Masters of the Pit: Perry Perkins
February 16, 2012
You’ve probably heard of, perhaps seen, maybe even used a Cuban style pig box, the most popular of which is La Caja China. And few people know the true cooking dexterity of these boxes than Chef Perry Perkins, author of such books as “La Caja China Cooking,” “La Caja China World” and “MEAT FIRE GOOD” (all available at http://www.perryperkinsbooks.com).
So, Perry, I understand you come from a family of chefs. Where they also into outdoor cooking?
Yes, both my father and Grandfather (and there are rumors about his father) were professional chefs. Dad wasn’t much of a bbq or grill man, spending most of his cooking time in French and Italian inspired restaurants. My grandfather, however, was an avid (some would say obsessive) outdoorsman, and spent as much time as possible in hunting and fishing camps. He also cooked for the WPA work crews who built Timberline Lodge, and for the dinner served to President Roosevelt at the opening ceremonies. During construction, he did most of his cooking for 150-200 men over open fires and custom grills.
Any early memories from around the grill?
My first grill was a beat-up old charcoal grill that, as an industrious 12 year-old, I “rescued” from beside the dumpster of our apartment complex. It has seen better days, but I patched the rusted holes in the bottom with layers of tin foil, and spent hours sanding the rust and crud off the grates. Being self-taught, there was a lot of trial and error, and many a cheap hotdog went to a fiery, inglorious death in the process but that first summer my grilling fascination morphed into weekly (and sometimes nightly) B.Y.O.M. (bring your own meat) parties for us and several neighbors, a custom that continued for many years. We were all pretty far down on the economic food-chain, and I don’t recall ever taking a trip (no car), or a vacation (I saw Disneyland for the first time at 30, lol), so these evening potlucks around the grill with our friends were our R&R, and I have great memories of them.
When did you first encounter the Cuban style roasting box? And were you immediately hooked or it grew on you over time?
I read an article in the food section of my local newspaper, back in 2008, and it was love at first site. I was grilling and barbecuing regularly in my pit smoker and bullet, but I had to have one of these boxes, too. The idea of roasting whole pigs, for friends and family, rekindled fond memories of those old grill parties I’m sure, and I sweet-talked, brow-beat, and threatened three of my closest friends into going in together to co-op an Model #2. I fired it up an hour after the assembly was finished, and roasted my first six shoulders the same day the UPS truck dropped it off. Never looked back!
Why did you decide to create your first cookbook, La Caja China Cooking: the Secret to Perfect Roasting?
I had been talking a lot about the Caja, and my adventures with it, on my original blog. As I couldn’t afford to buy a whole pig every week, I started branching out into other ingredients. Recipes for the boxes were slim-pickin’s at the time, so I started developing my own. After posting one of my favorites, I received a voice-mail that went something like, “Mr. Perkins, this is Roberto Guerra from La Caja China. Please give me a call as soon as you can, at…” My first thought was, “Oh crap! What copyright laws did I break?”
Turned out that Mr. Guerra had seen my recipe post, and had some very nice things to say about it. Roberto told me that he was very interested in spreading La Caja China, already wildly popular among the Cuban communities of the south, more widely in the American bbq and grilling market, and he was interested in having me develop and post more recipes along these lines. He was also interested in covering my expenses for ingredients related to “testing” these recipes and wanted to send me a shiny, new “Semi Pro” model, which I had been lusting after, but hadn’t come up with a way of schmoozing my wife into the $1200.00 price tag.
Needless to say, I was interested in his interest. After about a year of testing and posting pulled pork, bbq brisket, whole turkeys, lambs, etc…I gathered my recipes and tips into a collection, printed it (I’m also a book-coach and small-press publisher, so I was able to do it all myself), and sent a sample copy to Roberto. He loved it, and, as they say…the rest is history.
Any particular challenges when working on that first book?
Not really…I did have to re-test all of the recipes I had posted to make sure I hadn’t missed any steps, and include new tips and techniques I’d gathered along the way. We ate a lot of roast pork that Spring…it was rough!
I’ve had a La Caja China for several years now and many people think of them as being strictly for roast pig. Obviously the fact that the instructions for cooking a pig are printed right on the side of the wooden box doesn’t help the cause, but perhaps you can talk a little about how truly versatile the box is?
