Nick Smith, left, and his father Matt, of Gator BBQ.
For over 30 years, Gator BBQ has been delivering mouth-watering chicken, pulled pork and ribs to the hungry crowds of Rib Fests all across North America. Touring Canada and the Northern United States, the Smith family of Port Dover continue to win countless awards and events with their signature southern BBQ cuisine. On the eve of Ottawa Ribfest, I caught up with Matt Smith to discuss his humble BBQ beginnings, his secret for achieving great tasting barbecue and if he ever gets tired of being around so much BBQ!
How did you get involved in the BBQ business?
By accident mostly. I used to be part of the carnival circuit for Conklin Shows and eventually crossed paths with a fella who ran these Ribfests. I started my own team and its grown from there—must be 20 years at least. We were there at the very start!
Tell me about the BBQ process. Boil or bake? Smoker? Hardwood or gas?
Always smoked. Ribs, pork and chicken are done in our smoker (Southern Pride) for various times depending on the meat. Although the fuel is propane, there’s a wood oven that heats the smoker and pumps the heated smoke throughout.
We like to finish the ribs on the grill; that’s where we’ll use charcoal or wood. We get the meat nice and hot and then add the sauce, let it caramelize a bit, and then you’re ready to go.
For us backyard BBQ’ers, what are some of the tricks for achieving great BBQ?
Low and slow. You’ve heard it before but it holds up. The secret to great BBQ is time, practice and patience.
Where do you get your ribs? Are they sourced locally from each location or are they imported from the US?
Our ribs are part of a regional distribution system; everything is Canadian.
Your sauce is pretty much the best I have ever tasted. How did you go about perfecting the Gator BBQ sauce? How long did it take?
Thanks for the compliment. It evolves every once in a while but we like to maintain our signature flavour; something that compliments the meat rather than overpowers it. The current sauce we’re competing with has been our go-to brand for the last ten years.
What side-dish should I get to go with my ribs?
Coleslaw and baked beans are Ribfest classics, but our “Gator Taters” are a fantastic side (add some of our hot sauce for a real treat!)
Do you enjoy the festival circuit? Do you tour year-round?
You couldn’t do Ribfests for as long as we have without loving what you do. We tour 6 months out of the year. During the offseason, we work out of the restaurant doing catering and events.
Speaking of, you recently opened Gator BBQ Smokehouse and Deli in Simcoe, Ontario. Any plans to open different locations?
We have no immediate plans for expansion, but you never know—stranger things have happened! The restaurant gives us a chance to keep our team busy during the offseason. It’s nice, but at the core, we’re a Ribfest team and prefer to be on the road.
Last question. Do you ever get sick of BBQ?
Ottawa Ribfest runs from June 14-18, 2017 at the Sparks Street Mall. Hours are Wednesday to Saturday, 11 am-10 pm, Sunday 11 am-7 pm.