Thu Jun 11, 2015
Back at the beginning of May, I had the honor of joining my Kingsford family for the 2015 Kingsford Invitational set against the beautiful skyline of lower Manhattan. For those not familiar with the event, think of it as the most elite of all barbecue cook-offs. Unlike a normal competition, where just about anybody can sign up, the Kingsford Invitational invites only the top team from five of the most prestigious events in barbecue. This year that brought in the grand champions of Memphis in May (Big Bob Gibson), Houston Livestock and Rodeo (Bar-B-Que Commanders), the American Royal (Cool Smoke), Blue Ridge BBQ Festival (Warren County Pork Choppers), BBQ Pitmasters TV show (Rescue Smokers), and one wild card team made up of some of the most well regarded NYC pitmasters from Hometown, Mighty Quinn's, and Ducks Eatery (dubbing themselves The Dirty Water Dogs). Altogether the competition spanned three unforgettable days of great food and great friends.
The first evening was a welcome dinner, which in of itself was mostly just a time to hang out and chat with the contestants, but the Kingsford team never misses a beat to deliver up new recipes. The first bite I had was the most interesting—a grilled cheese stuffed pretzel, the brain child of Chris Lilly from Big Bob Gibson's, who I don't think has ever encountered a food he can't grill.
Mainly the night was filled with tiny burgers of various meats served on soft potato rolls. I, of course, tried them all, although none really captured my imagination like that pretzel and the one other non-meat item I had passed up on my first couple trips to the buffet.
That was this smoked beet reuben. I'm not a huge beet fan, so was wary of the dish by default, but multiple people at my table had gotten one and urged me to give it a try. I'm glad I did because this was damn tasty with the earthy beet gaining a nice hint of smoke from the charcoal and made extra delicious by sauerkraut and dressing.
The thing I remember most from that first night though was the good times after the meal had ended and the sun began setting. At this point the chilly breeze from the surrounding water forced Hugh Mangum from Mighty Quinn's to commandeer a fire pit and light it up. I plopped my ass in a chair next to the warming flames and sat there late into the night, enjoying the company of the teams while throwing back one beer after another. I haven't done any barbecue competitions lately and was souring a bit on the whole genre, but this feeling of camaraderie and relaxing made me nostalgic for these exact, special moments you get at comps.
A tad hungover, I barely survived the next day in the office, but was revitalized by the time I arrived back at the competition site in the late afternoon, right before the winner of the one-bite challenge was announced. In this battle, each team had to use steak, a charcoal grill, and a only small handful of extra ingredients to make the most delicious one-bite as possible. The turn ins and subsequent leftovers were mostly gone when I showed up, save for this one amazing bite from the Dirty Water Dogs that paired cold smoked ribeye, a brush of earthy and spicy harissa, and a spoonful of bright and fresh chimichurri.
That could easily have been the winner, and it almost was as the final winner, Big Bob Gibson, just barely squeezed by the Dirty Water Dogs to receive the $5,000 reward and get one point added to their total in tomorrow's larger competition.
After the awards, we had a pleasant evening of drinks and a catering staff's best interpretation of the each of the one-bite challenge entries. So I never got to have the actual rib eye cap with an intense garlic sauce that won the day, but did get this mass produced facsimile, which didn't quite get Chris Lilly's stamp of approval, but was still mighty tasty with its big beefy flavor and heavy bite of garlic.
There were also some extras thrown in like these mozzarella covered grilled meatballs. I'm a big fan of grilling meatballs, so this provided nice inspiration that you'll probably see coming to the Meatwave sometime in the near future.
After dinner the teams got to work prepping for the big competition the next day. With long cooking times and turn ins starting at noon, some meats were well underway, like Billy Durney's whole hog that had already smoked to a brilliant mahogany by 8:00 p.m. and was ready for wrapping to ensure it didn't darken further.
Also at the Dirty Water Dog's camp, Will Horowitz was air drying chickens to hopefully give them a crisp skin that would give them an edge against the other team's more commonplace tender skinned competition chicken thighs.
