It’s 9 a.m. in downtown Memphis.
At first glance, you might mistake the tent- and trailer-filled Tom Lee Park, on the banks of the mighty, muddy Mississippi, for a shantytown. Last night’s parties ended late, and crushed cups and overturned kegs litter the ground. Then you notice the in-your-face signage: Ribbed for Your Pleasure, South Pork, Reservoir Hogs. Not to mention the machinery–massive slow cookers, including one fabricated from a vintage Greyhound bus and another built into a 1940s Ford. The fires in those giant cookers are already at full bore, and the air hangs heavy and delicious with smoky sweetness.
This is the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, one of the largest competitions of its type in the world. Over the next 3 days, hundreds of teams from across the nation will compete for a $100,000 kitty, several human-size trophies, and the bragging rights that come with a victory here.
Behind a bare-bones tent in an alley of grass, competitor Craig Samuel, chef and owner of Smoke Joint in Brooklyn, sets a spice-rubbed 8-pound prime rib on the grill. From a nearby tent, Todd Hamilton, a pitmaster from the Memphis-based team known as Swine-O-Mite, can’t help speaking up. “Prime rib? Cooked in a kettle grill?” “This beef’s gonna kill,” Samuel says as he closes the lid on the cooker. “We’re going all the way.” Hamilton smiles and tosses wood chips into a pan of water. “Ah, no. You’re not.”
Do you barbecue?
Probably not. You grill. And slap on barbecue sauce. That’s about as close to real barbecue as arena football is to the NFL. But slow-cooked meat, smoked to melting tenderness, is every man’s birthright. You just need to know how to make it at home.
So the editors of Men’s Health rounded up a crack team of New York barbecue chefs to compete in Memphis–and prove that the average guy can cook real barbecue. Hold on, you’re thinking. Barbecue chefs from New York? That’s right: Barbecue has become big in the Big Apple. And Samuel, along with Kenny Callaghan of Manhattan’s Blue Smoke, John Stage of Harlem’s Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, and Joe Carroll from Brooklyn’s Fette Sau, practice the art of barbecue with single-minded devotion.
Besides, as complete underdogs, the chefs’ New York swagger might actually come in handy. While other competitors will be using 2-ton smokers (some spend tens of thousands building their rigs), the Men’s Health ‘Cue Crew will make do with run-of-the-mill rigs: charcoal-fueled kettle grills and low-tech bullet smokers.
Fact is, if these guys can make authentic barbecue with the same kind of equipment that’s already sitting on your backyard patio, so can you. As long as you follow their lead–and their rules.
Rule Number One
When It Comes to the Grill, Basic Is Beautiful
Once we roll into steamy Memphis, the guys are all business, surveying the equipment behind their tent and unpacking the sauces and spice rubs. The kettle grills are a far cry from the rigs the ‘Cue Crew chefs cook on back home, but they’ll do the job. Unlike gas grills, kettle grills excel at both low-heat barbecuing and high-heat grilling; you just need to push the hot coals to the edges of the grill, creating an indirect-heat zone in the center. Carroll is pleased that the kettle grills are 26 inches wide. “Plenty of room for meat in that center zone,” he says.
Meanwhile, Samuel is checking out the team’s bullet smokers. Another easy option for backyard barbecuers, these oblong, vertical grills hold charcoal in a separate lower chamber, so there’s no need to create an indirect-heat area. You just throw in the lit charcoal and go. Samuel taps the built-in thermometer on the lid of one of the smokers and nods. “It’s all about keeping that heat under control,” he says.
But before the guys can start cooking tomorrow, they’ll need to procure the last of their supplies: hardwood charcoal. Sure, bags of briquettes line the tent, but Carroll hates the way the chemicals they contain contaminate the flavor of the food. So the team hikes across the park to bum a bag from Jimmy Hagood, a buddy of Kenny’s and the leader of the BlackJack barbecue team.
As the strains of “Love Me Tender” blare, the chefs ask J.B. McCarty, another BlackJack team member, about his rigs. He shows off his enormous Jedmaster box cooker, capable of cooking 50 pork shoulders at a time.
The Men’s Health team whistles approval, but McCarty is unfazed and pragmatic. “Look, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that anything can happen,” he says. “Heat is heat, whether it’s a Jedmaster or a Weber. It’s not the arrow. It’s the Indian.”.
Mike Mills, four-time World Champion, three-time Grand World Champion, and pitmaster at 17th Street Bar & Grill, in Illinois
Rule Number Two
Good BBQ Is about Infusing Flavor, Not Just Slapping It On
As evening falls, Carroll and Samuel start to prep the chicken and beef for tomorrow. “You want to give the seasonings time to penetrate,” Carroll says. He adds flavor with a method not often used by pitmasters: brining. He combines water, brown sugar, and kosher salt, and adds ground espresso, cumin, and cinnamon. Then he submerges his heritage-breed birds in the muddy liquid and packs them in the cooler for an overnight soak.
Samuel, meanwhile, makes his classic Smoke Joint rub for his beef, mixing brown sugar with spices that include paprika, cayenne, and mustard powder. “Prime rib is a tender cut, so it’ll cook up way faster than brisket, and the rub will make it taste just as nuanced and rich,” he says.
