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Get Baju's Pig Out Platter, with smoked brisket, chicken and ribs, mac & cheese, fries and slaw.
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Pit-master Jason Rees shows off the dry ribs.
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Erika Werry serves a few happy customers at the Monarch.
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Jason Rees administers to the brisket.
Jason Rees lives, breathes - and eats - barbecue. And he wants it all to be really, really good.
"I have aways been very passionate about putting delicious things into my face," says the energetic self-taught pit-master.
He's recently taken over the kitchen at Baju, Zane Caplansky's barbecue joint at the Monarch Tavern, where Caplansky himself got his start serving Jewish deli food.
Caplansky was originally working with the team from Mise en Place catering when he first opened the BBQ, but early reviews were dismal. When he put the word out that he was looking for someone new, Rees, whom he'd known for years, wanted in and was willing to be a partner.
"I'm thrilled with what Jason's doing - on every level," says Caplansky. "He's making incredible food and being very visible in the dining room, too. I love his passion for barbecue and for our guests."
Constantly laughing and joking, Rees is a font of knowledge about all things barbeque.
"I'm always amazed how many people don't know the difference between a baby back and a spare rib," he says when discussing an idea for an educational barbecue seminar he'd like to offer.
While visiting his workspace, I get a fun tour of his full set-up - three barbecues and a couple of smokers - plus tasty samples.
While he never trained professionally, his childhood summers were spent camping and grilling over a campfire (or cooking food atop the engine of his father's Monte Carlo). When Rees got his first real barbecue as an adult, he challenged himself to cook every meal for a summer on that grill, including desserts.
By the mid-2000s he'd signed on as a certified judge with the Kansas City Barbecue Society, travelling the U.S. circuit eating, judging and learning about the finer points of the art and eventually creating his own barbecue team. Catering under the name Pork Ninjas followed in 2010, and now continues under the Baju banner.
The transition from rebel caterer (Rees worked out of a refurbished school bus) to restaurant chef has been mostly painless. He started at Baju with no staff, so girlfriend Andrea Toole often pitched in, and guest chefs like Scott Savoie of the Culinary Adventure Company and Matt Kantor have stopped by for a day or a week to lend a hand and teach him tricks.
Rees says Savoie taught him how to master the deep-fryer and make awesome fries, while Kantor got the kitchen organized. For the time being, Peter Campagna of Lansdowne Brewery will also be helping him out.
Getting his bearings, Rees wasted no time in putting his mark on his new digs. "I changed everything," he says. "I replaced nearly every item on the menu with 'things in my wheelhouse,' added new seasonings and tripled the size of the menu."
Baju now offers one of the most extensive barbecue menus in the city: pulled pork and brisket by the pound; ribs, chicken thighs and Caribbean chicken lollipops by the piece; 13 side dishes that range from traditional slaw, beans and collards to pickle chips and curried potato salad; daily specials. Hearty combo deals, early-bird specials and massive portions make for happy customers.
Versed in the science of smoking, Rees is discerning about what makes good barbecue.
"The most common problem - and the worst thing - with some of the barbecue around town is that the food just tastes like smoke and wood fire and not much else."
"I want to be more than a one-trick smoked pony. You should be able to taste the meat, the seasonings and the smoke. There needs to be a delicate balance."
In terms of the educational opportunities Baju might offer, Rees is planning a couple of beer dinners and muses about a rib-tasting event that would showcase all the different styles, preparations and cuts of pork and beef.
As for the surge in local competition, Rees welcomes it, tentatively. "My only fear is that we'll see a whole bunch of mediocre places that ruin it for the ones that are serving genuinely good barbecue."
Rees needn't worry. Baju might just put Toronto on the international barbecue map.