Guest Column: Lawrence La Pianta on barbecue basics

Cherry Street Bar-B-Que's Lawrence La Pianta gives us the low-down on all things barbecue.

Charcoal vs wood

Wood all the way. In my opinion, wood is so important to outdoor cooking. Years ago, back in 2005 when I was getting into barbecue, there were few places doing any kind of smoked meat in Toronto. When I spent some time in Texas, I would see everyone cooking meat with wood. It just imparts a wonderful flavour, and is more balanced. In Toronto, now you see many chefs moving to wood, like Kojin and Quetzal. Real barbecue is best done over wood.

Pitmaster Lawrence La Pianta, at his historic BBQ house, Cherry Street Bar-B-Que.

On barbecue’s regional styles

There’s a rule in this industry: no matter how much you love one style of barbecue, you don’t bash other styles. Central Texas barbecue has been hot for a few years for a number of reasons, I think it’s mainly due to the simplicity of how it’s seasoned – just salt and pepper. But there are people that love to sauce their smoked meats, and that’s fine too. Toronto is still very young and new to barbecue, I think we should allow pit masters and amateur cooks the opportunity to discover and show what they love. You can cook on oak, or cook on hickory, or perfect the sauces and rubs you want. It’s all welcome in my opinion. There is no superior style of barbecue, just personal taste.

Toronto’s barbecue scene

We have a real problem in Toronto in that we don’t support our own enough. It really bugs me. We need to take pride in our food culture here. Barbecue is not a part of Toronto’s identity but in the last few years we’ve seen a lot of young chefs try to open smoke houses. I personally think this is a great thing. Torontonians spend a lot of time knocking people down instead of elevating them. When you visit cities like Nashville, there are barbecue restaurants across the road from each other and chefs will send customers to other barbecue restaurants. “You like my food? Well, hey, you should go check out what so-and-so is doing with ribs over there.” In Toronto, we have three guys that cook on wood right now; Adamson’s, Beach Hill and me. We are producing similar styles of barbecue, but we all do something different when it comes to sides. We’re unique, we support each other wholeheartedly. We need more of this.

you can't make a shoe taste like prime rib

Becoming an expert grill master

Barbecuing is an art form that you learn over time. Every time you cook, you become better. Always start with the best product; even the best grillers can’t make a shoe taste like prime rib. Take your time and don’t rush. If you’re cooking on any sort of outdoor grilling appliance, don’t leave it alone. It only takes a minute to go from delicious to disappointing. Practice makes perfect, the more you cook the better it will be.

On barbecue competitions

Cooking at competitions is a very different experience than running your own barbecue restaurant. I have competed in my share of them all over the U.S., and I’ve also judged a few. They tend to be marketing vehicles for brands and chefs. It’s a chance to sell a sauce or rub more than showcasing a style of barbecue. I know third and fourth-generation pit masters who never compete. For them, it’s about consistency and putting out an amazing product every day – every plate of food is a story of family legacy and history.