Roger Mooking is the high-energy host of Man Fire Food on the Food Network Canada. In the show, he explores barbecue traditions and innovations alongside passionate pitmasters who use fire and smoke to create mouthwatering food.
In Man Fire Food, you usually focus on big barbecue—whole hogs, lambs, pit cooking. How can a cottager scale that down?
Scale does matter. In pre-COVID times, when you could host a crowd, you could match what we do on the show and scale it one to one. At a cottage, there’s space. You can barbecue a suckling pig and feed 50 of your friends. It’s spectacular. In a city backyard, get a pork butt or shoulder and smoke it low and slow—hang out and have fun, make some whiskey sours. And then six hours later, you have pulled pork.
Has COVID changed your cooking? Are you experimenting more? Or going back to comfort foods?
I’m cooking a lot more. Usually, I’m on the road more than 180 days a year. But I’m at home now, and I like cooking, and my family likes eating. I don’t cook the same thing twice. Even something like pancakes, I always tweak it—an extra egg, mixing different flours, grating in some coconut. My kids have learned that if they’re eating something they like, they’ve got to enjoy it now, because I won’t make it exactly like that again. Cooking’s my freedom, my safety zone.
Do your kids cook, when they want that coconut pancake again?
Yeah, absolutely. My kids are quite self-sufficient in the kitchen. The youngest is seven, the oldest is 13—four daughters. They all know that the best way to eat what they want is to learn how to cook it. My wife tends to cook for health, and I cook for flavour. The intent and the outcomes are slightly different, which gives my daughters a very broad range across the palate.
Is pork shoulder a good entry into low and slow barbecue?
If you’re not averse to eating pork, or meat in general, pork shoulder is very forgiving. There’s so much fat and connective tissue and juiciness, you can cook it an hour too long and it’s still gonna be good.
What else should go on our grills?
Tenderloin is just the worst. I don’t understand it. I’d much rather have a skirt steak or a flank steak—working muscles loaded with flavour. Or the spinalis, also known as the ribeye cap. That’s a spectacular cut.
Tenderloin comes out of a Eurocentric era of restaurants, when chateaubriand and other French cuts were coveted. Now we want maximum flavour, and flavour often comes from turning cheap things into delicious things; every culture has that. Go to the countryside in Italy, and they’re eating, essentially, chitlins—just like in the southern US. In both places, it’s because “We’ve slaughtered the whole pig, we have the intestine, let’s make something delicious with it.”
Should I barbecue with wood or charcoal, or is propane OK?
You have to meet people at their level and support that. If someone gets all their grill marks from a grill pan inside the house, that’s cool. Maybe I can get them to step up to the propane barbecue next. I’m not so high and mighty that I have to bring everybody up to the level of some fire guy who’s been doing it for 20 years.
And I’m okay with convenience—premade sauces and stuff like that.
Do you have a favourite barbecue sauce?
There’s a Chinese barbecue sauce that has probably 50 ingredients in it. A red sticky paste, mild spice, in a grey-silver tin that has a kind of manga-like character on it. Slather that on, let it sit, and cook. Instead of just giving you, like, one or two flavours, this is sweet, it’s sour, it’s bitter. It’s boom and boom, take another bite, boom and boom.
For more traditional barbecue sauce, I really like what they do in the Carolinas—thin, vinegary sauces, with a ketchup base for a bit of sweet, and often with lemon and garlic.
Or, I keep the meat as is and serve four or five different sauces so you can have a flavour experience. I’ll take a bite with the hot one, another bite with the herbaceous chimichurri, another with mustard-based sauce.
What about barbecue tools? What do you use?
I’m really rudimentary. I go into the woods and make mini-grills of sticks and twine. My kids are always saying, “Daddy, we see you eyeing that stick. Leave it alone.”
You need long tongs to manipulate food without burning your hands. Never underestimate the value of a kitchen towel. Have a hose nearby. I play with fire, but I respect fire incredibly.
Spray bottles are really good tools. Save your spray bottles.
Spray bottles—what for?
In Argentina, they use salmuera, salty water infused with garlic, chiles, herbs, lemon juice in a spray bottle. Instead of marinating, season meat with just pepper, no salt. As it’s cooking, spray it with the salmuera. It keeps meat moist and, as it evaporates, creates a salt cap.
And do you use thermometers?
I’ve been cooking in restaurants since I was 15, so I just feel a steak to know if it’s rare or medium. Experience gives you tools to cook manually.
If I’m cooking briskets, I will use a thermometer. You need to hit some critical temperatures and stages, like the stall. A thermometer helps with the process and consistency.
What’s the stall?
The stall is a period. You want to get smoke on the brisket first. Then it has to cook through. The stall is when the collagen starts to break down, usually around the 13- to 16-hour mark. The internal temperature keeps rising to that point, and then it just stops. That’s the stall. Sometimes it stays there for five hours, and then finally the stall breaks and the temperature starts rising again. That’s when you can wrap the brisket and let it finish cooking.
The stall is essential, because it breaks down the connective tissue. A brisket is this gelatinous mesh of fascia and amazingness once the connective tissue breaks down. Otherwise it’s very firm.
A brisket is another cheap cut that people learned to turn into something delicious.
Yeah, but not so cheap anymore.
Has Man Fire Food changed how you barbecue?
I’ve learned the skill set a lot better, of course, because I’m learning from the best people in that specific craft. And they’ve been doing it for generations.
There are always secrets that they don’t divulge on the show. Because, well, they’re secrets. But when I’m there and I ask a question, they’ll tell me. It shows a lot of trust, that they’re willing to share what they know. These master craftspeople are opening the kitty. I cherish those moments.
Ready to grill? Our annual (hotly anticipated!) grill guide, featuring five go-to flavourizers—rubs, sauces, and glazes—that will make your summer grilling spectacular. Find it in the May issue of Cottage Life.