Classically trained chefs often assume they’ve already got what it takes to smoke the barbecue competition.
“When we first did this, we went with our chests puffed,” admits Jason Wiggin, executive chef at Cerner’s world headquarters and a repeat member of the Pork N Boots, a team that will compete at The American Royal Barbecue Contest over Labor Day weekend.
In a restaurant kitchen, the team’s chefs can churn out a wide array of impressive dishes — from croque em bouche to sous vide. But they have struggled to impress judges with their ribs, brisket, pork shoulder, sausage or chicken.
“We kinda licked our wounds. Chefs are a prideful bunch,” Wiggin admits. “We always do really well with sides, but meat is where it’s tough for us.”
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The team is led by former Fontaine hotel executive chef Charles d’Ablaing and competes in the open competition as part of a charity event for Be Head Strong.
In addition to d’Ablaing and Wiggin, this year’s chef team includes an all-star cast of Michael Foust of The Farmhouse; Vaughn Good of Hank Charcuterie in Lawrence; Katee McLean of Krokstrom Klubb & Market; Joe West of Stock Hill; Bryant Wiggert of Tavernonna, plus pastry chefs Amanda Schroeder, formerly of The American Restaurant and Corvino Supper Club.
(Chow Town readers can join in the fun on Friday, Sept. 1, at a special GastroClub Pork N Boots event co-hosted by The Star.)
“I don’t like to suck at anything,” says Good, who serves smoked meats at his restaurant.
But Good also acknowledges competitive barbecue requires “a different muscle,” so on a recent weeknight several of the Pork N Boots chef team gathered in the front yard of d’Ablaing’s Brookside home for a beer and a tutorial from Mitch Benjamin.
Benjamin is an award-winning pitmaster and inventor of Meat Mitch barbecue sauces and rubs used by competitive ’cuers around the world. The chefs will try out their new bag of barbecue tricks at Kansas Speedway for Labor Day Weekend.
“He shared some really cool stuff. I think we finally get it,” d’Ablaing says of the coaching session.
“We needed to step back and take the chef hat off,” Wiggin agrees.
Remove the chicken oyster: “With chefs, you’re thinking all the schmaltz fat and the oyster, are the tastiest part,” says d’Ablaing.
But Benjamin says judges don’t like fat or the oyster: two small round pieces of dark meat on the back of poultry. Most barbecue competitors discard the oyster and detach the skin, remove the fat and put the delicate skin back on the chicken thigh for presentation.
Consider jumping on the cupcake pan bandwagon: With chicken thighs, “the key is to make them uniform,” Benjamin adds.
Myron Mixon, known as “the winningest man in barbecue,” started cooking his chicken thighs in a cupcake pan to help it keep its shape. Myron Mixon’s World-Famous Cupcake Chicken recipe appears in “Smokin’ With Myron Mixon” by Myron Mixon and Kelly Alexander (2011 Ballentine Books).
Preferred brand on the competition circuit: air-chilled Smart Chicken.
Add grill marks: Meat Mitch likes to add grill marks to their chicken, “although most of the top teams don’t.” Bronzing is nice but have to be careful not to burn through.
Don’t forget to spritz: Hit your boxed entry with apple juice to make it glisten, Benjamin says.
Keep tweezers on hand: “It seems like the most important thing at the end is the tweezers,” Benjamin adds.
Trim the fat: Chefs tend to leave the fat on for moisture but barbecue judges don’t like visible fat and they certainly don’t want a piece of meat that tastes fatty.
Use the grid method: To inject flavorings into the brisket, use a 1-inch grid pattern. Rub is good but “sauce is kind of a no-no when it comes to brisket,” Benjamin says.
Avoid gray meat: Trim the money muscle — a tender marbled part located high on the shoulder, opposite the bone that appears like a mini loin; this allows it to develop that pink band of smoke ring and better exterior bark. If you cook the butt with the money muscle buried inside, it will not come into contact with enough smoke.
Observe at the finish line: You don’t want to turn in your entry behind a known winner because you may wind up on the same judging table. You’re looking for the person who looks like a newbie; turn your entry in right behind his or hers.