Chef Spotlight: Mel Chmilar, Jr. (Dark Side of the Grill)
What do you get when you cross Ozzy Osbourne, a purple bathrobe, and BBQ? Mel Chmilar, Jr. The home-trained grill master and pit builder isn’t shy about his deadly meat creations or his daughter’s birthday bouncy house. He sat down with Dalstrong to talk about his family, his best hack for slaying every meat dish, and the coffin he keeps in his kitchen.
What inspired you to start cooking?
I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my grandma growing up. She’s 94 now. We made a lot of the food ourselves. Both of my parents worked crazy hours, so I learned to do my own shopping and cooking out of necessity. But it was fun. Other kids would watch cartoons, I’d watch cooking shows. We still cook together: canning, homemade perogies, cabbage rolls.
What’s your specialty?
BBQ! Alberta is the Texas of Canada, our beef is world renowned. I live in the Badlands. Beef is huge here, but BBQ is just catching on. Steaks and ribs and cooking meat over the fire. I took to it quite naturally.
I love the video of you smoking the ribs in your bathrobe with your daughter’s birthday bouncy house in the background. Does being a dad influence how and what you cook?
Definitely. I have two daughters: 6 years old and 6 months old. Everything I cook is for the whole family. I like spicy, rare, over-the-top meals, but I have to tone it down for the wife and kids. My daughter, bless her heart, will eat octopus and a blue rare steak. (“Blue rare” is the 8th of an inch outside has a crust, inside is still cold. As close to raw as you can get.) We’ll go pick up olive oil at a local specialty shop and my daughter talks to the ladies about my Instagram following. She’s so into it.
What’s your best cooking hack?
Most people already know, but reverse searing. It saves people from wasting money on good steak. Everyone can nail that perfect tomahawk with the reverse sear. People spend so much money on a steak, this is the way to cook it perfectly every time.
What’s your go-to, “never fail” recipe?
Salt, pepper, and garlic powder on meat. It’ll be perfect every time. With access to high-quality meat in gigantic quantities, I make this a lot.
When you’re not in the kitchen, where are you? What are your passions beyond cooking?
Whenever I have a chance, I go to the mountains with the family. We love the outdoors, fishing, hikes, walks through the bush. I do a little bit of hunting.
Is there a spice or ingredient you secretly hate?
Generic seasoning salt. I can taste it a mile away on fries, a poorly cooked burger, cheap potato chips. It’s never been good. It’s used to cover up bad cooking. It’s a poor combination of spices you probably have in your rack already.
What are the 3 things every kitchen needs?
My absolute go-to is a great spice rack where you can clearly see everything. If you can grab it, you’ll use it. You can make complicated things quite simple and fun. I made a 5 ft. tall coffin (I’m a welder by trade) that I hung in my kitchen. It holds all of my spices.
An island. Something you can work around.
A good, solid cutting board that’s stable and secure.
Is there a kitchen tool you can’t live without?
My Shogun Cimitar is my #1. I was looking for a bone breaker knife when I found Dalstrong. Saw the Cimitar and was like “I must own this.” I put it to work breaking rib bones, and it broke through them like it was nothing. Also I use tin foil for everything. It’s insane how many applications you can use it for.
Who are your cooking heroes?
Shawn Brock is the new self chef. He’s doing amazing things. When Covid happened, he did a huge run to help out all the small kitchens. He’s really in touch with the culinary scene. He’s all over the place, not confined to one thing. Everything he touches he masters, but in a way that’s off his shoulders. Very good at what he does, but is humble. Doesn’t boast.
I cook complicated stuff, but from a position from where anybody can. I nail it like Gordon Ramsey, but I have no culinary background. I did a beef wellington on Insta, and killed it. My DMs blew up with positive responses because they feel it’s accessible. My biggest problem is that everyone’s an expert. I’m just really good at it, but I’m not an expert.
If you could cook a meal for one person, who would it be?
If I can pick someone who’s passed, it would be Anthony Bourdain. Without a doubt. I love the way he uses food to bring everybody together. In grade school, my best friend was from Vietnam. As soon as I got to their house, I wanted to eat their food no matter how weird it was. I’m Ukrainian, so we eat head cheese. Show me what you’ve got. I’ll eat a chicken foot! This is how we connected, through the food of our cultures. This is what AB pushed. Wherever he went, he was home. People saw his willingness to experience any food and saw him as an equal. He took the awkwardness of culture away. He opened minds. No matter what happens, or what changes, we still connect over food.
What is the one dish that everyone seems to screw up?
For me it goes back to ribs. It doesn’t matter if it’s a restaurant or your buddy. Overcompensating with seasoning or smoke. Cooked too long because they were worried they wouldn’t do it right. It’s such a simple cook using the 3-2-1 method: smoke for three hours, wrap with liquid for two, and sauce for one. This is the best way for beginners to start making better ribs.
What would be your last meal?
You know what, I’d go James Gandolfini. Plates and plates of prawns and 40 oz steaks and a bourbon. Go out like a wrecking ball.