Elite Spotlight : James Mack | Smoking Dad BBQ

Everybody loves good BBQ, but sometimes the thought of diving right in with limited experience (or no experience at all) can be pretty intimidating. Luckily, James Mack took the plunge nearly 20 years ago and has been sharing his experiences (good and bad) with friends, family, and few million other adventurous backyard BBQ enthusiasts ever since. If you’re looking for tips on how to get your grill up to temp, your brisket on point, or how to finesse your live fire cooking experience, James is the guy to ask. He took some time to tell Dalstrong about his own learning experiences.

Can you tell us about your background?

When my wife and I first got married about 18 years ago, one of our wedding gifts was a BBQ. It was a gas BBQ and I couldn’t wait for it to die so I could get into Komodo cooking and charcoal grilling. When we got our first proper live fire grill we absolutely fell in love with it, but we had a steep learning curve and I realized a lot of our friends had the same questions I did about making the switch from propane to live fire. There weren’t a lot of resources back then, and a lot of recipes would start with “cook this at 400 degrees” without mentioning how to get your grill to that temperature or how to measure it. 

I decided to save time for my friends and just post a video so we could all learn together, and it turned out there were a few million other people who wanted those answers too. They’ve all tuned in to learn and enhance their skills and share all the joys of live fire cooking for friends and family.

Tell me a bit about your experience in the BBQ community

I’m “patient zero” in our family. It wasn’t really a part of childhood for me or my wife, but we started exploring some of the competitions near us and going to great restaurants and I just really wanted to cook this great BBQ at home myself. With no knowledge or experience I started jumping into it, and that was about 15 years ago so YouTube was less of a resource — I had a lot of books to help me learn. In Canada, the BBQ community was small. BBQ was something our friends to the south did, but over the last few years it’s really grown here. 

Who do you follow on social media for inspiration?

I’m a big fan of Francis Mallmann. He’s not exactly a traditional BBQ chef but he did an episode years ago on Chef’s Table that was such a beautiful audio visual storytelling of cooking with fire and how it interacts with food and flavor, so he became a live fire cooking idol of mine.

What are the highs and lows for you, what do you love to cook and what not so much?

That’s really something that changes over time. Ten or fifteen years ago I would have said brisket, but now I think I could do that blindfolded. That might be a good video, actually.

Now I am trying to do more with sides, veggies, and fish, so there’s a completely different technique with the amount of flame and seasonings. 

For myself, I love everything so I really like to cook for other people. For me, so long as we’re having fun with friends and family I’m having fun, no matter what I’m cooking.

How often do you cook and do you always have people over?

For my family, one of the big impacts of covid was how it impacted our ability to have people over for meals. Most weekends we try to entertain friends or family, especially when we’re doing a big cook on the grill because if we make a brisket, that’s just way too much for my family to handle so we try to recruit guests to help consume that extra food.

I have a 9-5 that keeps me really busy, so I try to keep my cooks to just the weekends. If there’s a shorter recipe, I can sometimes get a cook in on a weekday evening, but I try to do at least one cook on the weekends. 

How do you spend your time when you’re not grilling?

I’m a dad, I have two daughters ages 10 and 14, so they have a ton of activities that are priority number one. My 9-5 does keep me busy too, I work in the technology sector so it’s pretty full on, but I have my passions too. I love mountain biking, running, hitting the gym. Monday to Friday those three things really take up the day, and then the weekends are full-on BBQ assault.

If you could cook for anyone, past or present, who would it be?

We have the most fun with friends and family, so I think being able to have relatives who have gone before us would be the greatest. If I could do the wishing well for the perfect BBQ, I would bring back some of those loved ones and have them here for a great time outdoors connecting, laughing and sharing good food. A lot of celebrity things would be fun, but for us family is just so important so that’s where my wish would fall. 

Who are your cooking heroes?

Francis Malmann again for bringing people together and the live fire storytelling. Samin Nosrat from “Salt Fat Acid Heat” is an incredible chef and really focuses on simplicity. Sometimes things can seem so daunting, and I just loved her book when it came out and then later a Netflix show later where she just highlights the fundamentals of cooking: salt, fat, acid, heat. Sometimes with cooking shows you see people do amazing things, but the barrier to entry is so high. She really simplified it. 

When you’re looking at partnerships, what do you look for?

