Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Third Contest in Lakeland, Florida

Going to Lakeland, Florida, for a third consecutive year to judge at a barbecue cookoff must mean that I think the location, contest, and competition are top-notch. They are. The Lakeland Pigfest is a superior event that attracts a huge number of cooking teams and an overflowing crowd at a scenic site.

The crowds show up in droves on both Friday and Saturday.

For the first time in its 21 years, the Pigfest was held away from its usual location, Joker Merchant Stadium, the winter home of the Detroit Tigers because it was being renovated. This year the event was held on the Sun ‘N’ Fun campus at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport. Although the scenic atmosphere of the stadium was missed, the temporary home has more space for cooking teams and vendors, and the huge crowd could move easily and enjoy the largest event in Florida sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society.

Musical groups play continuously on the main stage.

I again was assigned as a judge in the “pro” division, which means judging teams that are a cut above. The ribs were so superior that one judge commented, “These are as good as it gets. Each one is perfect.” The briskets that we judged were also excellent. With prize money of $20,000, the Pigfest always attracts outstanding teams.

Judges assemble in the hanger in advance of the first meat turn-in.

In the “pro” division, 60 teams competed. Another 57 participated in the less competitive division known as “backyard,” although this division does include many excellent teams. For such a huge field of teams, Pigfest organizers assembled 22 tables of certified judges (7 at each table). All judging was conducted in an enormous hangar, which seemed cavernous when we entered but soon seemed just right once the 150 judges and volunteers inside were engaged with their duties.

The turn-in table is ready to receive the first meat category, chicken.

Immediately before the “adult” contest, the Pigfest conducts a “Kids Q,” a competition to nurture an interest in preparing barbecue for kids in two age groups: 11 to 15, and 10 and under. The children are provided grills by the Pigfest and then are responsible for the preparation, cooking, and presentation of their entries, although a parent or guardian is present during their cooking process. Watching the young cooks parade in with their entries is one of the highlights of being a judge at the festival, and I enjoyed serving also as a judge for this contest.

Cooking teams are well prepared and stocked with wood.

Being at the Pigfest in 2017 was a rewarding experience and as much fun as the festivals in 2015 and 2016. Because the Pigfest has now generated more than $2 million in charitable donations for local charities, it’s a significant part of the spirit in the Lakeland community.

Cookers at the Pigfest literally come in all shapes and sizes.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Opening Day and a Dream Come True for a Pitmaster

Eating at a new restaurant on its opening day can be disappointing – what will go wrong, will the food be good? However, at the new barbecue restaurant of Jerry Stephenson Jr., being there on opening day was worth the drive – finding pulled pork and ribs that have garnered awards on a very competitive barbecue circuit.

The Redneck BBQ Lab is the dream come true for Jerry Stephenson Jr. after years of catering and competitive barbecue cooking.

Stephenson has achieved his fair share of fame as the pitmaster for Redneck Scientific, a competitive cooking team that has won repeatedly at cookoffs sponsored by Kansas City Barbeque Society. In five years, Stephenson’s team has won 16 grand championships, 6 reserve grand championships, and 6 perfect scores (of 180), a rare achievement. It has also placed in the top ten more than 250 times for the individual categories of chicken, pork, ribs, and briskets at these contests.

Trophies and awards won by Stephenson's cooking team on the competitive barbecue circuit are proudly displayed above the serving area.

Located in space previously occupied by a Dairy Queen in a building anchored by a gas station in McGee’s Crossroads, NC, just off I-40, Stephenson’s restaurant will soon be attracting barbecue fans traveling on the interstate as well as expanding his local followers developed during the past few years by his catering business. The new restaurant should also bring more barbecue fans into McGee’s Crossroads, where historic Stephenson’s BBQ has been in business for more than 50 years (and operated by a different Stephenson family – no relationship to Jerry).

Stephenson relaxes between conversations with customers on opening day.

When I arrived, a steady line of customers was waiting to place their orders – not bad for the first day. I recognized several customers -- barbecue judges and pitmasters -- from KCBS contests. “That’s the biggest compliment that I can receive,” Stephenson said when I asked him about how many KCBS members had come to opening day -- some as far away as the Charlotte area to the west and Jacksonville to the east (which made my 70-mile trip seem short).

Order a sandwich or take home a pound (or more).

For lunch, I ordered a pulled pork sandwich, which comes topped with slaw, but without sauce. On the tables is a vinegar sauce, traditional in eastern North Carolina, that seemed to be the choice of local customers. Also on the tables is a thicker, sweeter, tomato-based sauce that Stephenson uses at KCBS cookoffs and has been indispensable for his high contest scores and multiple awards. I alternated between the two as I ate the sandwich but clearly preferred Stephenson’s competition-style sauce.

A sandwich with perfectly cooked pulled pork piled high and topped with slaw makes the trip worthwhile.

For supper, I took home a half rack of ribs (with cornbread). As excellent as the pulled pork was, the ribs were even better. They were moist, tender, and perfectly prepared. When I ate them later that night, they reminded me of the best ribs found at KCBS cookoffs. In fact, I was glad that I was not judging at an event so that I could eat more than one rib. (At a contest, a judge receives only one rib from a cooking team and usually can take only two or three bites of the sample to have room to taste other entries – although ribs this good are saved and eaten, if not after the category has been judged, soon after the contest has ended.)

Ribs (with cornbread) taken home for supper were moist, tender, and perfectly prepared.

The restaurant doesn’t serve hushpuppies -- a minor disappointment, although I somewhat agree with the reason that Stephenson gave me: “We don’t need hushpuppies -- all you need is barbecue.” He also said, “Hushpuppies don’t go with collards -- cornbread does," and his cornbread is excellent. (Collards is one of the sides available daily on the menu.)

Although the draw to the restaurant is competition-winning barbecue, the restaurant offers several sides: collards baked beans, green beans, BBQ potatoes, jalapeno mac and cheese, and slaw.

For opening day, Stephenson told Raleigh food writer Andrea Weigl that he would be smoking 450 pounds of meat. In addition to pulled pork and ribs, the restaurant also serves chicken and brisket (although it had sold out of the brisket when I arrived). After I got my takeout order, ribs were also sold out, at least for a few hours until more could be prepared.

On the wall is Stephenson's definition of "redneck," which names his restaurant and cooking team.

Stephenson is living a pitmaster’s dream -- opening his own restaurant and having a dedicated group of followers show up on opening day. It’s a dream that will continue to make many customers very happy.

Fair warning: Don't show up too late or the "sold out" sign might be on.