Editor’s Note: You don’t just build a smoker and start cooking in it. Like any other major project, the idea turns into an obsession, which turns into a real possibility, which turns into a mess. Only then can you see what your initial idea has twisted itself into. We know this, and so does Frédéric Morin of Joe Beef, whose cookbook, The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts is one of our favorites. In this excerpt, Morin explains the tortuous path from a childhood of smoky fiddlings to an adulthood of…smoky fiddlings. And, ultimately, a working, self-built smoker at Joe Beef in Montreal.
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Growing up in the suburbs of Montreal, I was an awkward, little country boy. My backyard was my homestead (made to look a lot bigger by the extending woods of the psychiatric hospital just behind), and it is where I spent the majority of my first twenty years (the backyard, not the hospital). I have a picture of me on the day of the high school prom, not in a suit posing with some cute classmate, but in my backyard garden holding a big head of lettuce I had grown.
I learned about gardening in the same way I’ve learned about most things in my life: part from just doing and part from the Reader’s Digest L’art de vivre au temps jadis (the art of living in the old days), a book I pulled from my parents’ shelves. My grandparents had these kinds of books, too: How to Settle in the Woods, How to Build a Homestead, How to Make Brambleberry Jelly, How to Generate Your Own Electricity. Boxes in the basement held copies of Mother Earth News magazine or books on Vermont folk medicine, all of them filled with ideas and projects.
When I was twelve, the next-door neighbors had a pile of bricks near the foundation of their home just waiting to be stolen. I grabbed some bricks, dragged them to my house, and then stuck them together with clay and began to build what became my first makeshift smoker. I didn’t get to use it for long because, much to my surprise, I got a Little Chief smoker for my birthday the next year. Pastrami, almonds, bacon, and beef jerky were my menu mainstays, and my neighbor and best friend, Matthew Roberts, was always there to sample the goods (and the bads, like smoked eggs and banana gum made from pine sap and bananas). Thus, my smoking journey was launched.
A quick disclaimer before I go on: I understand that building smokers has been cool for so long that it’s no longer cool, and we are by no means the first to embark on a how-to of smoking techniques. We’re no apostles of Bacon, and we know that the world needs another Praise of Pork like it needs another celebrity TV dance show. That being said, preserving and salting meats have always been a big part of the Quebecois culture, starting with the coureurs des bois tradition, and they are a big part of Joe Beef culture, too. Fast forward to 2009: Liverpool House and McKiernan Luncheonette had been built and the shared back garden was starting to thrive. Dave and I had always talked about having a smoker (which is why we held onto the chimney when we first moved into the Joe Beef space) and the time just seemed right. We had seen a little smoker at Monas (the Montreal equivalent of JB Prince kitchenware in New York) that cost two thousand dollars. Allison said to wait. Because she’s usually right and because I had no choice, I waited. But in the spring of 2009, with paycheck in hand and nothing else to spend the money on, I secretly bought a MIG welding machine for a thousand dollars so we could build a smoker on our own.
I could picture a smoker that might have been used at the Montreal smoked-meat shops at the turn of the twentieth century.
It was to be neither a southern BBQ pit smoker, nor a northern cold smoker suitable for making a batch of fish boucanné. I wanted it to have a cabinet, which is unusual these days, so I didn’t have any plans to follow. I just used my imagination. In my head, I could picture a smoker that might have been used at the Montreal smoked-meat shops, like Lester’s or Schwartz’s, at the turn of the twentieth century.
My dad always draws models of planes or machines on letter-size graph paper, a practice that I inherited. (A lot of things at Joe Beef have started as sketches on those pads. It’s a good way to orient yourself with space and volume.) So I drew the plan for the smoker. When I put my ideas down on paper, I could see and understand how the smoke would progress, how the smoker would draw, where the damper should go, and so on. The process of drawing the plan forced me to read, to dig up more information. When I have an idea, or when I have a build going on, I feel like a crackhead looking for a rock. I’m completely obsessed and I’ll do anything to finish the project, including sabotaging the restaurant by hijacking the kitchen staff to help me. This totally screws the staff’s prep time and generally pisses off everyone, especially my partners.
An area was set aside in the backyard for construction. This was when the garden only took up about half the space it does today. In one of the daily pilgrimages to the hardware store, I bought a metal chop saw, a black welding helmet, metal brushes, a plethora of metal grinders, and a welder’s hammer. Quincaillerie Notre-Dame, a.k.a. Rona hardware, is one block east of the restaurants on the same street and thank god for that. It’s the oldest hardware store in Montreal, and walking inside is like stepping back in time (excluding the Slap Chops on sale near the cash register). Because Rona services an industrial neighborhood, it still sells pipe wrenches for the guys who install gas pipes and tools for railroad workers. Speaking with any of Rona’s staff, whether about plumbing or welding, is a completely humbling experience. If you need one screw, they will sell you one screw. It’s that kind of place.
It took ten days to build the smoker. Max, an old Joe Beefer, and François Coté (another staff member) worked on the smoker every day before service. We would still be welding when the first customers of the night arrived, creating disgusting fumes of smoke and the smell of flux and ruining their apéros on the terrace. Our favorite welder (and Italian) Wally Ricciardelli was on speed dial and instrumental in giving advice on all things metal. The days passed in a blur of measurements, hard work, and Dilallo burgers (neither Dave nor I have ever lost any of our many pounds while working on a new project, although we always believe we will). Once the smoker was welded, the guys at Rona dropped by with thirty bags of concrete, which all of us mixed by hand. We dug the hole, made the foundation, tied the rods, and poured the concrete. The next day it took six of us to lift the smoker to its position and bolt it into place. The smoker sits on the back wall of Joe Beef; on the other side is the dish pit.
It’s been easy to use and maintain since the beginning. As a river finds its bed in soil, the smoke goes where it wants to, and our cooks have mastered its little imperfections.
There are complex rules about smoke dynamics that I didn’t know then (or now, really) but had a feeling about, so I was happy when it all started to work: the firebox burning, the baffle directing heat, and the chimney smoking. It’s been easy to use and maintain since the beginning. As a river finds its bed in soil, the smoke goes where it wants to, and our cooks have mastered its little imperfections. We realized that airflow in a smoker is finicky: you want smoke, but not too much; you want heat, but in good proportion. I wanted to combine the smoker with a gas burner, but the gas burner was way too hot, so that idea was out. The perfect temperature is 225°F (110°C), and we’re able to maintain that temperature until November (at which point we start making nova-cured fish, cold-smoked hams, and the like). The smoker isn’t chrome or mechanized, but we think it’s handsome, if only because it looks like it’s always been there.
A year later, at any given time, the smoker could contain three dozen racks of ribs, two pig heads, a dozen pork butts, twelve rabbit summer sausages, and lots of duck, chicken, and rabbit legs. It is used five days a week throughout a good part of the year, making prep time more interesting for the kitchen, and creating new “classics” on the menu for the customers. The smoked duck legs are a good example. When you add the element of smoke, the dish becomes completely different.
One evening, Habs player Roman Hamrlik sat by himself at the Liverpool bar with a Czechvar and the duck legs. The next week, a bunch of other Czech and Slovak players came to try the same thing. We can’t really say it is a Liverpool house classic, but it is definitely an expectation that we’ll serve Czechvar and duck legs during hockey season now. The smoker also gave rise to the Joe Beef ribs, which are now a phenomenon because the recipe was aired on the popular Quebec television program, À la di Stasio. Because of Josée di Stasio, we sell an average of forty racks of ribs per night between Joe Beef and Liverpool House, and we get the chance to meet people from all corners of Quebec who are willing to drive three hours for dinner (because Josée said to).