National Post

Slow smokin’: It’ll tickle your ribs: All the way from the American South, Dipamo’s puts a Canadian twist on barbecue

National Post
Saturday, June 7, 2003
Page: SP9
Section: Saturday Post: Food & Drink
Byline: Sara Angel
Column: Signature Dish
Source: Saturday Post

“The best barbecue in the States comes from condemned buildings,” says Doug Fisher, [founder and former] co-owner of the highly acclaimed Dipamo’s Barbeque [and President of FHG International Inc. a foodservice and franchise consulting firm based in Toronto], Toronto’s slow-smoked sweet meat house. Standing in the restaurant’s kitchen, Dominic Zoffranieri, Fisher’s partner, explains, “In Kansas, Texas and Tennessee, you come across it in the middle of nowhere. You’ll find a guy who has a shack and a smoker with a couple of picnic tables out front.”

Fisher and Zoffranieri have offered to give me a lesson in barbecue, and by that they don’t mean that thing you do in the backyard with hamburgers and steaks on a grill. “That’s what Canadians call barbeque,” Fisher says. The food they serve is American barbecue — Southern-style — a process of slow-cooking tough cuts of pork and beef over a gentle smoke for up to 18 hours, until the texture of the meat is indescribably tender, and the flavour unbelievably sweet.

“It’s a way of cooking that evolved during the slave trade,” Zoffranieri explains, “when hogs were butchered for the master and the slaves got what was left over — hocks, spareribs and shoulders.” Meat was made tender by cooking it for a long long time over smoke. “In side cuts, there are lots of connective tissue and collagen,” Zoffranieri continues, “but the slow application of heat and smoke breaks down the tissue, infuses flavour and makes the meat moist.”

This last point, I learn, is the only constant in Southern-style, slow-smoked cooking. “In barbecue, there are no absolutes,” Zoffranieri says. “Your rubs change, your sauces change, your meats change.”

And the cuisine varies from region to region, Fisher adds: “If you go to Memphis, they’re into pulled pork shoulder. In Kansas, they chop their meat. And each thinks the other is out of their mind!”

Regional differences may also account for the fact that Dipamo’s signature slow-smoked dish has nothing to do with meat. “With pork and beef, we’re doing barbecue that’s a little Texas, a little Kansas,” Fisher says. But, since Canadians love their salmon, Dipamo’s wanted to infuse this “regional” fish dish with the sweetness of Southern smoke. “Besides, it’s an option for people who aren’t into greasy slabs of pork.”

Dipamo’s chef, “pit master” Sean Simons, holds out a salmon fillet for my inspection. The fish has been marinated in a Southern-style sauce, which he describes as a balance of “sweet, sour and hot that brings out the flavour of the salmon, first and foremost.” The marinated fillet has also been dried overnight. “Although you can smoke it after 20 minutes, the drier the meat, the more it accepts the smoke,” Simons says.

Though smokers range in size and style, they all function according to the same principle. “They are a closed chamber with a smoke box at the bottom,” Simons says. If you don’t have a smoker, his recipe can also be made using a simple chip box, a metal container (available at places like Canadian Tire) that holds wood shavings. You place the chip box directly on the coals. “And if you don’t have a chip box,” Simons adds, “you could still do this recipe by simply wrapping damp chips in aluminum foil.”

Simons carefully lays the salmon fillet on a tray of ice cubes, which he then places into a smoker that’s about the size of a refrigerator. At Dipamo’s, pork and beef are smoked at about 220F to 230F, for anywhere from 8 hours (for brisket) to 16 hours (for pork), a process slightly different from what Simons is doing now. “This is cold smoking,” he says, “imparting the flavour of the smoke without cooking the fillet.” Ice is used to lower the smoker’s temperature.

The process is similar to that used for preparing smoked salmon (which is cured with salt before it goes into a smoker), and can be equally tricky to get right. “Success comes to those who figure out how to master smoke,” Simons says.

It’s a skill that can be elusive, not unlike finding the magic formula that makes a restaurant successful. Which may explain why Fisher and Zoffranieri describe their decision to open a slow-smoke restaurant as “doing the unthinkable.”

“People think the restaurant business is buying your buddies rounds of drinks or glad-handing at the door,” Zoffranieri says. “But we knew that it’s about washing dishes on a Friday morning because the dishwasher didn’t show up. We knew that the only truth to the restaurant industry is that there are no truths, and that when you think something is true, that truth will come and bite you in the ass.”

Though there are some 10,000 restaurants in Toronto, the two friends felt “there were not enough good or affordable ones,” Fisher says. Add to this the fact that he and Zoffranieri were haunted by the flavours they had enjoyed in the American South, and it was almost a foregone conclusion: They simply had to open a slow-cooked barbecue house.

As we share a large plate of pulled pork, side ribs, brisket and baked beans, all of it deliciously moist and rich, Fisher beams, then reaches for a rib. “It’s the perfect answer to Chinese cooking,” he says, “the ultimate comfort food.” It’s a sentiment that many people have come to share. As a result, the restaurant has set up a toll-free number, 888-pigs-fly, so that customers across the country can order Dipamo’s fare for delivery within 48 hours. Special cryovacuum packaging allows their fully cooked meat to be stored, under proper refrigeration, for up to two weeks.

“Gradually, an awareness of slow-smoked barbecue is evolving from the rural areas into the cities,” Fisher says. More and more Canadians, it seems, are trying Southern barbecue at home. Fisher and Zoffranieri offer some advice, starting with a word on smoke. “It should be created from wood that’s indigenous to an area, and never overpowering,” Fisher says, adding that, at Dipamo’s, they use Canadian applewood.

“Avoid mesquite,” Zoffranieri warns. “It imparts what can feel like a burning sensation at the back of the throat. You might as well be eating an ashtray.”

As for meat, they suggest trying long-bone pork side ribs. “For whatever reason,” Fisher says, “Canadians have come to like and accept short ribs as standard.

But back ribs don’t have enough marbling to get great flavour.” Zoffranieri compares it to steak. “If you’re a real steak person, you would never order a filet, which is all tenderness and no real taste. You order a rib-eye or a New York cut, which is a little less tender, but has a lot more flavour.”

When buying ribs, keep in mind the pit master’s cardinal rule: “Accept no shiners.” Pork ribs are a by-product of bacon. They’re what remain after the bacon has been cut from the rack. “Sometimes,” Simons says, “a butcher’s knife will get too close to the bone. So when you are at the butcher, make sure that there’s no bone exposed. And ask for a St. Louis side rib with lots of meat coverage.”

On a final point my hosts are adamant: Under no circumstances should meat be boiled. “People boil ribs to soften the pleura,” the fatty membrane that sits on top of the rack, “but that is anathema to good barbecue,” Zoffranieri says. Shaking his head, Fisher puts it another way. “Boiling ribs reminds me of my Jewish grandmother, who used to boil a chicken to make chicken soup, then serve us that chicken. It had no flavour. People talk about ribs that are so tender that the meat falls off the bone. But, chances are, if it does that, the meat has been overcooked, or boiled, and its only flavour comes from barbecue sauce. If slow-smoked meat is properly prepared, you don’t want any sauce; you don’t want anything but that meat.”

Or anything but that fish, if it’s applewood-smoked salmon, Dipamo’s signature dish, which Simons has just placed before me. Moist and textured, it is more flavourful than any salmon I have tasted.

And, though they say there are no truths to the restaurant business, here’s one my hosts seem to have figured out: When Canadian salmon meets American Southern-style barbecue, you’ve got a love match that’s really smokin’.