For great ribs, the secret’s in the sauce (and the type of wood) or so we’ve been told.
Earlier this week, from somewhere on the Trans-Canada Highway, a few hours from Thunder Bay, Ont. where the cell service isn’t so great, Matthew Smith, co-owner of Gator BBQ, spent some time talking to the Western News about the tricks of the ribfest trade.
Smith and his crew just wrapped up at Ottawa’s ribfest and were cozying into a four-day bus ride from Ontario to B.C., set to arrive in Penticton just ahead of the Rotary Club of Penticton Ribfest, starting Friday at Okanagan Lake Park.
Smith and two of his sons, pitmaster Nick and Aaron, along with the rest of the 15-person crew are defending champions for Judges’ Choice best ribs and best sauce at Penticton’s ribfest, and they’re hoping to be victorious again.
“We’re ready to show off our hardware and put on another great show,” he said.
They’ll have their work cut out for them as this year Penticton’s ribfest includes five ribbers from across the country including Gator, which originally hails from Florida, but is now operated out of Simcoe, Ont., Prairie Smoke and Spice BBQ from Pilot Butte, Sask., Boss Hog’s from London, Ont., Misty Mountain BBQ from Hinton, Alta. and Smoke and Bones from Vancouver.
Most of the ribbers use the same products, sourcing meat long before they arrive in a community. But what sets them apart is the sauce and the wood they use.
The Gator crew won’t have any problem finding their preferred cooking wood — cherry — in the South Okanagan. Using cherry wood imparts a mild sweet flavour.
Although he wouldn’t divulge too much about the Gator sauce, he did say one of the key ingredients is pineapple.
“Our sauce is our own recipe, but I’ll tell you, we use pineapple juice in it,” he said.
Smith, who’s been in the rib game for more than two decades, said B.C. started smacking their lips for ribs about six years ago.
“For the last 25 to 30 years ribfests have been big in Ontario, but it wasn’t until the last six or so they caught on in B.C. and the western provinces. We kind of looked at it at the time and saw that nobody was going across the Ontario border. Somebody asked us to go to the Pacific National Exhibition and we said ‘Sure, we’ll give you guys a go.’ Three or four teams came in there the first year and it went over really well. We loved B.C. and we decided to start going out and finding more shows.”
And they did.
Now, Smith keeps a team out in the west for the summer to attend a variety of shows.
From now till the fall Smith will spend pretty much every weekend attending ribfests travelling around the Southern Interior, Vancouver Island, a few in the Vancouver area and several in Saskatchewan.
And that’s just Gator’s western arm of the well-known rib empire. He has 23 trucks on the road attending ribfests large and small in communities all the way from the state of New Hampshire to Vancouver Island.
“You have to like being on the road. I do. I was promoting for shows and festivals before this when a gentleman from Alabama, Larry Murphy, introduced me to this.
He did a couple festivals for me and I liked what he was doing. At first, I was just an employee and then I joined up with him and started being an owner. He taught me a lot about BBQ,” he said.
In Penticton, the Gator team expects to cook up and sell more than three tons, 6,000 pounds, of meat including ribs, pulled pork, chicken and brisket.
Cooking started Thursday night.
“Some of the stuff takes 10 to 11 hours to produce. On Friday we’ll start cooking ribs and it’ll be pretty continuous right through to Monday. It’s great that it’s a four-day event this year.”
Smith said he prefers to work with service clubs to put on a show.
“We like to connect with the service clubs instead of independent operators who just take the cash and go. That way they can raise money for their community and it works out good for everyone.”
More than 35,000 people are expected at this year’s ribfest. Entrance is free. There will be music throughout the event, entertainment and activities for children, beverage garden and vendors. The lip-smacking action goes Friday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday, Monday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.