Rule Number Three
Low, Steady Heat Yields Fall-off-the-Bone Meat
The first day of competition dawns, and after a night in the cooler, both the chicken and the prime rib are ready to hit the grill. But neither of these hefty hunks of meat will turn tender and juicy if the chefs approach the job the way the average backyard bandit does–by cranking the heat, letting the flames engulf the meat, and then dousing the inevitable flare-ups with a bottle of beer. These hearty cuts need the gentle heat that only indirect cooking provides, and they need that heat to stay steady for hours.
The chefs start by pouring hot, ash-covered coals from a chimney starter into the grills and pushing the coals to the sides. “Some guys say keeping the temperature at the sweet spot of 225°F is a pain,” Carroll says. “But it doesn’t have to be.” He uses a simple formula: One chimney starter’s worth of charcoal brings the temperature in the smoker to between 225 and 250. Then he checks the heat every half hour, adding coals one by one through an opening in the grate as needed to maintain the status quo.
Of course, where there’s fire, there must also be smoke. Samuel soaks hickory wood chips in water and then tosses them onto the coals where they can release their sweet smoke into the meat as it cooks.
Within a few hours, the spice-rubbed prime rib has turned a gorgeous brick-red color, and the chickens are a burnished brown. Carroll cuts off a wing, bites into it, and nods. It’s tender and juicy, perfumed with wood smoke and spice. The only problem? The thigh meat is looking a bit pink at the bone, and there’s no time to keep cooking it before the mandatory call time. Callaghan shakes his head and carves up the meat for the “blind box” that Carroll carries to the judges’ tent, hoping for the best.
Next, Samuel slices into his prime rib. He’s stoked: The beef is perfectly cooked, right on time. “Beautiful! Look at that smoke ring,” he says, referring to the red coloring about half an inch into the meat’s surface that indicates how deeply the smoke has penetrated. The humble Webers have done the trick.
Samuel cuts a few pieces for the crew; the beef meets with rapturous approval. For extra succulence, he quickly dunks them into a mixture of cooking juices and brown sugar before tucking them into the box bound for the judges’ tent.
Rule Number Four
Always Have a Secret Weapon
As the judges taste and deliberate, Stage and Callaghan prepare a trial run of baby-back ribs for the big pork battle tomorrow. They start with the typical pitmaster’s approach to ribs, coating them in a spice rub and barbecuing them for 3 hours. But then Callaghan goes rogue. He nestles each rib rack into a foil packet. Then he cracks open a can of pineapple juice and pours it over the pork before sealing the packets and returning them to the grill. “Now the ribs will steam in sweetness,” he says.
The glaze is their next trick. While most of the competitors at Memphis in May merely tweak store-bought barbecue sauces, Callaghan and Stage create their own concoction, a combination of vinegar, honey, Asian chili sauce for garlicky heat, and Worcestershire for umami depth. Then they brush it on the ribs and return them to the grill. When the ribs come off the grill, it’s clear the extra moves have paid off. The team members rave about the trifecta of intense flavor, great smoke, and tenderness.
“I wouldn’t kick that outta bed,” Callaghan says. By noon on the day of competition, Callaghan and Stage have 10 gorgeous racks ready to eat. They’ll need plenty for the blind box, plus at least three perfect racks for the three on-site judges who will be visiting their tent. Callaghan’s mentor Mike Mills, a barbecue legend who retired from the circuit after winning world champion at Memphis in May four times in a row, stops in for a visit and a taste.
“In all honesty, Kenny, I’m not getting any bump at the end,” he says. “I’m going to call it bland because I don’t have a finish. I need something that makes me want another bite.”
Stage looks to Callaghan. “A little more heat and sugar in the glaze?” Callaghan nods and tweaks it with chili sauce and honey. Mills takes a bite of the newly enhanced pork. “Yes, I’ve got something left in my mouth now.” The ribs are ready for the judges.
Rule Number Five
Don’t Sweat Your Critics
Once the blind box is on its way, the mood inside the tent turns serious. Wanda Barzizza, the first of three judges, arrives at the ‘Cue Crew tent.
Callaghan delivers his well-practiced spiel: “We’re here to win, not to party. We know it takes a 10 to win, and we’re confident our ribs are a 10.”
He goes into detail about the humanely raised pork, but the judge needs no convincing. The ribs speaks for themselves: Barzizza devours them and gnaws the bones. As she leaves the tent, the entire team gives her a big round of applause, an essential ritual of the competition. The next two judges seem to dig the pig just as much as the first one did. Then judging is over; Bud Lights crack all around.
After a couple hours of drinking and waiting, the ‘Cue Crew hears the verdicts: The team didn’t make the top three. In fact, their ribs placed a respectable but unspectacular 57th out of 113, while the beef ranked 40th out of 92. The chicken tanked entirely, probably a victim of undercooking.
There will be no fist-pumping on the awards stage today. But none of that seems to matter to the team. As the party begins to flow, more ribs land on the table, along with gifts from neighbors–a tray of steaming crawfish, a bag of frozen Jell-O shots.
“If those ribs weren’t right, I’d be the first one to say so,” Stage says, sucking down a purple lozenge of Jell-O and wincing. “But I was really proud of the ribs we turned in.”
Through the haze of smoke and trash talk, mud and booze, bare-bones equipment, and tight timelines, the ‘Cue Crew managed to hold their own against some of the best barbecue in the country. And as they toast their fortitude, Samuel puts the experience into perspective for men everywhere. “Real barbecue isn’t about winning over anonymous judges anyway,” he says. “It’s about making your family and friends happy. And once you start doing that, you won’t ever stop.”
By Matt Lee and Ted Lee