Originally published Oct. 24, 2010
It’s Friday night at the 2010 American Royal Barbecue, and the annual beef-and-beer-fueled outdoor party is rocking. Balmy summer temperatures in October have lured more than 35,000 visitors, a record, to pay $20 for parking and $13 admission to worship at the altar of smoke.
The Zoo, as the encampment behind the Governor’s Building is known, is living up to its reputation for wild life. At team sites on Rumrunner Road and Party Cove Circle, cowboys, club divas, sports fans and hip-hop youth drink, shout, fling plastic plates and dance in front of makeshift wooden stages serving up karaoke, disc jockeys and live bands. The ground vibrates with the amplified sounds of reggae, hip-hop and 1970s rock anthems. A chandelier suspended from a bridge overpass sways in the light breeze.
On the other side of the Governor’s Building, where many of the country’s top barbecue teams park their recreational vehicles, trailers and pits, the walkways aren’t as congested and the crowd’s a little grayer, but it’s just as loud.
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Disco Dick and the Mirror Balls are belting out “Kung-Fu Fighting” on the main stage by the 120-foot-long “Bull Wall” sculpture, which appears to be burning, but it’s really steam pouring through the cutouts of charging bulls.
Guests of the competing teams munch on barbecued chicken, knock back margaritas and laugh loudly at picnic tables set up under canopies decorated with strands of jalapeno or pig-shaped party lights.
At space 846, it’s a different story. The double site is dark and mostly empty. No canopy, no tables, no party lights. Just a small trailer, a pickup truck and a large pit. Cattle fencing surrounds the site, and the gate is bolted shut. The door of the trailer is closed, but the windows are illuminated.
Inside, a 6-foot-tall bald man in an XXL T-shirt and rimless designer eyeglasses sorts chicken thighs by size onto two metal trays and then reshapes them, one at a time, into uniform cylinders. Rod Gray, the reigning national barbecue champion, is here to work, not play.
Gray and his wife, Sheri, of Leawood, compete under the name Pellet Envy. Gray used to cook on pellets until he began winning and other top teams on the circuit convinced him that real cookers cook on wood. Pellet Envy is currently in second place in the country in the points standings for team of the year through the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the national sanctioning body. A handful of contests remain through the final weekend in early December.
The American Royal Invitational is the most important contest of the year to Gray. “It’s my hometown contest, for one. And it’s by far the most competitive. To win it, you have to beat all the best teams in the country,” he says.
The Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue in Lynchburg, Tenn., gets more publicity, Gray says, but because of that contest’s draw system, “they leave a lot of good cookers at home.” A lot of those good cookers are from Missouri and Kansas, which rank first and second in the nation respectively in number of competition barbecue teams.
This year, of 511 teams competing in the American Royal Open on Sunday, 138 also are vying for the invitational title on Saturday. Both are records for participation.
Along with being the contest Gray would most like to win, the Royal is the only one where the deck is stacked heavily against him. Each year, Gray caters a private party for 800 at the Royal on Friday night -- the night before the invitational judging on Saturday. It’s a gig he can’t afford to give up, but it drains him physically and mentally.
Gray has been up since 4 a.m., filming a segment for the CBS “Early Show” and smoking hundreds of pounds of meat for the party. His eyes are burning from smoke and lack of sleep, he hasn’t eaten since noon, and he’s worried because he has been in a chicken slump lately and can’t figure out why.
To make matters worse, fellow cookers won’t leave him in peace. They keep breaching the fence and banging on the door or window of his trailer.
Each time, Gray opens the door, but not wide enough for anyone to enter. “Good to see you. I’m prepping my meat. Thanks for stopping by,” he says, closing the door of the trailer again.
“I want all the other teams to party and have fun,” Gray says as he shakes a dry rub seasoning mix onto the chicken thighs. “I’m here to cook a contest.”
A Camaro for a pit
Some of the interlopers have come to pay homage to Gray’s pit, a spectacular speedboat-shaped rig painted electric 2010 Camaro Green with shadow flames on the sides. The rig was made by Jamie Geer, a Fort Worth, Texas, welder whose pits are regarded by top smokers as the best in the world.
“It’s my Camaro,” he says. “The pit stays in my garage, and the truck is outside.”
Other visitors have come to thank Gray. They tell him they took his $500 class and, as a result, have won championships or placed first in one of the four contest categories: chicken, ribs, pork and brisket.
One guy didn’t even take the class but got Gray’s chicken secrets from a buddy who did. “I got a second in chicken with your recipe, so I just wanted to say thanks, man.” Gray is cordial, but this rankles.
Like the catering gig, the classes hamper Gray in competition. “In one contest in Jeffersonville, Indiana, the top four teams had taken my class. I came in fifth. I get tired of those guys beating me,” he says.
In a game where the competition has increased, in part due to Gray selling his secrets, the difference between the winners and the rest of the field has narrowed dramatically.
“To win, it takes focus, it takes concentration. The guys who win are the guys who can figure out what went wrong where,” Gray says.
Chicken, ribs, pork, brisket.
