Put a flipper in someone's hand and have them tend meat over an open flame – they'll be certain they know how to cook to perfection. But Mike Callaghan is next-level good. As the pitmaster for Team Canada BBQ, the official national team that represents our country at international cooking competitions, Callaghan has racked up a slew of honours, including the award for best sauce in the world at last year's Memphis In May, an annual competition deep in the heart of barbecue country that hosts 250 teams.
We spoke to Callaghan, who lives in London, Ont., about the mistakes to avoid and the secret to cooking the best steak you've ever tasted.
When you are at prestigious barbecue contests south of the border, do people ever doubt that you could be a real competitor because you're Canadian?
We develop friends very quickly. But a lot of people first come up and say, "Canadian? Barbecue? What do you guys know about barbecue? This isn't a moose barbecue contest."
Winning the award for best sauce in the world at Memphis in May must have felt pretty great.
We've been in 11th place. We've been 18th. We've been 22nd on that exact same sauce. And then last year we took out the Jack Daniels, put in the Canadian whisky and bang, we're first place.
Barbecue devotees can be passionately devoted to regional styles, whether it's Kansas City, Texas or the Carolinas. Do you have a favourite regional style?
What's really nice about being Canadian is we can pick and choose the different regions of what we cook. When we cook hogs, we cook Carolina style. When we cook pork, we cook Virginian. When we cook brisket, we head toward Texas.
Have you picked a side in the dry rub versus wet rub debate?
I personally like a dry rub. You taste the pork better. And it's less adulterated than when you put a sauce on it. But when I cook for judges it's always wet. Competition ribs and ribs you would normally eat are very different. When you're serving a judge, it's one bite you're after. You have to be extra-sweet, you have to be extra-spicy. You can't be waiting for things to develop.
Do you have a favourite meat to cook?
Right now I'm enjoying cooking great quality steaks right on the charcoal. That's what we call caveman style. You do this thing called "reverse sear" for steak. You get a really good steak and you put it in at 180 degrees for about 45 minutes and you bring it up slowly with that smoke. But what's missing is that sear. So we fire up the charcoal and we get it about 800 or 900 degrees so it's just rocket red and then we put the steak right on the coals. You only go two minutes a side. It sears the meat beautifully.
How do you feel about cooking with gas?
I've never heard anyone say, "That's the best propane-grilled steak I've ever had in my life." Propane is convenient, but if you want high-quality food, you're getting the charcoal out.
Are there any common mistakes you see regular BBQers making?
Boiling ribs. You boil rice, not ribs. Why would people want to boil their meat before putting it on a grill? You just wash all the flavour out. We cook them for five and a half hours at 220 degrees.
What else are we doing wrong?
People don't rub. One of the biggest things about treating and seasoning your meat is, the night before we pull the skins off the back of the ribs, our pork, our steak and everything else, we put a seasoning directly on the meat.
What's the secret to your barbecue sauce?
A lot of maple syrup and a lot of whisky.