Saturday, June 18, 2016

Cooking with a Team

The thrill for some barbecue fans is being a judge at a cookoff. For others, it’s taking on the challenging work of a cooking team. Sometimes the interests combine, and a cook wants to be certified as a judge, or a judge joins a cooking team to experience a cookoff from a different perspective.

Amanda Reed, her husband Jim, and best friend Kendra Battasta (left to right) show me the cookoff from a team's perspective.

In Apex, NC at the Peak City Pig Fest, I had the opportunity to join Coastal Smoke, a team from Wilmington, NC. It has competed at events sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society for about three years and successfully competed even earlier at community cookoffs.

Amanda and Kendra continue setup activities by placing a cooker in position.

Last year at the Smoke on the Harbor BBQ Throwdown in Mount Pleasant, SC, I met Amanda Reed, the head cook for Coastal Smoke. When I asked if I could join her team at an event in 2016, she was more than gracious and agreed that I could join her at the Pig Fest. Cooking with a team is a KCBS requirement for certification as a master judge, which I hope to gain when I have completed other requirements.

Amanda injects a pork butt with a solution of apple juice and vinegar.

For the Pig Fest, Amanda arrived about noon to set up and begin preparations. Because I wanted to see the cooking team in action from start to finish, I also arrived at noon. I was amazed at the constant motion of the team on the first day. So many steps – setup, meat inspection, cooks’ meeting, meat preparations -- have to be completed early to be ready for the quick pace of simultaneous actions on Saturday.

Pork butts are checked on a cooker.

After spending nine hours on site on Friday, I left for the evening (and a comfortable, uninterrupted sleep). Amanda with her husband Jimmy and best friend Kendra Baratta continued with other activities that shortened their sleep considerably. (Although I briefly thought about staying with them, I long ago gave up “all nighters” and don’t get up in the middle of the night for anything.) 

Kendra watches as Amanda puts chicken pieces on a cooker.

Amanda, on the other hand, slept very little. Around 3 a.m., she started the fire so that the charcoals would be ready to smoke and provide residual heat when she placed the meats on the cookers. The brisket and two of four pork butts went on the cookers at 5 a.m. At 7 a.m., the other two pork butts were placed on the cookers. These two would provide the “money muscle” (a small strip of loin meat opposite the blade bone side that is very tender) for the pork entry.

After slow cooking for several hours, the ribs are sliced for the turn-in box.

On Saturday I returned to the team site just before 8 a.m. (I could tell that Amanda and the others hadn’t enjoyed much sleep.) I watched most of the preparations for the two remaining meat categories: ribs and chicken. The ribs went on the cooker at 8 a.m. and finally the chicken at 10 a.m.

The chicken looks so good as it is arranged in the turn-in box.

So that the meats would be ready at the contest turn-in times (beginning at noon for chicken and continuing to 1:30 p.m. for brisket, the last one), each was prepared in advance – liquid injections, sauces, rubs. For example, the pork butts were injected with a solution of 3 parts apple juice and 1 part vinegar with a little sugar and salt. Even before arriving at the contest site, Amanda had prepped the chicken pieces by removing the bones, some skin and fat.

Kendra turns in chicken, the first entry, exactly at noon to Doug Reid, the KCBS rep.

When the turn-in times arrived, I was surprised how calm the team was. Everything was going just like clockwork. Kendra was the “runner” and took each entry for turn-in at the designated time after Amanda had completed the final stages. Before a turn-in was ready, she had picked the best pieces, cuts, or slices from everything that had been cooked, which was three or four times what was needed for turn-in. For example, to select at least 6 pieces of chicken for the entry, 19 had been cooked.

Rib are perfectly placed in the turn-in box for a high appearance score.

When the last entry was turned in, there was a brief sigh of relief before starting the final actions: cleaning and packing for the journey home – and waiting (more than 3 hours) for the awards ceremony. The results were bittersweet. The scores for chicken, ribs, and brisket were lower than hoped for, but Coastal Smoke placed among the top 10 teams in the pork category (even at turn-in, we thought that the pork was the best of the four entries submitted).

The pork entry, with money muscle lining the center, is ready for turn-in.

