For aficionados of the increasingly popular cooking style know as primal chic, this had to represent some kind of apotheosis: an entire 450-lb. bison bound to a massive spit, rotating laboriously against a nighttime backdrop of smoke and fire. Then Toronto chef Marc Thuet emerged from the shadows holding aloft a bottle of Jim Beam, and upped the ante further still by dousing the bronzed beast with it, then calling for another, and doing it again.
“Please, chef, don’t waste any more of that!” Thuet’s Serbian pit master Nikola Krajisnik pleaded from the sidelines. But the gesture of showmanship had unleashed fantastic wafts of rich and boozy aromas over the crowd, all of them guests at an annual bacchanalian fundraiser on the Toronto waterfront called the Power Ball. And so they pressed closer against the bar, and held their smartphones aloft to film the action for Internet postings starring the Alsatian chef affectionately known as “Le Barbare.”
Then Thuet stepped away and Krajisnik took over, deftly carving a quarter-inch-thick slice from the outside of the loin as it turned, and finally passed some my way. The skin was crisp, lacquered and salty, and the meat beneath was succulent, smoky, mildly gamey and a little chewy. I liked it a lot. But then, I had missed the 2011 Power Ball, when Thuet and Krajisnik had collaborated on spit-roasting an 800-lb. steer. “That one was amazing,” Thuet’s wife, Biana Zorich, recalled with enthusiasm. “So fatty—when you took a bite the fat dribbled down your chin.”
Thuet countered that he was “more of a bison man,” adding that his Quebec-sourced beast “was better anyway, because he spoke French.” But Krajisnik was in Zorich’s camp, with the beef—and the fat.
“I’ve roasted about 1,500 pigs and lambs,” he told me. “Maybe 20 steer. This is my first bison. But goat! Maybe goat is the best—as long as you can find a good one, around 35 lb. with lots of fat.”
His carnivorous discourse was interrupted by a young couple who had sampled the spit-roasted steer last year, and, having decided since to marry, wanted to negotiate details of a Krajisnik appearance at their post-wedding backyard party. He agreed readily.
As it happens, he is in the home-renovation business in Waterloo, Ont. “It’s a good job,” he explained of the work that pays the bills, as he drizzled another mop full of his basting liquid (a mixture of rendered beef fat, salt, sugar, water and spices) over the bison. “But this? This is what I love.”
It goes back to his youth in what was then Yugoslavia, where, as he tells it, every family had an outdoor spit. “Even under Communism, big shots in the city would make trips out to the countryside to do this for special occasions.”
In Canada he kept up the tradition with lambs and goats. He got involved in charity work, putting on fundraising feasts for churches—once roasting 48 pigs and lambs to feed 3,000 people at a monastery in Milton, Ont. Then, about a decade ago, Thuet and his wife sold their farm in Pefferlaw, Ont., and donated their Angus steer to the local church, where Krajisnik happened to be one of the flock. One thing (meat) quickly led to another (spit, fire). “I had to study information on the Internet for 15 days to learn how to do it right,” Krajisnik said. What he settled on was a triple-heat-source approach. He flanks the animal’s front and hind quarters with metal mesh boxes loaded with wood. The tender centre gets by with ambient, non-direct heat—until he adds charcoal and smouldering wood coals between the wood-burning fireboxes to heat the animal through before serving. A later refinement added metal trays to catch the drippings.
Then you slice the meat from the exterior, just as you would from a shawarma. Then you slip the meat between thick slices of Thuet’s excellent bread, lightly dredged in the spilled fat and juices, and tuck in. There really is nothing quite like it for your next party for 800—a guaranteed crowd pleaser, unless you invite the guy in the pink shorts and blazer combination who asked about vegetarian options.
Check out some of Cole Garside’s photos from the event that we couldn’t squeeze into the magazine.