That’s the order in which categories are judged at every event on the national circuit and that’s the order in which Gray attacks the $200 worth of meat filling the fridge in his trailer.
Around 10:30 p.m., the sounds of Disco Dick are replaced by boom, boom, boom. “Fireworks,” Gray says, without looking up. “They’re supposed to be good.”
As tens of thousands of people outside crane their necks skyward to watch the colorful show, Gray continues trimming fat off his ribs, never glancing out the window.
By 11:45 p.m., the prep is finished. Seventeen pieces of chicken, four slabs of ribs, two pork butts and two briskets are trimmed, seasoned and resting in the fridge. Now, Gray needs to return to the party and say good night to the host before he can haul his zero-gravity lounge chair out of his truck and into his trailer and try to catnap until 2 a.m., when it will be time to build his fire and concentrate on chicken, ribs, pork, brisket.
An obsession is born
In 2001, Gray went to the Great American Barbecue at the Kansas Speedway as a spectator. There he met local barbecue legend Paul Kirk and watched him cook. It was hotter than heck, with temperatures pushing 100 and no trees anywhere, but despite the discomfort, Gray was mesmerized.
“I left thinking, ‘This is something I have to do,’ “ Gray says. When he got home, he stayed up until dawn researching competition barbecue on the Internet.
Gray and two other guys formed a team called Extreme Pork. In its first year the team won three contests and were reserve champion in three others. That qualified them to cook at the Jack Daniels invitational.
At the time, Sheri Gray was not involved in the team. But in Lynchburg, at the urging of co-workers, she entered caramel apple bars in the dessert category and won first place. Then she was hooked, too. Extreme Pork split up, and the husband-and-wife crew of Pellet Envy was born in 2002.
By 2006, the team was doing so well that Rod Gray was able to give up his day job. That puts him in rare company. Gray knows of only two other cookers in the country who are attempting to make a full-time living at competitive barbecue.
The living doesn’t come from prize money. Pellet Envy has earned as much as $35,000 a year in winnings, but travel expenses, entry fees and food costs eat up prize money in a hurry.
Gray’s income is based on the money he earns from his classes, commercial sponsorships (Greased Lightning, a grease-fighting cleanser, and EZ Grill, a disposable grill) and the catering gig.
It’s a successful formula, but there’s a downside.
“Now that it’s my full-time job, cooking isn’t as much fun as when I did it to get away from my job,” Gray says.
Originally from Abilene, Kan., Gray earned a degree in marketing and administration in 1987 from Emporia State University. After college, he moved to the Kansas City area and worked for an insurance company. Later he started his own insurance contracting company, specializing in flood and fire remediation.
Before he found barbecue, Gray had two obsessions. When he was an employee it was golf. But when he started his own company, business became the obsession, he says.
“I’m very anal about what I do and how I do it,” Gray says. “In all areas of my life, I’ve always had the philosophy of ‘Give them more than they ask for.’ “
Saturday morning, Gray’s demeanor is calm as always, but he shakes his head as he pokes at the chicken on his pit.
At some point, the charcoal portion of the pit fire went out, and Gray has serious concerns about whether the chicken and ribs will be cooked enough when they have to come off.
Gray asks his wife how long the walk to the judging area is. Three minutes, she replies. She timed it earlier.
It’s 11:50 a.m.; the window for turning in chicken entries is noon to 12:15 p.m. “They’re not done, but they’ve got to come off,” Gray says. It’s time to prepare the chicken box.
For all four competition categories, contestants turn in one foam box with at least six pieces of meat. Some teams line their boxes with lettuce but Gray uses parsley -- lots of it -- because the meat nestles into it and stays in place.
“It cuts down on the amount of time you spend arranging the meat in the box,” Gray says.
Gray has cooked two trays of chicken at the same temperature and cooking time: large thighs and smaller thighs. That way, either the “bigs” will be undercooked and the “smalls” will be just right, or the “bigs” will be just right and the “smalls” will be overcooked.
From each batch, Gray selects the six prettiest, most uniform pieces and puts them aside. Then he hands his wife two reject pieces, one large and one small.
Sheri Gray bites into the large thigh. “It’s got to be the smalls,” she says. Gray picks up another reject small thigh and squeezes it. “Underdone,” he says. The chicken is cooked all the way through to the bone, but the skin is soft.
He gives the piece to a friend who has stopped by. She bites into it and says, “Delicious.”
But Gray shakes his head and says, “Your teeth pulled the skin off. You just got a mouthful of skin. You want to be able to bite right through that skin.”
The ribs, too, have failed to get as cooked as Gray wants because of the fire problem. He has smoked four slabs and slices off one rib from each for his wife to taste.
“It’s a good day if I don’t have to taste anything,” he says. “I rarely eat barbecue. I’m sick of it.”
As he hands his wife the individual ribs he calls out the slab number they came from: one, two, three, four.
“One and four,” Sheri Gray pronounces, and Gray begins slicing the meatiest ribs off those slabs. Even though only six ribs are required, Gray lays in five ribs on top of five more.
“Psychologically, people get happy when they see a full box of meat. It makes them hungry,” he says.