Looking back on the weekend activities, I have much more appreciation for a cooking team. The investment of time, money, and effort is substantial. Few people, particularly the public that arrives mid-day on Saturday, realize the amount of work involved. For me, the weekend was great. Because I had judged at the Peak City Pig Fest last year, seeing the event from the perspective of a cooking team was rewarding. If I ever spend time with a cooking team again, I can only hope that they are as congenial as Coastal Smoke

Note: To see an album with more pictures of my cooking experience with Coastal Smoke, click here.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

In Asheville for National Tour

More than 700 barbecue teams are competing again this year for $500,000 in cash and prizes in the Sam’s Club National Tour. The tour attracts some of the top cooking teams in the country, and being a judge is rewarding because the barbecue is so superior.

This year I was a judge in an initial qualifying event in Asheville, NC. At these events, thirty teams compete for the right to advance to a regional qualifying event where the top finishers are invited to the national event in October in Bentonville, Arkansas, where the grand champion takes home $50,000.

A table for demonstrations is set up beside The Sam's Club National BBQ Tour truck.

The tour started this year in February in Daphe, Alabama. Events continue almost every weekend until mid-September when the last regional event is held in Madison, Wisconsin. Michael McDearman, tour director, whom I met last year in North Charleston, SC, is one busy person as he travels to each site and organizes the events.

Michael McDearman, tour director, welcomes judges to the event in Asheville, NC.

At the judges’ meeting, McDearman emphasized how important the series is for promoting barbecue and encouraging teams to compete. The event in Asheville like the other local qualifying events had $10,000 in prize money. Smoking Butt Heads, the grand champion, won $2,000 and advanced to the regional qualifying event with the five other top teams. Although the prize money awarded in Asheville is important, the right to advance in the series is the best reward.

Cooking teams set up in the parking area of Sam's Club in Asheville.

Being a judge at a tour event was just as enjoyable as it was last year, and I hope to participate again next year. Evaluating teams that compete on the tour is a high point of participating as a judge.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Worthy of a Presidential Visit

Few barbecue establishments can boast that a president of the United States while serving in office has visited them – with all the entourage required for security. In Asheville, NC, 12 Bones has gained media attention for repeat visits by President Obama as well as the long line of local carnivores that stretches out of its building into the parking lot.

The line at 12 Bones frequently stretches into the parking lot.
Before visiting 12 Bones, I had learned more about its popularity and food by watching a segment of the Bookwatch TV program broadcast by WUNC-TV. Head chef Shane Heavner and co-owner Brian King discussed the restaurant and their recipes in an interview about their recently published cookbook. As the 12 Bones owners and chef brag in the cookbook, Obama stopped there each time that he was in Asheville while in office, and he made an initial visit in 2008 when as a U.S. senator he was campaigning for president.

Ribs, the most frequent order, are heated before being served.

For the initial visit, take-out was ordered for Obama and his campaign staff, and it included ribs, brisket, and pulled pork with a double order of collards. For the next visit in 2010, Obama insisted going unannounced and standing in line to order. He and his wife ate in the restaurant to the fanfare of national and local media. Ribs with sides of baked beans, greens, and mac and cheese were ordered this time. A third visit in 2013 was similarly a media event that further enhanced the reputation of 12 Bones.

My order of ribs with corn pudding, mac and cheese, and cornbread was served very quickly.

Although a place of presidential proportions, 12 Bones is definitely a casual restaurant. Rolls of paper towels on the tables serve as napkins. Food is ordered at the central counter and then brought out by the staff after customers have picked their tables. A few orders are takeout, but most customers enjoy their lunch in the restaurant and in good weather pick a table in the outside, covered eating area.

The outside eating area is popular in good weather.

Because its popularity continues to increase, 12 Bones has opened a second location in the Asheville area, but many travelers, myself included, seek out the original location. It was opened in 2005 and brought to life a one-story brick building in the River Arts District that had been known as Kountry Kitchen. However, city planners are threatening to take the land that it occupies to relocate a road and build a roundabout. The current owners (Bryan and Angela King), who bought 12 Bones in 2013, are determined to keep the restaurant in the River Arts District if it has to be relocated.

Rib flavors are announced on a board at the order location.

Taking a cue from Obama and his preference for ribs, I knew before arriving that I had to try them (skipping brisket, pulled pork, chicken, and turkey – all smoked – that are on the menu and also deserving of consideration). The next choices were the sides: corn pudding, collard greens, mac and cheese, and mashed sweet potato. Everything at 12 Bones is made from scratch, and the recipes for each are in the restaurant’s cookbook.

Watching the crowd at 12 Bones is almost as enjoyable as eating the ribs. Although it’s hard to imagine that a president ate here, it’s easy to understand why he returned for encore visits.