When I arrived back at the pier the next morning, Billy's hog was sitting pretty, dressed to the nines with it's Hometown hat and sunglasses, sporting a beer and cigarette for good measure—a little extra smoke can't hurt, right?
I got there right before chicken turn ins and most of the pitmasters were hard at work putting the finishing touches to ensure their entry was as perfect as can be. Here Tuffy Stone from Cool Smoke delicately evened out the sauce on each individual thigh.
The Big Bob Gibson team took a risk by following their hometown roots using an Alabama white sauce. This tangy mayo-based sauce seeps into the meat well and embeds it with some extra richness and flavor. At the same time, I both couldn't wait to try it as well as felt nervous for them since it was such a departure from the normal competition flavor profile that the move could easily backfire.
Their hope laid within these five expert judges—Ben Robinson of Thrillist, Moe Cason from Ponderosa BBQ, Melissa Cookston from the Memphis BBQ Co. and Yazoo Delta Q, Brad Orrison from The Shed, and Amy Mills from 17th Street BBQ. All of them were accomplished pitmasters or judges at the top of their game, so the best in cooking was appropriately matched by best in judging.
After the judges selected their chicken entries from the boxes, the leftovers were gathered and brought to the hospitality tent for us spectators to try. Some boxes only had one or two pieces left, others had many, so I had varying amounts of each entry to judge myself, but this particular one with a sweet, spicy, and fruity glaze matched with super tender and juicy chicken was my favorite of the lot.
After chowing down on chicken, I went back out to see how the next category was going—pick your pork. Unlike a normal KCBS competition where there's both a ribs and shoulder category, at the Kingsford Invitational this year the teams were able to choose whatever cut of the swine they desired. If my count is correct, two teams went with whole hog, three with ribs, and one with shoulder. Above is Rescue Smoker's hog entry that, despite being covered and butter and bacon, ended up a bit on the dry side in the few bites I pulled from pig sitting in the smoker.
This is Big Bob Gibson's pork shoulder, which was as good as I remembered it. My buddy Ken pulled me off these choice bits that were tender and delicious, but unfortunately what I tasted from the actual box later on was a bit on the mushy side and maybe had a tad too much sauce for my taste.
My favorite of the pork entries were Tuffy Stone's spare ribs. Perfectly cooked with just the right amount of smoke, these beauties had a nice spice with just a touch of heat that gave a great balance between meat and seasoning.
The last turn in of the day was brisket. I'm a Texas barbecue fan, and all three chefs on the Dirty Water Dogs are experts in making the most tender, moist, and well seasoned Texas-style brisket in the city.
Hugh Mangum of Mighty Quinn's got the ultimate brisket responsibility for The Dirty Water Dogs and what he cooked was on par with some of the best I've had from his restaurant. The only thing was, this style brisket is a far cry from the over injected competition standard, so as I watched him place those delectable slices of fatty point in the box, I hoped the seasoned judges would see this as the rightfully better representation of the meat like I did.
Tuffy Stone's also excellent brisket was more like what you'll find around competitions. His was tender and moist, but in a different, less fatty way than Hugh's. It also got a little sauce to compliment the more mildly seasoned bark.
After all turn ins were finished and clean-up was underway, everyone was called to the stage for the moment of truth. Dhani Jones from the New York Giants played the role of master of ceremonies with great style and charm for the event.
He brought the three teams with the highest scores up the stage—Big Bob Gibson, Cool Smoke, and the Dirty Water Dogs. Second place was announced first with the New York competition newbies getting the exciting call. This just goes to further prove New York has really developed itself among the top ranks of barbecue in the country.
Then came first place, which went to Cool Smoke. Tuffy sat for a minute and calmly took in the awesomeness of this achievement before bursting out in excitement. Along with the $50,000 prize, he also got a ring, amazing trophy made by Pitmaker in Houston, and most importantly, bragging rights.
It was a hell of competition, a hell of weekend, with a hell of a lot of good food. It was really a privilege for me to not only be able to taste what makes the best in barbecue, but also to be able to call so many of these people my friends, which at the end of the day is the most important thing to me and what makes barbecue and competitions so great.