He soon realized law enforcement wasn’t his life’s path. He worked in a motorcycle shop, all the while cooking for coworkers and friends. Rave reviews kept piling up, and eventually he got a trailer and started running the brewery circuit in Colorado.
“[It came to a point where] I had to quit my job. I was taking phone calls trying to sell parts, and the phone kept ringing off the hook [for food orders], and it wasn’t fair for them or me. So, I just talked with the wife and said hey, you know, it’s time to take the leap,” says Cox.
And leap he did. After moving to Minnesota, he got together with Steve Mitchell—a long-time family friend. With Mitchell’s restaurant experience and Cox’s vision, Up In Smoke was born.
Working out of a trailer, Up In Smoke cooked for some of Cox’s associates at SixSpeed media during a video shoot. They liked the food so much, Cox and Mitchell now regularly follow the team as they travel the country to film in the mountains, desert or wherever the shoot takes them.
“The things we’ve done because of the weird situations we get in are wild,” Cox says. “That’s the beautiful thing about having our trailer, we were cooking ... on the side of a mountain in Idaho or Montana, serving up food while they were shooting films. It’s crazy.”
After an especially busy summer and a demanding schedule following the production crew, Cox realized he and the trailer couldn’t be everywhere at once, so last spring he set up the Up In Smoke food truck so the trailer could be on the road while the truck did local events. Even with the extra “location,” they were still stretched thin.
“There’s not enough time in the day. If it were our choice, there would be two of me, two of Steve and 40 hours in a day. But that’s not reality, so we just up our game,” Cox says.
While smoked meat is the main draw, Cox and Mitchell like trying out new combinations and mixing up the specials board backed by old favorites. Cox says the Bevo, named after the Texas Longhorns mascot (“Hook ’em!” Cox says), is a combination of brisket, pork and coleslaw on a sandwich, their most popular item.
Cox says that as much joy as Up in Smoke’s success brings him, he’s in it for the art and the tradition. He says that now with electric smokers, anyone can pellet smoke things, but the art is lost in the process. “I could go out and get an electric smoker, but they wouldn’t let me back in Texas,” he says.
“It doesn’t get boring because it’s an art, and people don’t understand that. They come up to your truck and say, ‘10 dollars for a sandwich?’ They don’t know the last time I slept. There aren’t a lot of people that can do this the way I do it, and I’m proud of that.”
As for the local scene, Cox wishes there were a billion food trucks. He says competition will only improve the quality of food in the area. He hopes to see the city embrace food trucks. Right now, he says, the city is struggling with parking and how to deal with the food truck trend. He has fought for food truck parking and getting the trucks more visibility.
Cox hopes to also open a brick-and-mortar kitchen. His kids are interested in the craft, and he hopes to get them and some close friends involved. But most of all, he wants to continue learning and cooking great food.
“That’s what we’re trying to do. Make bellies happy, make people happy and have a fun experience. That’s what it’s all about.”