By Sarah Gish
Now the award-winning national barbecue competitor is in the running to win $50,000 and the “BBQ Pitmasters” Grand Champion title.
Gray and his wife Sheri, who compete under the team name Pellet Envy, beat 24 teams of pitmasters for a spot on the two-hour Season 4 finale, which airs at 8 p.m. Sunday. In the already recorded episode, the Grays face two teams from Oklahoma and Oregon.
The Grays have competed in barbecue contests together for more than a decade. Four times a year, they guide sold-out barbecue classes that cost $600 per person and draw students from all over the country. And they recently launched a line of sauces and rubs called EAT Barbecue.
Barbecue is Rod Gray’s full-time job — he travels to 35 contests a year — but Sheri Gray works full-time as a legal specialist. Sheri traveled with her husband to contests on weekends until last year, when she contracted a rare blood disorder that badly damaged her kidneys.
“We almost lost Sheri,” Rod Gray says.
Sheri was still recovering from a January kidney transplant during the filming of “BBQ Pitmasters.”
“It was hard because I hadn’t gotten my full strength yet,” Sheri says. “You stand on your feet while you’re filming for a lot of hours in the heat.”
“But it was nice focusing on something different than being sick.”
Rod says being on “BBQ Pitmasters” helped him regain his thirst for competition after a tough year.
“Last year was the first time since 2002 we weren’t in the top 10 national ranking,” he says. “I was doing some hit-and-miss stuff.”
Making it to the show’s finale, Rod says, was about “showing my friends that I’m still competitive.”
Here’s more from our interview with “BBQ Pitmasters” Kansas City Champion Rod Gray.
Chow Town: What do you like about barbecue competitions?
Rod Gray: It's a big family. It's about the friendships and the cameraderie. It is getting more competitive, though, and I think I'm partially to blame for that.
You’re known for your ribs and brisket, right?
Ribs and brisket are our two best categories. We were national rib champions in 2007, national brisket champions in 2009. We’ve been hanging around in the top 10 for 10 straight years in brisket.
Do you have any weak areas?
Chicken's always been trouble for me.
What makes your barbecue better than other barbecue?
It's all in the details, Sarah. I'm going to teach a class this weekend with 30 students from 16 different states. It's not about a cooking style or cooking method. It’s about making sure the product is well rounded. Not too spicy or sweet or salty.
Green gloves have become your trademark. What’s the story behind those?
I was in the construction business for 20 years. We would shop at Grainger (Industrial Supply), and they happen to have this green color. It matched the color of our logo. People write me and ask me one, where I get my green gloves, and two, if whoever makes those for me can make them a special color. It’s really a non-story, but it's grown to be a big deal.
You live in Leawood, but did you feel like you were representing Kansas City barbecue on the show?
Yes and yes. In the very first round, I was Rod Gray from Leawood, Kansas. Nobody knows what Leawood is. I asked them if they could just say Kansas City, and they wouldn’t. They put Kansas City, Kansas. So I was self-nominated to represent Kansas City barbecue, and it was important to do my best.
How did the first two rounds of the “BBQ Pitmasters” competition go?
The first round, we were cooking against two other known barbecue champs. By the time we put our food in the box, I felt great about the food. The second round in Lee's Summit, our product wasn't fabulous.
You had to do sliced brisket points, right?
We don't slice brisket points in KC, we make burnt ends out of them. So (winning that round) and getting to the finale felt like a win for me.
Do you like to eat barbecue as much as you like cooking it?
Rod: No, I don't like to eat my own barbecue. Do you go home and write? This is my job. I don't like my own barbecue because I'm around it too much, I taste it too much. That smoke dulls my senses. Sheri tastes all the food to decide what goes in the box. When I'm by myself, I don't have a choice.
Watch clips from “BBQ Pitmasters” on the show’s website.
Enterprise reporter Sarah Gish writes dining and bar guides for Ink magazine. She also writes a monthly cooking story for The Star’s Food section. Contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @sarah_gish.