Where There’s Smoke: A Look At What’s New in Outdoor-Cooking Equipment

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Not all great dining experiences are confined within the four walls of a restaurant operation. From rustic open-fire cooking to swanky patio setups, the outdoors has many attractions for chefs and patrons alike.

There’s a wide variety of traditional smokers and grills for in-house and patio dining, outdoor catering and travelling events. But a number of chefs are also creating their own way to deliver a unique barbecue experience.

At the Drake Devonshire Inn in Prince Edward County, Ont., executive chef Alexandra Feswick didn’t let the winter chill stop her and her team from introducing Fire-Roast Fridays in January. At the heart of this event is a six-foot high, custom-designed open-fire smoker. A large basket serves as the central heat source, while additional fires burn around the perimeter to keep the heat in. “The idea was to create something versatile and simple that can be moved around,” Feswick explains. “Fire cooking is so beautiful to watch. A lot of people are attracted to the visual impact and the rustic feel.”

The system is used for smoking everything from vegetables to proteins. “Last weekend we had 24 chickens and 15 lbs. of sweet potatoes all smoking at once,” says Feswick, adding they’re still cooking on the prototype. “We’re still getting the hang of controlling the fire. There’s a little bit of trial and error you have to go through.”

Nick Chen-Yin, pitmaster and co-owner of Smoke Signals Bar-B-Q in Toronto, decided to design and fabricate his own version of Texas-style smokers for his restaurant and catering service. The granddaddy of the two is a massive 25-foot offset smoker parked behind the restaurant that can manage 20 briskets or 25 to 30 racks of ribs at any given time. “It’s a big guy that can hold a lot.” He also built a portable eight- foot smoker that he takes to catering events.

Unlike other smokers that are gas fed and use wood pellets to achieve a smoked flavour, an offset cooker is 100-per-cent wood burning. (Offset refers to the firebox on the side of the cook chamber.) The total cost of building the large system was about $18,000 — half of what it would have cost to bring one in from Texas or Oklahoma. “We’re talking about a very specific piece of equipment,” Chen-Yin says. “It’s a niche market.”

While these may be niche projects, there’s also a strong market for commercial smokers and grills. Just ask Stephen Rosenbaum, operator of Bad Wolf BBQ Catering in Toronto. When it comes to grills, prices can run the gamut from a Costco item for a few hundred dollars to higher quality, stainless steel, rust-proof commercial systems from producers such as Crown Verity, which can cost upwards of $2,000, he says. The choice depends on your budget and plans. “Sometimes it’s enough to use a $400 to $500 grill. But, if I am doing a big festival, that’s a whole different thing.” In those cases he uses a commercial stainless-steel grill from Iowa-based Holstein Mfg. “You get a lot of heat from it, so you can do a lot of grilling, really fast.” He also has several Crown Verity grills — including one charcoal unit to meet occasional demand.

On the smoker front, restaurants featuring the occasional smoked item can make do with a small indoor unit using wood pellets or add a smoking feature to their combi-oven. For higher-volume smoking, Rosenbaum recommends larger electric wood-pellet-fired units from manufacturers such as Tennessee-based Southern Pride or Missouri-based Ole Hickory Pits. “But if you’re a barbecue restaurant with 80 to 150 seats or more and have to put out some serious volume, move up to a smoker that has a rotisserie inside and is wood fired with gas assist.”

Static smoker models can be purchased for less than $2,000, while high-volume units can run up to $18,000 or more.

Rosenbaum himself has five transportable Southern Pride SPK 500 models. He notes Southern Pride has custom parts, while many of the replacement parts for Ole Hickory units are generic. “There are also some people who swear by Oyler systems from J & R Manufacturing, because they’re not propane or gas assist. You control the heat strictly with a system of dampers and little fans. But they take up to eight sq. ft. more footprint and weigh [significntly] more than a Southern Pride unit.”

One item gaining traction with chefs is the Big Green Egg, a larger-scale version of the Little Green Egg, popular for residential backyard barbecues. The commercial versions, which cost approximately $2,000, are considerably larger and generate more output.

“It started with domestic models creeping into small-footprint restaurants,” says Patrick Watt, consultant with A Day in Life Foodservice Development in Saint John, N.B. “It’s both a smoker and charcoal barbecue that can really get temperatures up. They used to be only medium sized, but they are up to a 24-inch grill now.”

Alex Chen, executive chef, Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar in Vancouver, is a convert. While he still uses a Weber Summit grill on occasion, the Big Green Egg has taken over that function for the most part. “For the longest time, I hated it because it was so ugly. But then I cooked on it once or twice — the sear and the smoke is different and it requires more attention and more intuition. After a year or two, I have very little to do with grills anymore because it can do both.”

He says he’s seen a lot of units being used by hotels and even Michelin-Star restaurants. “As I keep using it, I see more and more possibilities.”

Written by Denise Deveau

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