Clouds and sun
51°
Clouds and sun
Hi 52° | Lo 30°

‘We’re Talking Competition Barbecue’

At the ‘Jack,’ Barbecue Masters Face Off for a Coveted Crown

Amid a veritable small town of RVs and barbecue grills set up next to the Jack Daniel Distillery complex in Lynchburg, Tenn., a few weeks ago, George “Tuffy” Stone was feeding wood into his smoker. “This has been a hard cook,” he said.

Temperatures had plunged into the 20s the night before, bedeviling the 97 teams here for the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue contest. Cold temperatures can prolong cook times, wreaking havoc on meticulous planning, even for a competitor as experienced as Stone.

Frankly, Stone didn’t even need to be here. The lanky, genial 46-year-old enjoys a thriving career in the restaurant business (with four barbecue places around Richmond, Va.) and a side gig on television (as a judge on BBQ Pitmasters ). Yet he derives pleasure from driving around the country, staying up half the night, spending good money on meat, and worrying himself to the bone over whether a pork rib will please some guy in a tent with the title of judge. Stone is, in other words, one of the thousands addicted to barbecue competitions.

A “hard cook” is not welcome at any competition, least of all at “the Jack,” as this one is known. One of the most prestigious barbecue contests in the world, the Jack accepts only teams that have won a major event, such as a state championship with at least 25 teams competing. Stone’s team, Cool Smoke, was coming off a first-place victory a few weeks earlier at another distinguished event, the American Royal World Series of Barbecue Invitational Contest in Kansas City. He had been to the Jack four times before and had never won.

Because he is in the process of opening a new restaurant, Stone had been even busier than usual. The week before, he had cooked at events in Arkansas and New York City, then traveled to Alabama to pick up his rig. He arrived in Lynchburg on Thursday afternoon and set up camp, trimmed his meat, got it inspected (required) and attended to a myriad of other details. “Everything is pretty laid out and methodical,” he told me later. “If you’re ever going to bring your A game, it’s at the Jack.”

But he’d miscalculated the amount of wood he would need. He arranged to get more, but it was not what he wanted. “It was very green,” he said, so it would burn cooler than the preferred drier wood, extending the cooking time. “I was having to run a different fire.”

Stone and his father, George, shared the work. At 2:30 a.m. Saturday, his father got up and lit the fire. At 3:30, he put on the brisket and the pork butt. They had agreed to cook at a higher temperature than usual to make up for the cold weather. At 5 a.m., Stone took over, and after about an hour, his dad went back to sleep. Stone seasoned the chicken and ribs and put them in the smoker. Throughout the cook, Stone or his dad fed a split log into the firebox about every 20 minutes. “I stayed in a high state of focus,” Stone said.

Stone likes to let his Wagyu beef brisket rest, often pulling it off the smoker three hours before judging. Depending on the feel, he might keep it in a warming device. But because of the cold weather and green wood, Stone left the brisket on until shortly before turning it in. Still, he was confident. “You want to get the brisket to the point that it is tender but doesn’t lose its structure,” he said later. “I thought it was up there in terms of what I expect.”

He was worried about his ribs, though. The amount of fat in meat, which affects its doneness, can vary. As many competitors do, Stone cooked several racks, so he could choose ribs from among the ones he thought would be best. “You can’t bite the ones you’re putting in the box,” he said, “so you have to go on feel. I wasn’t sure about these ribs.”

When the organizers invited me to take a judging class on Friday and judge the Jack on Saturday, I hemmed and hawed. On some level, to judge would be to drain the proceedings of their mystique. But it would also be like going to referee school one day and reffing the Super Bowl the next. The offer was too good to refuse.

So for three hours on Friday afternoon, I joined 77 other students, most of whom weren’t judging the Jack but were simply getting certified by the Kansas City Barbeque Society to judge other events. Since its founding in 1985, the KCBS has grown from 30 members and a contest that awarded the winner a paper crown to a juggernaut: nearly 18,000 members and around 400 sanctioned events annually, some overseas. It’s the largest sanctioning body in competitive barbecue.

My fellow students and I learned to scrutinize the meats according to specific instructions with such seriousness, you’d think we were Talmudic scholars.

You’re not permitted to speak while judging an entry, and it is bad form to glance at your tablemate’s scores. Scores range from 2 (“inedible”) to 9 (“excellent”). The teacher, a big, amiable drill sergeant of a man named Mike Lake, 67, walked us through the rules. “I want you to forget everything you think you know about barbecue,” he announced. “We’re talking competition barbecue.”

Lake was no-nonsense. “Judge only what’s in the box,” he said. “Not what you think should be in the box.”

