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PHOTO OF JOHN THOMSON COURTESY OF JOHN THOMSON

It’s morning at the annual Niagara Summer Daze BBQ Competition and John Thomson is getting ready to start cooking. Smoke is in the air — the alluring, meat-tinged kind that turns heads and tempts nostrils. For many Canadians, it’s the sweet backyard perfume that signals summertime.

“Looking around, you see other people who are competing and they’re exhausted, because they’ve been up all night,” says Thomson, an Ottawa-based Canadian National BBQ Champion.

“Meanwhile, people like me are working fast and furious.”

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He lifts the lid of the smoker where he has had the ribs on for an hour and spritzes them with pineapple juice, which he says makes the meat somewhat sweet and pairs well with pork, and checks to ensure the meat is moist.

“I’ve tailored my cooking so that it’s best as a one-man program,” Thomson says. Aside from being a barbecue competition road warrior, he’s a founder and the Greater Ontario chapter lead of the non-profit Canadian BBQ Society (CBBQS). The organization promotes barbecue culture, competitions and education across Canada.

This year, Thomson plans to return to the Summer Daze competition, which is slated for Aug. 24 to Aug. 25 in Niagara Falls, Ont. and helps spread the word on how amateur barbecue cookers can get involved and compete.

In barbecue competitions, Thomson and his fellow competitors cook for the judges. In these cases, the Canadian public rarely gets to sample the meat, he says, due to stricter event regulations than many places in the United States.

But competition organizers do want to attract people, so many are building tasting components into their events, as well as mixing in entertainment, vendors and other draws. The Summer Daze Competition, for example, included a chicken wing cooking contest last year and the public sampled the eats.

So, if you’re looking to attend a barbecue event, make sure you read the promotions and know what’s available to the public and what’s not.

Thomson, who owns and operates Eatapedia.com and offers his own classes to budding grillers, wants to spread his strong enthusiasm for everything related to barbecuing across Canada.

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He is the organizer of Canada’s largest barbecue competition, which hosts 75 teams from all over North America. The Capital BBQ Festival is held every year in Ottawa.

This year, CBBQS has introduced a “backyard barbecue program” that is aimed at equipping people with the skills and knowledge to run their own barbecue contests.

Do Canadian and American tastes in barbecue differ?

“Well, Canadian barbeque is like American barbeque, but maybe a little bit sweeter,” Thomson says. “Kansas-style barbeque is super sweet and Canadians lean in that direction, though I’m not sure why.”

What 90 per cent of Canadians actually do when they say they are barbecuing is grilling. They fire up the propane, cook the dish and shut it down, all within an hour, usually.

“Canadians generally like meat dripping off the bone and sauce all over their faces,” Thomson says.

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One traditional definition of classic barbecue is “cooking low and slow, and taking your time, usually over an indirect heat source,” he says.

This usually means bigger cuts of meat, such as pork shoulders, briskets, ribs and whole chickens, cooked around 225F or 250F for six to 18 hours.

While many of us consider ourselves to be no slouches behind the grill, friends and family likely see room for improvement.

So, here are Thomson’s top five tips for making a great barbecue.

Tip #1

Equip yourself with the right tools. You don’t need a lot, so forget hankering after, say, a solar-powered grill scrubber or any other seemingly cool but unnecessary gadget. Just a good pair of tongs and an instant-read thermometer will do fine.

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Tip #2

Start small. Many people start with huge fires and then wonder why they burn everything. Don’t underestimate the amount of heat being provided by small fires.

Tip #3

Indirect cooking, where the heat source is not directly beneath your food, is a great way to grill without charring, burning or drying your product.

Tip #4

It’s ready when it’s ready. Don’t stress if your food takes 15 minutes longer than planned. It’s barbecue. Chill, enjoy the smell and build the anticipation.

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Tip #5

Cook first, sauce after. Barbecue sauce is a great way to add additional flavours to your food, but most sauces have high sugar contents, which will burn well before your food is cooked. Think of barbecue sauce as an accessory, not the main ingredient.


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