Most folks, obviously, are attracted to La Caja China by the concept of roasting a whole pig. That, in itself, offers a myriad of great recipes like Hawaiian Pua?a K?lua, French Pourcelet Farci, Southern US Pig Pickin’, Filipino Lechon, and of course, Cuban Lechon Asado. All different, and all amazing. You can spend a LOT of time just cookin’ pigs! In fact, I’m working on a La Caja China version of a century-old Bavarian classic, “Spanferkel-Krustenbraten” (Suckling pig roast). The traditional sauce requires testing a large variety of dark German beers…but I’m committed to being thorough and getting it right!
That said, once we get past the glories of the whole pig…there are innumerable possibilities with other meats. Just about anything you can roast in your oven, or Dutch-oven, you can roast (en masse, and outside of your kitchen) in La Caja China. We’ve done everything from traditional dishes like smoked brisket, whole salmon, and roast lamb, to more esoteric entrees, like Cabrito Al Pastor (whole roast goat), mutton, goose, massive clambakes, whole tuna fillets, and antelope. Most of those recipes, in fact, are included in the second cookbook, “La Caja China World.”
Then, with the addition of the top grills, you can do burgers, dogs, chicken…pretty much anything. In fact, I’m usually grilling up some type of appetizer on top, as the aromas that escape from inside the box tend to draw friends, neighbors, and complete strangers, in sea-gull-like crowds. We do a dozen or so roast turkeys every year for a local homeless shelter, as well, they turn out great.
As you briefly mention, you also did a second book last year based on global recipes prepared in a roasting box. Are there any recipes in particular that you really love?
Well, I mentioned a number of them above, but my all time favorite from La Caja China World is, hands down, Roberto Guerra’s Pierna Criolla a Lo Caja China, a rolled boneless pork shoulder recipe (which whupped Bobby Flay in a Throwdown, btw), stuffed with bacon, ham, brown sugar, and guava shells, and marinated with Malta (a non-alcoholic malt drink) and Mojo spices. It’s so freakin’ good! (You can find the recipe posted on La Caja China’s website: www.lacajachina.com).
Any recipes that completely failed when you tried doing them in the roasting box?
I tried smoking a couple of dozen whole oysters (in the shell) once, but got the heat/smoke levels way wrong…try to picture a creosote-flavored gummy worm. On second thought…don’t!
Now some people complain about the lack of smoke flavor when cooking in a roasting box but I always tell them that it’s a completely different experience and taste from smoking or grilling. What are your thoughts on the subject? Have you ever used the smoke gun attachment?
I agree. I love the taste of roasted meat, and I love the taste of smoked meat. I’ve tried several different smoking methods, and you can read the reviews on my blog. (my review: http://burninlovebbq.wordpress.com/2011/07/19/easy-smoking-in-la-caja-china-a-maze-n-pellet-smoker-review/). For simplicity of form, ease of use, price, and consistently good performance, this is, by far, the best thing I’ve found for smoking in La Caja China (I’m not affiliated with these guys, btw, just love the product!)
Any other “must have” accessories for current or future La Caja China owners?
I would be lost without my top grills. Besides those, I love the rotisserie attachment (testing gyros methods right now), an all-metal dust pan allows me to remove the heat-sucking ashes, without having to remove the lid to dump them – very nice. I grill a lot of oysters, and I love my oyster grills. A good probe thermometer is definitely a must have. We have a whole store, over at Amazon, of products and accessories I’ve tested and recommend for La Caja China (http://www.burninlovestore.com).
What’s next for you, Perry, perhaps another book or a line of roasting box seasonings and marinades?
As far as cookbooks go, I’m kickin’ around some ideas for a “Nuthin’ but the Pig” book of every “whole hog” recipe I can find (and test) from around the world. Maybe an appetizers e-book especially designed for high-heat grilling over a La Caja China. Also, I recently wrote and posted a free e-book, “La Caja China Guidebook” of field-tested tips, tricks, and instructions, which is available on the blog, as well.
The big project on my desk right now is our monthly menu-planning service, HauteMealz.com (www.hautemealz.com), which will include, of course, lots of grilling and roasting recipes, along with great everyday dinners (and shopping lists) to help folks save time and money, while enjoying some next-level meals!
Thanks again for your time and for anyone with additional questions regarding Cuban style roasting boxes, post them in the comment section below and we’ll do our best to get them answered!
- Clint Cantwell, Grilling.com Editor
Excellent interview... Perry, excellent interview. Gotta love how you have done so much on La Caja China...I'm sure your already an honorary Cuban :) I would love to introduce you to Blake Powers with Cooking with the troops. It's a great organization and frankly, we could definitely use your talents.