“The box” looks like one of those plastic-foam take-out deals you get at restaurants. But in contests, the box is sacred. We learned what had to be in it, what could be in it and what couldn’t. In each judged category — pork (not beef) ribs, pork, chicken and beef brisket — the box must contain at least six samples. Sauce is optional (although, as it turned out the next day, competitors seem to consider it mandatory). The box may include a garnish, but only if it’s “fresh green lettuce, curly parsley, flat-leaf parsley and/or cilantro.” Anything else can disqualify an entry, as can a “foreign object” such as a shard of aluminum foil.

We tasted and scored on three criteria (appearance, taste and tenderness), and then Lake questioned us after each tasting: How did you score it, and why? He explained that each entry must be judged on its own merits, not compared with the others. He provided a rationale for what is a fair judgment and what isn’t. “Meat falling off the bone is not what we’re looking for in KCBS judging,” he said. “You ought to be able to take the rib like this, and” — he chomped — “take a bite right out of the center.” He held the bone up for everyone to see.

People asked about the amount of bark (crisped exterior), the role of sauce as a complement, the preferred color of various meats. Lake answered like a man who had heard them all before, and, as a former board member and past president of the KCBS, he no doubt had.

After three hours, we raised our right hands, took an oath to fair and informed barbecue judging, and went forth to evaluate.

I was one of 150 judges at the Jack, where, as at all KCBS events, the judging is blind.

The sauce category was first. Sauce, which doesn’t count in the points total, came in foam cups. I was partial to a scarlet sauce with a complex spiciness that seemed to be my table’s favorite, according to a table captain who read the turned-in score cards.

The next category was called Homeland. It is for the 22 international teams and also doesn’t count in the overall scoring. We tasted delicious salmon topped with grill-blackened slices of lime; white-fleshed fish (we couldn’t agree on its provenance) dramatically presented on a charred stave with onion, broccoli and cherry tomato; and expertly cooked medium-rare steak with rectangles of crisped potato in a mild yellow sauce.

The four official points-gathering categories followed. First, chicken, all of which I found tender, if over-sauced. I ranked highest the one with little sauce and a wonderful balance in its overall flavor. Next, ribs, all glistening with sauce. Each was juicy, and — although I prefer mine a little chewier, smokier and decidedly less sauced — I enjoyed them, even going back for repeated bites despite much counsel to avoid such gluttony.

The pork shoulder came pulled and sliced, many of the offerings with a uniformly black bark and all of them sticky-sweet. Out next came the brisket: again, all of it sauced and sweet, several slices lacking even a whiff of smoke. One slice was mealy, another dry, a third overly chewy.

Competitive barbecue meats are intended to blow your taste buds away in a single bite. Few restaurateurs, even those coming out of the circuit, serve the stuff, which is simply too intense for customers who want a plateful rather than a mere taste. Many old-timers, and even some of those on the circuit, rue the direction that competitive barbecue has taken, with phosphate and other injections changing the texture, and candy sweetness overwhelming the flavor of the meat. Having sampled at other contests, I felt prepared for what came but was nonetheless surprised by the barrage of sweetness. Years ago, I tasted Stone’s pork. It, too, was sweet, but exquisitely complex, not cloying.

The final category was desserts, which also don’t count toward the overall tally. I polished off a magnificent creme brulee, a delicious banana pudding parfait and much of a cupcake, then pushed away from the table. My work here was done.

At the awards ceremony, Tuffy Stone was a bundle of nerves. Cool Smoke came in seventh for chicken, 10th for pork and, to his amazement, second for ribs. The brisket he had been so confident about did not place in the top 10. It rattled him.

Scores are combined, so if his brisket scored too low, it could cost him a victory or even a high overall place in the standings. The emcee called out the team names of the top 10 overall winners. “When they got to the top five, I was, like, please call our name,” Stone recalled. “Then, when we got to reserve second place, I was, like, ‘Oh, no, that brisket is going to sink us.’ ”

The emcee called the name of the grand champion. “Cool Smoke,” he bellowed.

Stone, instantly mobbed by well-wishers, was speechless. “This is unbelievable,” he said, looking both exhilarated and drained.

Later, he arrived at his hotel. Exhausted, he slumped into a chair and yawned. “I still can’t believe it,” he said. “I probably won’t believe it till Tuesday.”

The victory at the Jack netted him $10,000 and meant that he was invited to cook in New York at the Kingsford Invitational — which hosts only eight competitors, most of them from the nation’s most prominent competitions, and has a $50,000 payoff — just two weeks later. Would he do it? He had already turned down an invitation to judge, because he just didn’t have the time with his other commitments.

“But cooking,” he said. “Competing.” That’s another story. He was in.