Toronto’s hottest new barbecue chef has set up shop on the Danforth, and while his tender, flavorful smoked ribs, pulled pork, and brisket alone are worth a visit, his restaurant stands out in a crowded field for one main reason: its amazing selection of vegetarian-friendly menu items. Greenwood Smokehouse pit master Warren de Simone believes that vegetarians–and those who are just cutting down on meat for various reasons–deserve that great, smokey barbecue flavor as much as carnivores, and he’s mastered the art of teasing out supremely satisfying flavors from vegetables of all kinds. Here, he dishes out the inspiration behind his popular restaurant – and his amazingly unique vegetarian BBQ – as well as his favourite places to eat in Toronto that aren’t his own.
What the heck is a vegetarian-friendly BBQ restaurant?
My philosophy is that vegetarians should get to enjoy our slow-smoked goodness like everyone else. That’s why we offer meatless smoked foods like smoked mushroom gravy poutine, a smoked mushroom burger, and double-smoked vegan chili. All of our side dishes are vegetarian as well. There are lots of reasons people might like meatless BBQ – maybe they are vegetarian but eat out with carnivorous friends, or they love smoked food but are trying to eat lighter. Or perhaps they just want to try some new flavors. We are happy to accommodate that.
What inspired you to open a new BBQ restaurant in Toronto?
I was first introduced to barbecue in Las Vegas in 1994. My brother Marcus and I went to a pop-up barbecue joint called Struttin’ Gates, where they served Kansas City-style barbecue. We were both blown away by the hickory-smoked ribs and sauce. This led us on a quest to learn everything we could about barbecue. My brother went on to open his own barbecue place, Marky and Sparky’s Smokehouse in Toronto’s west end, and I spent the last few years cooking slow-smoked meat for my family and friends at my home on Greenwood Avenue. It took many years of practice to perfect my slow-smoking technique, but it was well worth the effort.
Anyone who’s been to Toronto knows that choosing a restaurant to dine out at is a spoil of riches. As a restaurateur, you have a keen eye for the city’s best food. Where do you go to eat out when you’ve had your fill of southern and vegetarian BBQ?
My family and I love The Ritz for breakfast, The Fuzz Box for quick and tasty donairs, Rendez-Vous for amazing African dishes and Pizzeria Libretto for wood-fired Neapolitan pizza. Reliably good, fresh food is important to me, and all of my favourite places serve up just that.
You were born in Toronto but spent some of your formative years living in Las Vegas. What do you love most about living in Canada’s biggest city?
I love Toronto’s diversity. The city’s cultural festivals, food, and music are enriched by multiculturalism. Here, we embrace cultures from across the globe, and I believe that it enriches life in this city. I’m really excited about the BBQ culture that’s starting to blossom here, because we’re not restricted to any regional preferences like others in traditional BBQ regions. There’s only one way to do BBQ in Charleston, South Carolina, which is a totally different thing than BBQ in Raleigh, North Carolina, for example. Here in Toronto, we can do anything. As a chef and restaurateur, I find that really exciting.
What is your favourite place to hang out in Toronto?
Running a popular restaurant doesn’t leave me with a lot of spare time. But I’m a family man, so when I’m not working I’m at home with my lovely wife and my three-year-old son. There’s no place in town that can beat that.