One person we can always count on to bring the party to Food Karma Project’s events is Mario Chape, better known as Big Papa Smoke’m. His classic Puerto Rican dishes pack punches of flavor that always make them event favorites. We talked to Mario about how he started cooking, his business philosophy and the secrets of the Caja China, a box shaped grill used to cook a whole pig that is extra popular around the holidays. Check out Big Papa Smoke’m’s website if you’re interested in having Mario cook for you.
Food Karma: How did you first get into cooking?
Mario Chape: I first got into cooking when I made myself some spaghetti and pasta sauce after school one day. As a young kid in Jersey, I loved to eat. Watching my family cook and the PBS show “Daisy Cooks” made that desire to chef-it up for a living stronger.
FK: Who was the cook in your family growing up?
MC: Bueno, growing up in a Puerto Rican House it was definitely Mami (my mother). She was also a single mother, so she did it always after a long days work, except weekends which were a treat. We would have a slow cooked meal that took all day.
FK: when did you start cooking with the caja china and cooking in it for others?
MC: I first began cooking in the Caja after coming back to Union City, NJ after Culinary School. It wasn’t until 2014 that I shared it with other people, and I’m so glad I did.
FK: What should people know about the process?
MC: The secrets are in the details: the instructions are on the side of the box so it’s up to the mojo and sazón to make it stand apart.
FK: What do you cook for the holidays?
MC: This time of the season I’m into obviously pernil (pork shoulder) but also Calabaza (pumpkin) and sweet potatoes. Theres something about the sweet and the acidic that I enjoy.
FK: How did you get involved with Jimmy’s events?
MC: I first heard about Jimmy’s events from Nestor the Brooklyn Pit Rat. He was one of the biggest contenders In NYC and told me about Brisket King.
FK: What have you learned about yourself and your business during the pandemic?
MC: I’ve learned that we are one of the same. To be able to believe in my business and continue to do what I love means to live my business and continue to love and improve my self. In a world of so much intangible art, Im grateful that I get to provide that.
FK: What are you excited about in the new year?
MC: This year I’m excited about the new projects that I’m working on and what’s next for chefs that really create. Some chefs don’t always get to collaborate and create different foods. I’d love to see an open network where this happens.