Growing up in Calgary Michael Harmer — barbecue master and co-owner of Smokewood BBQ — had been captivated by the mysticism of true southern barbecue.
“Calgary has a big connection to Texas and the oil industry and those people are talking about barbecue all the time,” said Harmer.
His love for food began when he was still in grade school and his mom — who was busy at work — told him how to prepare dishes over the phone.
“I just love food preparation and different flavours and mixtures. Believe it or not I actually had a full, from scratch vegetarian restaurant before,” said Harmer.
With the lure of barbecue all around him in Calgary, his interest was further piqued when his brother went off to university in Texas.
“He came back talking about hanging out at barbecue joints on the highway,” said Harmer. “Eating pulled pork sandwiches and ribs. When he got back from university we started having these big brisket barbecues in the summer and trying to emulate that southern Texas style barbecue feel.”
It wasn’t until last year that Harmer made the trip to the southern states himself.
Like many foodies, he had been watching the food network where barbecue joints were gaining popularity.
“Myron Mixon was on that TLC BBQ Pitmasters show and I heard he was doing a barbecue camp down there, so this time last year I flew down to Georgia and did barbecuing with him for four days,” said Harmer. “We went through the whole process and basically in a couple days I got 10 years of secrets out of the guy.”
Harmer emphasized that what Canadians know as barbecue isn’t what is cooked in the southern States.
“When people think of barbecue up north in Canada they think of a gas grill and grilling and charcoal briquettes,” he said. “But barbecue is actually a genre of food from the southern United States where poorer class were given tough cuts of meat and they had to figure out how to make good food and they managed through smoking the meat at really low temperatures. This would tenderize the meat and make it absolutely delicious.”
Equipped with what he had learned in barbecue boot camp, Harmer and his wife Elizabeth moved to Nelson to make his dream a reality.
They opened up shop in an old bus at the Balfour ferry terminal.
“We introduced a lot of people to barbecue and ribs,” he said. “It’s really odd because this flavour is not in Canada. Even in a large cosmopolitan centre like Vancouver there’s three barbecue restaurants, that’s all. It’s good to be the first to set up a first barbecue restaurant in all of the Kootenays.”
After their successful summer in Balfour, Harmer decided to set up full time in Nelson with co-owner Chad Tonnos joining the operation.
During the days that followed their grand openings, it was not uncommon to see ‘sold out’ signs next to many of their menu items.
“The preparation of the food is very simple,” said Harmer. “It’s a matter of getting the meats and marinating them and rubbing them with spices and salts and smoking them. There is nothing very complicated about it. It’s just that the average person doesn’t have 18 hours to create a meal. Each meal has 18 hours of preparation in it from eight hours of marinating and the rubs and then 10 hours of smoking. What you’re getting in front of you took 18 hours to prepare. That’s the big secret there.”
Harmer also knew that his Nelson market was looking for more than just great flavour — they were looking for organic and sustainable.
“It’s whole food,” he said. “We’re a fast food, we’re a take out restaurant basically. You can come in here and you can order anything on our barbecue menu and get it in under three minutes at window. We have special meats we use. They are all natural with no antibiotics or growth hormones. We use a company in North Vancouver that specializes in that kind of meat and we try to keep the restaurant in the vein of an eco place.”
Harmer said they use all biodegradable containers and cutlery for their take out.
Smokewood BBQ is even offering something to satisfy those with a sweet tooth.
“All the baking is made in house,” he said. “We decided it would be good to serve something sweet. Of course there are a lot of coffee places in Nelson. We decided if we served something sweet it would go good with the coffee after dinner. I came up with a hybrid southern pecan pie butter tart recipe that has really taking off. It’s not a butter tart and it’s not a pecan pie.”
After 20 years, Harmer has his barbecue restaurant and the best compliment he’s had so far is from those travelling up from the States.
“People are just amazed at the flavour,” he said. “The flavour knocks them over. It’s not a common flavour. It’s an unknown flavour so when they bite into those juicy ribs or those special beans we make and the coleslaw they’re just blown away. The best compliment is from the people who come up from the States and eat here. They say ‘Yup, this is the real thing.'”
Smokewood BBQ is located at 502 A Lake Street.