Every day I have messages from businesses wanting to partner with me, but I try to say no to almost everything. I started the channel as a way to share my experiences and my tips with friends and family and I still only want to share or promote things that I actually use and trust. I have about 6-7 million viewers every year who watch for 6-7 minutes per video, which is a lot of trust. My filter for partnerships is that it has to be brands I trust, products I use, and things I would have zero hesitation recommending to friends and family. 

How did you find Dalstrong, and what are your faves?

Before I discovered Dalstrong, I actually had a few bad experiences with knives. I tried to go cheap. I underappreciated the tool, and I learned really quickly that the tools matter and so does the skill that you apply to using them. I live only about an hour away from the Dalstrong head office, so when I decided to get some good knives it blew my mind. The weight, the grip, the blade. It was amazing, it still puts a smile on my face every time. That was before I had a channel on YouTube and it’s been so nice to build this relationship over time. 

If I had to pick a favorite it would be my extra long 10” Shogun chef knife. It’s the one I use most often for spatchcocking chicken, to prepping my veggies, to slicing up those Tomahawk steaks (my favorite steaks). 

My first Dalstrong was the Shogun cleaver. I had had those bad experiences with cheap knives and I was looking for something more robust so I started with the cleaver, then a filet knife, then a chef knife, and it just grew from there. Now I use Dalstrong knives exclusively. 

You have viewers EVERYWHERE. Does that surprise you at all?

The world is a pretty big place and yet we have a lot of shared journeys, passions, questions, and I’ve been blessed to meet people from everywhere and generate such a nice community of people joining along for the learning journey. I do find we build good relationships because we’re brought together by those shared interests. 

What’s your best kitchen or grilling hack?

Chef Eric on the Kamado Joe team has a quote that goes something like “simple things, perfectly executed, always wins.” That’s always stuck with me. Do a few things really well and have fun doing it. 

I would also say don’t over smoke things. People get a smoker and get really excited, but there is too much of a good thing so I would say to have fun with it and do it often so you figure out what really works best. Plus it will open up those opportunities for more good fun with friends and family.

What is the one dish that everyone seems to screw up?

I get a lot of questions about brisket, it’s probably the number one thing that comes up. With the prices going up, the anxiety of tackling a brisket for the first time is really high because it’s become an investment. The cost, the time, the lack of experience for a lot of people, these are all things that contribute to the fear of messing up a brisket so I try to explain it as simply as I can and it’s really rewarding when I get a message saying someone tried it and had success. That’s how I know I am doing the right thing.

Is there a spice or a dish that you secretly hate?

I have a love-hate relationship with spicy foods. I love spice, but I didn’t win the genetic lottery when it comes to spicy foods so sometimes I have a bite of ketchup and almost think it’s too spicy, but I love the things you can do with spice. I’m always making spicy foods, I made two spicy chimichurris last month using my Ulu rocking knife (that’s a great one for rocking up the parsley and making chimichurris). So I love making spicy food but I can only eat a little bit.

What is the kitchen tool you can’t live without?

There’s two essentials for me: a temperature probe and a good knife. I rely on the temperature probe to get the meat to where I want it to be, and I use the knife to get great performance and presentation. I make my own bacon at home and you need a great knife for that. Not many people have sliced a pork belly into bacon at home, but you want a knife with a good grip and a sharp blade that will stay sharp. It’s not until you’ve tried slicing that belly with a dull knife that you really appreciate the investment in a good knife. My extra-long 10” Shogun chef knife is the best for that. 

How do you prepare a pork belly to make bacon?

I cook it to about 155 degrees fahrenheit and then wrap it in saran wrap and put it in the fridge overnight, for two reasons: one is that the smoke penetrates the meat better and gives it a great flavor, and two is that slicing it cool is a lot easier. 

What would your last meal be?

I’m going to cheat and say a party cook, so we can do some of everything. We love having friends over and doing lots of little things, like steak and lobsters, some appetizers (maybe jalapenos stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon), some grilled desserts… We’d have to do that kind of big party cook. 

What’s next for you?

As the channel is growing, people are asking more and more for recipes, so we’re going to launch a website later this year as a resource to share those kinds of things. We’re always looking to connect with people in person too, so more competitions and shows. This is the year of getting back to in-person events and I’m really looking forward to it.

Follow Smoking Dad BBQ

Want to master some backyard BBQ skills? Follow the live-fire cook and storyteller at Smoking Dad BBQ. You can find him on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook sharing recipes, tips, and reviews on the tools he uses.

Elite Spotlight : James Mack | Smoking Dad BBQ

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