1st Annual King of the Smoker Cook off - Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson BBQ (photo courtesy of Abel Tirre)
December 7-8, 2012
| The King of the Smoker Invitational
By Donna Fong
December 8, 2012
Out in the Wild West, we are use to breaking rules of convention and forging new paths. If your approach is cleaver and solves problems you didn‚Äôt realize you had, you will be recognized for the stroke of genius.
Early in December, Sterling Ball of Big Poppa Smokers, a competitive BBQ team and online BBQ store, introduced to the competitive BBQ community a different approach which culminated into a contest named King of the Smoker. Big Poppa Smokers (BPS) invited some of the greatest legends of American BBQ, the most highly ranked competitors and the most up and coming teams around. Though many teams could not attend the event due to prior commitments, 24 teams did. What they found when they arrived was a back to the basics contest that both leveled and elevated the playing field. It is a lot to wrap your head around if you actually try. It is a basic and over the top all at once.
This contest was sanctioned by KCBS under the competitor series designation. The competitor designation allowed the organizer to change the rules for their event.
Imagine having your team name called and waiting for a numbered ping pong ball to be pulled out of a revolving bingo cage to determine which of many identical coolers of high end raw meat you get. Teams received two Kobe-style Waygu beef briskets from Strube Ranch in Texas, and from Amy and Wil Wilson of Snider Brothers Meat in Salt Lake City, came eight chicken quarters, six slabs of pork ribs and two pork shoulders. Use of these meats was mandatory. Rules of the contest required that the teams cook the meat without the aid of any motors to turn a spit inside of a BBQ pit, or the use of pellet cookers, Stokers, Gurus, or any other pit minders. No electricity was allowed to assist in the cook. Additionally, garnish was prohibited in the turn-in box and foil was required. The best rule of all was ‚Äúno whining‚ÄĚ. It was just man, meat and fire being tested. It seemed simple enough.
But being able to pay attention to your pit while being wined and dined, morning, noon and night at the Waldorf Astoria La Quinta Resort can prove to be challenging. Each team stayed in a Spanish style resort casitas with white washed walls, French doors, fireplaces and private patios. Each private casita was situated next to the team cook site. So while one might not have slept much on Friday night tending control of one‚Äôs fire, a quick nap in a luxurious bed was only steps away.
Included in the invitation to the contest was a customized King of Smoker 10x10 tent, tables, a free weekend stay, meals at the resort restaurants, and a boxed carving set custom engraved for each team. Pitmasters had more time to relax on their lawn chairs and spent less time worrying about buying the right meat and setting up their cook sites.
The other factor that was taken out of the contest equation was cost. During the cooks meeting, teams were asked how many of them were cash flow positive from cooking competitive BBQ. Of the 24 championship teams there, only 3 raised their hands. The best teams in America were winning contests but losing money. One is then compelled to ask, how financially viable is competitive BBQ? The answer is it depends on how rich you are. The more money you have, the longer you can cook at what is almost a guaranteed loss over time. Even with moderate success on the circuit, if you don‚Äôt have deep pockets, you can only compete for so long.
Part of the financial solution to the problem is to have sponsors who can help support the contest. By having nationally recognized corporate sponsors, you give teams a chance to compete without the burden of cost which enables you to donate proceeds from the event to non-profit organizations. Good will is established and the organizer doesn‚Äôt have to worry about team count to make ends meet. The Casey Lee Ball Foundation for Pediatric Kidney Research, which received proceeds from the contest, was established when Sterling Ball‚Äôs youngest son was found to have a recessive form of polycystic renal disease at the age of two. By the time Casey was six years of age, he had undergone eight surgical operations and his father had donated his right kidney to save the life of his son. Casey nearly died twice as a young child but thanks to his treatments at the UCLA Medical Center, he remains alive and healthy. There are 50 terminal kidney diseases which children can suffer from. The foundation is the largest of its kind in the world and has raised three million dollars in the last six years for pediatric research at UCLA.
The next two financial solutions involved a large prize purse and the public. Invited teams were given free entry, free meat, and a prize purse of $50K. The earnings potential was among the largest offered with a small field of teams. The exclusivity and potential for gain motivated the best teams to make the trip west.
For those that came, teams were asked to interact and teach the public about BBQ. So the third solution was to actively include the fans of BBQ. The public could attend the King of Smoker (KOS) by either purchasing VIP tickets ($30) which provide admission to the private buffet breakfast on Saturday morning plus a 20 minute guided tour or discussion of the competing chef's cooking techniques by Big Poppa Smokers or by general admission ($15) which began at 1:30pm. General admission enabled ticket holders to attend celebrity demonstrations, food booths, and classes. By charging for entry, the burden of cost was shifted from the teams to the public who yearn to eat good BBQ and who want to learn how to cook.
