What do you get when you get two of the best chefs in Kansas City together and turn them loose at a barbecue competition?
That’s the question I sought to answer at the 15th annual BBQ On The River contest in Excelsior Springs in mid-August.
The chefs, Charles d’Ablaing, executive chef at Chaz restaurant in the Raphael Hotel, and Renee Kelly, chef and owner at Renee Kelly’s Harvest restaurant and Chow Town blogger, joined forces at the BBQ On The River under the team name Pork and Boots.
I caught up with an exhausted-looking d’Ablaing and a much fresher-looking Kelly at the contest just before the food turn-ins started around 10 a.m. Saturday. Apparently, d’Ablaing spent the night at the barbecue and slept on the ground while Kelly showed up from a good night’s sleep.
But, I digress. Back to the contest, which started with a pasta salad entry. d’Ablaing and Kelly were putting the finishing touches on their pasta salad, which was definitely not your grandmother’s version. d’Ablaing and Kelly had whipped up a mayonnaise-based version, then topped it with ricotta cheese, which d’Ablaing partially melted with a portable chef’s torch causing the ricotta to ooze down into the salad.
I asked d’Ablaing and Kelly about the pros and cons of being a classically trained chef cooking low and slow smoked barbecue.
“It’s almost like you have to un-learn everything you learned as a chef, the stuff that you use every day,” Kelly said. “That kind of skill set just doesn’t come into play when you’re smoking meat.”
“You have to think differently, think of what the judges’ might like, what their expectations are,” d’Ablaing said. “For example, in coming up with the pasta salad recipe, I had to try and think like my grandmother, not a chef.”
Um, I’m pretty sure my grandmother had neither fresh Ricotta cheese nor a professional chef’s torch in her kitchen, but hey, I get his point.
There are some advantages to being a chef at a smoke-fest﹣namely, cooking technique and food presentation. Both of those skills came into play for the first meat entry of the competition-chicken.
Kelly and d’Ablaing did a smoked version of Chicken Ballantine, which required partially boning the bird, then pulling the skin over the and breast meat over the leg bone. What’s left was a drum-stick shaped piece of all white breast meat. The chefs smoked those puppies up, then sliced one and layered the slices in between two rows of perfected smoked boneless thighs.
d’Ablaing had torched those just like the ricotta, leaving them golden brown, and turning the smoked chicken entry into something that would not be out of place at either Chaz or Renee Kelly’s Harvest.
d’Ablaing said he only competes a couple of times a year and admits it’s hard to get into a rhythm or smoke things consistently without more practice.
Still, he says he enjoys the break from the kitchen and the challenge of the competition, even if he didn’t particularly look like he was enjoying it when I saw him.
“The pain is all part of it,” d’Ablaing said. “The pain of basically staying up all night, the pain of sleeping on the ground for the few moments of shuteye you do manage to squeeze in.”
Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for the rest of the competition, so I didn’t get a chance to see the ribs or brisket turn-ins by Pork ‘n Boots, but I’m sure they were prettier than most. I did follow-up with d’Ablaing the next day to see how the team had fared. His two-word answer indicated it didn’t go well.
Oh well, at least he and Kelly still have their day jobs.
Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons.