On weekdays, Harry Soo is just a regular Californian IT guy. He clocks at least 10 hours of work daily and comes home to play the role of a single father to two opinionated young adults.
But when the weekend rolls around, things get more interesting in the Soo household.
The computer geek puts on his flamboyant baggy pants, a straw hat and a big smile, and embraces his famous alter ego – the big daddy of the Slap Yo’ Daddy barbecue brand. Slap Yo’ Daddy is one of the top BBQ teams in the United States, and producer of all things barbecue.
Its founder, Penang-born Soo, is also one of the top pit masters in America and has won over 80 BBQ competitions in the country, as well as in Canada and Britain.
For the uninitiated, barbecue is a big deal in America. The traditional American barbecue belt stretches from up north Kentucky to deep down South, and the Carolinas in the east to Missouri and Texas in the west.
“America doesn’t have a national cuisine, so they adopted barbecue as theirs,” said the 55-year-old pit master jokingly. Soo was in Kuala Lumpur to conduct a masterclass on the art of American barbecue at the Las Vacas Meat Shop.
The first lesson of the day was the difference between barbecuing and grilling.
“Satay is a perfect example of grilling. It is the method of cooking meat right over fire. The fat from the meat drips into the fire, and in turn scents and flavours the meat,” he explained.
“Barbecue, on the other hand, is cooking meat away from fire, at a lower temperature. The flavour and scent comes from the smoke wood used in the fire.”
The Americans use apple, hickory and peach wood to smoke and flavour the meat.
It takes longer to cook American BBQ, which means top on the list of things to have for barbecue is patience. In BBQ competitions, the meat is cooked low and slow around 110°C for up to 12 hours, so you better not have anywhere else important to be that day.
Each team has to submit a set of barbecued chicken, ribs, pork and brisket for blind judging. If you get top marks in each of the four categories, you are crowned as the Grand Champion. Soo has 27 Grand Championship titles so far.
Barbecue is more than just a method to cook meat and folks in the US congregate from all over the country to compete in BBQ competitions. From dry rub to wet marinade, to sauce or no sauce, each state has its preference and an annual competition to crown the best.
Soo, has been to most, if not all, of them since he started competing in 2008.
So how did he get into BBQ competitions? Thanks to Oscar winning actors Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Well, kinda.
“It was after watching the movie The Bucket List starring Nicholson and Freeman that my co-worker made a few us write our own buc-ket lists. My friends added ‘join a BBQ competition’ to my list,” said Soo.
It is not unusual to find loud and gregarious, tough talking men showing off at these competitions. So imagine their surprise when a game changer appeared in the form of a small built, soft spoken Asian. Soo nevertheless took on the challenge, won the competition on his first try and hasn’t looked back since.
He even kept the catchy team name his buddies came up with. “There is a saying in the South that when you eat something you like, you want to ‘slap’ somebody. My friends find my BBQ so good, and I am a daddy, and that’s how the name Slap Yo’ Daddy was coined.”
Soo’s entry into the competitive BBQ scene may seem orchestrated, but in actuality, his love for barbecue sparked decades ago when he was just a wide eyed 23-year-old.
“I was pilot for Singapore Air-lines in the 80s, but the company went into financial difficulties and I was let go. I moved to Texas to continue my studies, and fell in love with the Texan style beef brisket – it was nothing like anything I had ever tasted. The meat was flavourful, tender, juicy, and was simply a work of art,” he said.
Instead of being content with just enjoying the barbecue, Soo wanted to master the creation himself.
He spent hours perfecting his own meat rub. “I started with salt and sugar, then I added pepper, then I added other spices. Each combination was different from the ones before, and I was always adding and subtracting ingredients to the rub until I found the one that worked the best for me,” he revealed.
Soo said it is the Asian taste that gives his barbecue an edge. “Instead of brown sugar, I use gula melaka. Instead of vinegar, I use tamarind juice. I use sambal, kaffir lime leaves and other Asian ingredients in my recipes.”
It took him eight years to perfect rub and sauce for his meat, but he also said that the taste is still evolving. “A good seasoning has the right combination of saltiness, sweetness, heat and spices. You should adjust the taste of the barbecue according to who you serve. I realised earlier on that the older group of judges don’t like spicy BBQs, and so I serve them something milder. You should figure out your crowd’s palate as well,” he said.
Soo spent hours tinkering with the grill and smoker, figuring out the right temperature and duration to cook the different meats.
“It’s okay if you do not have a smoker in your house. As long as you know how to work your grills and ovens, and learn the science behind the temperature and the cooking time, the meat should turn out well,” he said. “But if you are using a smoker, it is important to remember that it doesn’t have to work like a chimney.”
Soo said that the biggest rookie mistake is assuming that more smoke equals better tasting meat. “The meat has to be ‘touched’ by the smoke, not entirely covered by it.”
Soo suggested that Malaysians could experiment barbecuing using their homegrown trees.
“Try wood from a guava or mango tree. Who knows? They might give the barbecue a distinctive taste. A lot of trial and errors are involved when it comes to barbecuing. You have to make mistakes to learn how to do it right. That is how I learned,” said Soo.
However, he said that there are three key elements that make a good barbecue – flavour, appearance and tenderness.
“Use good quality meat. It should be thick and juicy, and the sauce should have a nice shine,” he explained.
But more than just the technical aspects, Soo said that he has also found the secret ingredient to his winning formula.
“Cook with love and it will transfer to the food that you make. Love makes everything taste better.”