As Gray slices open the two Boston butt pork roasts he has pulled off the pit, Sheri Gray says, “We don’t think much about pork.”
“She means it’s always the same,” Rod Gray says as he hunts for chunks that feel tender and look moist.
Like most teams now, Pellet Envy injects the pork to add flavor and moisture. Gray uses a high-tech phosphate-broth mixture. “Some guys used to say, ‘I don’t need to inject,’ but that’s changed. It’s become the standard preparation technique.”
Unlike many teams that use the “low and slow” approach and cook at temperatures around 225 degrees for up to 16 hours, Gray cooks his pork and brisket at 275 until they reach a specific internal temperature: 195 degrees for pork and 203 degrees for brisket. That usually takes seven to eight hours. Gray cooks over higher heat for the simple reason that he doesn’t have to stay awake as long to tend the fire.
“There’s no ‘right’ way to do barbecue. It’s just about cooking good food,” Gray says.
Sheri pronounces the flavor of the pork good, but Gray thinks it could be more tender. “At this point I feel like I’ve strung together three mediocre categories,” he says.
When Rod Gray slices into the larger of the two briskets he has cooked, a 20-pound Wagyu beef behemoth, he says to his wife, “All right, I have some renewed faith. Unless you don’t care for the flavor of it, this one is going to be better.”
As luck would have it, Sheri thinks the flavor is off. It tastes gamey. The smaller brisket tastes great but it’s flatter, so the slices don’t have the tall, dramatic appearance Gray liked in the larger brisket.
Gray reflects for a moment, as usual, and identifies a possible cause for the gaminess: “Think of how big an animal, and how old an animal, it had to be to get a 20-pound brisket.”
Once again, at the American Royal Invitational, this is probably not going to be Gray’s day. But you never know what will happen after you drop the boxes off at the judges table.
“It all comes down to the table,” is a mantra on the barbecue circuit. By “table” cookers mean the judges, who work in teams of six to a table.
Top competitive teams have theories about how to influence the judges.
One previous national champion, Tuffy Stone of Richmond, Va., likes to turn his boxes in at the last minute of the 15-minute window.
Gray understands his good friend’s theory -- give your meat to the judges as late as possible so it’s as hot as possible -- but Gray has a lower tolerance for risk than Stone, who owns a restaurant and is comfortable with rushing around. Gray is deliberate.
“If you aren’t in line by exactly 12:14:59 with your chicken, you are disqualified. You can’t win grand champion with a DQ. I just don’t want to risk it,” Gray says.
Sheri Gray usually runs the boxes to the judges early but then hangs back to observe the scene before choosing the spot where she will drop her box off. She has her own theories on how to get a leg up on the competition.
“I’m looking to avoid certain tables. Donny Teel is the best pork cooker in the country right now, so why would I want to be at his table with my pork?” she says.
The staffers who collect the entry boxes load them onto red plastic trays, six per tray. Each tray will be assigned to a judging table. Only four boxes will fit on the bottom of the plastic trays, so two go on top. Gray has a theory about that, too.
“I want to be on the bottom of the tray, because the way the judging process unfolds, the two boxes on top will be opened first and tasted first. I don’t want to be tasted first, because I don’t care how great that rib is, psychologically a judge is thinking, ‘Man, that’s a great rib, but there’s got to be something better coming.’ It’s human nature,” he says. So in most cases, Sheri chooses a tray where her box can be on the bottom.
Taking it one level deeper, though, Gray believes if your food is mediocre, you want it judged first. You might not win, but you could move up enough spaces to win some money, he explains before adding, “I overthink barbecue.”
Like another competitive circuit -- NASCAR -- barbecue demands punishing travel schedules for the teams that chase the ultimate prize. And the barbecue season is crazy long: from late January through early December.
Last year, in Gray’s run for the national title, he logged 13,000 miles in his truck. After leading the points race for much of the season, he was overtaken by another team with two weeks left to go.
It was almost more than Gray could take. He was competing at a contest in Plant City, Fla. It was his 17th wedding anniversary, and his wife wasn’t with him. He decided to pack it in and drive home rather than compete in the last contest of the year in Phoenix.
He skipped the awards presentation in Florida and was headed back to Kansas when he got a call from the team that had grabbed first place the week before saying, “You won it.”
The win put Gray back in first place, so he turned around, drove to Phoenix and won grand champion there as well, securing the national title.
This year’s finish looks to be nerve-racking as well. As Gray feared, the results at the Royal invitational were poor by his standards -- 30th overall out of 138 teams. But invitational contests don’t count in the points race. At the open on Sunday, which does count, Gray pulled off a third-place finish in chicken. Not bad, but not enough to help him close the gap on Quau (rhymes with “luau”), the Illinois team currently in first place.
Gray is going to continue to compete at least through next weekend at a contest at the Talladega Superspeedway. Depending on how he does there and how Quau is doing, he will select his remaining contests. The final event of the year is Dec. 3 in Phoenix.
“It’s all but mathematically impossible” to catch Quau at this point, Gray says. But as long as there is any chance at all, he says, “I’ll probably chase it.”
Reach Cindy Hoedel at choedel@kcstar .com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cindyhoedel.