KOS attempted to do exactly that by inviting teams that were willing to share their valuable knowledge with others and by hiring vendors like Stephan Franklin of Simply Marvelous BBQ and Neil Strawder of Big Mista Barbecue Catering who‚Äôs focus was cooking great food for the fans. Stephan and Neil sold full plates of meat, sides and a dessert, rather than just ‚Äúsamples‚ÄĚ. This made for a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, instead of long lines of people anxiously hoping that they could get a 2oz sample before the food was all sold out. Between the two vendors were situated a full bar and tables and chairs on the grass to dine. Fans of BBQ could buy t-shirts, sweatshirts, and other items and all funds went directly to the Sterling ball foundation.
On Saturday morning, the fog that shrouded the entire Los Angeles basin was nowhere to be found this far east inland. The bright sun reflected off the Santa Rosa Mountain range which served as a white backdrop to the contest being held at the resort‚Äôs main lawn. The air was crisp and the sky, a bright blue. Teams were spared a typical 36¬įF overnight desert temperature and instead luxuriated in the balmy 46-83F for the day. Even so, to break the Southern California chill, teams walked into the twenty6 bistro and enjoyed a full breakfast.
As turn in time approached, teams walked to the judging tent and were greeted by three separate photographers who clicked their cameras like they were watching Kobe do a layup on the floor of Staples Arena. After all meats were turned in at 1:30pm, the public and judges were finally allowed to walk the main lawn and visit with the teams. Judges were very pleased with the entries for the day and exclaimed it was some of the most consistently great BBQ they have ever had at a contest. Teams were asked to treat visitors as BBQ patrons, to be engaged and to create a welcoming environment. With the burden of cooking behind them and the anticipation of a good night‚Äôs rest for free, teams were more than happy to oblige.
Teams like Cool Smoke expressed a sigh of relief when told that the public (including CBJ‚Äôs) were all excluded from the cooking area until the turn-ins where done. This allowed teams to focus on the boxes when they needed to and made them mentally available to fans later on without the distraction of a live competition.
Johnny Trigg of Smokin‚Äô Triggers hosted a knife skills demonstration with Messermeister knives and then held a Q&A session at his tent. Last year‚Äôs KCBS Team of the Year winners, Scott and Katy Nelson of PigSkin BBQ (formerly Swine Assassins) hosted a BPS Rubs session. Todd Johns of Plowboys hosted a talk about rubs and sauces. Andy Groneman of Smoke on Wheels talked about marinades. Rod Gray of Pellet Envy held a competition brisket Q&A session at their tent. Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson also held a general Q&A session. Harry Soo of Slap Yo‚Äô Daddy demonstrated his competition chicken technique. Tuffy Stone of Cool Smoke, for the very first time, gave a talk called ‚ÄúAll Things BBQ‚ÄĚ. Dan Hixon of 3EYZ BBQ demonstrated rib trimming and cooking. And finally, Left Coast Q‚Äôs Matt Dalton talked about California Competition BBQ.
At the helm of the KCBS competitor‚Äôs series contest were KCBS representatives, Kelly and Kathleen McIntosh. K & K made a commitment to the teams that their boxes would not be judged by the same table more than once. This was despite the fact that there were 24 teams and only four tables of judges. A procedure was created to insure this commitment was met and not at the expense of holding all the boxes and letting food get cold. Invited judges were selected for their depth of experience and reputation for sound, consistent, high caliber BBQ judging. It was the best of the best on both sides of the tent. The quality of judging was reflected in the results. In three out of four categories the top five teams came from four different tables and the first and last place teams came in the same category came from the same table. The point spread between Grand Champion and last place was less than 43 points. The usual difference at most contests is over 100 points. This was very tight judging.
To add an element of surprise to the contest, Sterling Ball requested that the checks be written up to all top five finishers in each category and the top seven overall finishers without knowing who were the winners. This required that a representative from the accounting firm Deloitte certify the results and hand Sterling 27 envelopes during the awards ceremony & dinner. The Oscar award style announcements had everyone shifting in their seats as they waited for their names to be called.
People wondered if having the same meats, lack of garnish and gadgets for all teams would really level the field or not. With so many different multiple grand champions in one room, who would really prevail? How much did it matter if you knew how to cook the old school way or perhaps it was better to have more raw talent than anyone else? Of course everyone knew that just being invited was privilege enough. It was like pitting the smartest kid from Harvard, against the smartest kid from Cal Tech, against the smartest kid from Stanford, against the smartest kid from Reed, against the smartest kid from MIT, against the smartest kid from Penn. Somebody really good was going to be at the bottom for the first time in their lives and it would mean absolutely nothing. They were still better cooks than most of us standing in the kitchen.
