As we turn onto a quiet street just outside the city, there’s a scramble to remember which house we’re looking for. We crawl past a row of tidy suburban homes, all manicured lawns and basketball nets, and then someone spots it: a vintage Mustang in the driveway that could only belong to the Godfather of the Grill. We shuffle into the garage, exchanging greetings, Ted Reader glances around with a grin.
"So. What are we drinking?"
If you haven’t heard of the chef dubbed “Godfather of the Grill” by Canadian media, you probably haven’t been to a barbecue shop in the GTA lately. After Reader made his name in the Toronto culinary world, he literally wrote the book on grilling—more than a dozen of them, in fact. His World Famous BBQ Sauce line is now such a summer essential, you can even find it at Canadian Tire. Reader appears on TV and radio regularly enough that it’s tempting to call him a celebrity chef, but chances are, it wouldn’t be his favourite moniker.
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We’re here for what Reader refers to as a @TedGrills #lunch. (Say what you will about the old school nature of grilling, but Reader has taken to social media with gusto.) The premise is simple: "Come, bang on the garage, come on in to Casa BBQ and have lunch. In at 11:00, out by 2:00." It’s an invite-only affair; our group includes two of the Foodism team and Ted’s friend Jodi (her official title is Culinary Talent Manager, but it’s clear from the inside jokes and air kisses that these two go way back).
Says Reader: "So many of my friends don’t get a chance to eat my food on a regular basis. [@TedGrills #lunch] was a way to share my love of barbecue." Over the course of a lunch, guests are invited to "chill, enjoy some barbecue, learn about grilling and smoking foods, have some fun, have a cocktail or two and enjoy lunch on me." Apart from any allergies or aversions, which are taken ahead of time, anything goes. Previous guests include such local legends as Zane Caplansky, Chef David Sidhu and Tara Slone.
We knock back a round of moonshine and our host takes us to see his legendary grill collection. Some are set up along the patio like an outdoor kitchen, others flank a seating area across the lawn, but many are packed away out of sight. Reader won’t pick a favourite, but acknowledges a soft spot for one built by a fan. They total over 60. "I need to make some more room before my wife divorces me," Reader quips. It’s an inside joke: his wife, Pamela, is the title character of his #divorcelawyerthatcooksbreakfast series on Instagram.
Several grills are already lit, and the nostalgic smell of charcoal smoke is enough to make anyone hungry. Reader beckons us over for a first glimpse at the day’s menu, scrawled in black marker pen across a thin wooden plank. "You can take that with you," Reader offers. He passes me the board, then moments later, takes it back. "Wait, what am I doing next?"
As it turns out, he’s making pancake batter. Our first course, lamb kidney, will be served on a cricket pancake (yes, as in the insects) with smoked cheddar and spiced syrup. We watch Reader stir in the crickets; all of us are acting overly nonchalant about them—insect protein is supposed to be the future of food, why question it? The others discuss the relative merits of eating bugs and I nod along, like a teenager feigning knowledge of a hip new band.
The pancakes are plated on wooden maple leaves and there’s a flurry of photography as we all try to get an Instagram-worthy shot. A cricket head peeks out from the pancake, watching as I cut off a bite-sized piece with my fork. As I crunch into it, it’s actually a pretty great pancake.
The better chefs—and I’m not saying I’m one of them—are the ones who can layer.
Reader seems pleased to hear it. "You go to so many places and the flavours are one-dimensional. The better chefs—and I’m not saying I’m one of them—are the ones who can layer."
Without any of us realizing it, our host has started on the next course—a cluster of succulent pink lamb chops, fanned out across one of the grills. Reader makes barbecue etiquette look effortless, but a lot goes into it. The biggest no-no, he informs us, is leaving your grill. "You’ve gotta monitor, you’ve gotta think about the weather and the wind."
In fact, Reader tells us that grilling conditions are one of the many factors he considers when he chooses what to serve. "Menus are chosen on a whim," he explains. "I walk to the grocery stores, markets, food shops, butchers, fish mongers and all the world has to offer." The resulting dishes, in turn, determine which grills the chef chooses to use.
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There’s a brief pause in our carnivorous feasting as Reader approaches the grill with some sort of blow torch. We watch as he douses the pit in flames from all angles; for a moment, there’s a cloud of ash and smoke between us and the lamb chops, now neatly piled on board smeared with smoked goat cheese. Reader is preparing the grill for his 1000 degree skirt steak, a dish exactly as intense as it sounds.
"A lot of people say that you need to marinate skirt steak," our host notes as he tenderizes three long strips of beef. "But if you do, you take away a lot of the flavour of the meat." After he seasons the steak, Reader fans the flames with a bellows to help the grill reach that critical high heat. This allows him to sear the meat quickly, directly on top of the charcoal. Once the steak has rested, Reader slices it and serves with green chimichurri. The beef is perfectly pink inside.
At this point we’ve had four courses (a plate of bacon-wrapped chicken thighs didn’t last long), but there’s still plenty of food at various stages of cooking. One moment our host disappears inside to track down rum, the next he's injecting a sweet potato with a syringe. "When I liked people, I used to have another chef who helped me," Reader cracks.
He serves up our next course, identified only as involtini, a term unfamiliar to all of us. Oh, how we wish we hadn’t asked… Involtini, as it turns out, is Italian for envelope; in the context of this dish, it refers to intestine stuffed with a variety of offal. If you’re not used to eating this sort of thing, the texture—somewhere between creamy and slightly grainy—is the hardest part to get past. We finish our bites quickly, then dip back into the garage to see if there’s any moonshine left.
Finally, after some satisfyingly chewy pork belly sliders, Reader puts out his final offering for the day. It’s a gorgeous set of marrow bones, accompanied by a tiny spoon for scooping out the good stuff.
Do you want my secrets? I'll tell you all of it. It's patience.
The sun’s still warm, so we stand around for a while, basking in the smoky afterglow and finishing our beers. Reader talks us through his upcoming appearances and how much he looks forward to his "crazy motherfucking demos" in the grill tent at the Toronto Festival of Beer (July 22–24 at Bandshell Park). "It’s the one place a year where I can be me," he nods.
We ask him if there’s one thing, above all others, that people should know about grilling.
"Do you want my secrets? I’ll tell you all of it." His eyes twinkle as he leans towards us. "It’s patience."
Coming from a man who’s mastered all the tools and techniques, we’ll take it. Too bad you won't find it in the barbecue aisle at Canadian Tire...