In the end, this last big invitational contest of the year crowned legendary pitmaster, Chris Lilly from Big Bob Gibson BBQ of Decateur, Alabama as its Grand Champion. Chris won 1st in chicken, 2nd in ribs, 10th in pork and 14th in brisket. Chris Lilly is famous for winning Memphis in May six years running and again recently in 2011. Reserve Grand Champion was Rob Magee from Munchin Hogs @ the Hilton in Kansas City. Rob came in 14th in chicken, 3rd in ribs, and 5th in pork and brisket. In third place was Harry Soo of Slap Yo‚Äô Daddy BBQ in Diamond Bar, CA. Rob Gray of Pellet Envy from Overland Park, Kansas came in fourth overall. Joe Beland of TippyCanoe BBQ from St. Ansgar, Iowa came in fifth overall. Matt Dalton of Left Coast Q from Banning, CA came in sixth and Tuffy Stone of Cool Smoke from Richmond, Virginia.
With the King of the Smoker now over, Sterling looks forward to hosting another event next year, perhaps somewhere else around the country, bringing with him his philosophy of sustainability, of pampering teams, of paying attention to the public need and his philanthropy towards children with terminal renal disease. We will be looking forward to him breaking new ground and spreading BBQ love.
| CBBQA APPROVED EVENTS |
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- (KCBS) 2nd Annual Ribs, Pigs and Watermelons, Huntington Beach CA
- (KCBS) Brentwood Cook Off & Car Show, Brentwood CA
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- (KCBS) 2nd Annual Siskiyou Beef Country Cook-Off Montague CA
- (KCBS) The Great American Cookoff, Woodlake CA
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- (KCBS) 3rd Annual Wine Country Big Q BBQ Championship, Santa Rosa, CA
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- (CBBQA) Feather Falls Casino 3-Meat Series #1, Oroville, CA
- (KCBS) 2nd Annual Pechanga BBQ Championship, Temecula
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- (KCBS) Biggest Baddest BBQ, Bakersfield
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- (KCBS) High Desert Music Festival & BBQ Showdown, Victorville, CA
- (KCBS) 2nd annual Smoke on the Mountain, San Jose
- (KCBS) The Ultimate BBQ Showdown East vs West IIII, Wildomar, CA
- (KCBS) 1st Annual Kings of the Que BBQ Championship, Sacramento, CA
- (KCBS) 2nd Annual Santa Anita Park Winners' Circle BBQ Championship, Arcadia
- (KCBS) Backyard on the Lake 2013, Patterson
- 8/9/10 QFest at East Shore RV
- (KCBS) 3rd Annual Wild Wild West BBQ State Championship, Lake Elsinore
- (KCBS) 2nd Annual Little Engine that Could State BBQ Championship, Vista, CA
- (CBBQA Endorsed) 2012_Butcher's BBQ Tell All BBQ Class, Orange Co. CA
- (KCBS) 3rd Annual Wild Wild West BBQ State Championship, Lake Elsinore
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CBBQA Team of the Year
| 2013 STANDINGS
1- Left Coast Q 491
Matt Dalton ~ Banning, CA
2- Burnin and Lootin 455
Jerry Aguilar ~ Corona, CA
3- Simply Marvelous 441
Stephan Franklin ~ Ventura, CA
4- The Pit Crew ~ 410
Steve Wilson ~ Anaheim Hills, CA
5- ZZYZX Bar B Q 396
Jason Miranda ~ Rancho Cucamonga, CA
6- Hog Island Pitmasters 392
John Hendrickson ~ Discovery Bay, CA
7- Big B's Down & Dirty BBQ 389
Bill Souza ~ Pacifica, CA
8- Who's Smokin Now 382
Raymond Porter ~ Banning, CA
9- All Sauced Up 376
Dave Malone ~ Valencia, CA
10- All Hogs Go to Heaven 375
Steve Madaule ~ Lancaster, CA
11- Butchers Daughter 363
Donna Fong ~ Alameda, CA
12- Big Poppa Smokers 356
Sterling Ball ~ Coachella, CA
13- Knock UR Sox Off BBQ 352
Ryan Moore ~ Fontana, CA
T14- Slap Yo' Daddy BBQ 341
Harry Soo ~ Diamond Bar, CA
T14- Smokey Luv BBQ ~ 341
Kevin Barteaux ~ Novato, CA
16- Ridge Route Boys 337
Curtis Trigueiro ~ Bakersfield, CA
T17- Funtime BBQ ~ 334
Benny Adauto ~ Whittier, CA
T17- Smokin Mo's 334
Mike Lindley ~ Yucca Valley, CA
T17 Too Ashamed To Name 334
Scott Hares ~ San Jose, CA
20- Lady of Q 333
Sylvie Curry ~ Ramona, CA
21- Rooftop Barbeque 330
Andy Allen ~ Menifee, CA
22- Smokin' Yankees BBQ 329
Chris Juencke ~ Stockton, CA
23- Loot N' Booty 325
Sterling Smith ~ Scottsdale, AZ
24- Bowling Over Pigs 317
Chuck Collondrez ~ Brentwood, CA
25- Hound Dog Barbecue 310
Bob Christensen ~ Sacramento, CA
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