Richard McPeake parks his black Jeep Cherokee on a piece of sidewalk on Barney Allis Plaza and unhooks his Xtreme smoker.
It’s Thursday morning and McPeake, a local culinary educator and decorated barbecue pitmaster for the team Rib Stars, has volunteered to mentor a three-person team of American Culinary Federation chefs who want to learn the ropes when it comes to competition barbecue.
When a passer-by asks if the out-of-towners are ready to take a whack at an official Kansas City Barbeque Society-sanctioned competition, neophyte Jason Drysdale of Syracuse, N.Y., responds: “We’re ready to be humbled. We do barbecue, but not like they do here.”
Drysdale joins more than 1,000 chefs from across the country in Kansas City this weekend for the ACF’s National Convention, which kicked off Friday night and runs through Tuesday. While the chefs are in town they will network, compete and learn about industry trends. Classes and demos range from the trendy “Social Media 101 for Restaurants” to the practical “40 Hot Ideas to Make Your Buffet Sizzle.”
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And, of course, they will immerse themselves in the local ’que scene.
“We’ve never competed before. I don’t know what to expect, but I think we’ll do OK,” says Drysdale, a native Australian who has run culinary programs for casinos and cruise lines, and is currently working on TRiNiQ, a restaurant concept scheduled to open in March 2015.
His team members include David Ivey-Soto, a culinary consultant based in Alexandria, Va., who has cooked periodically for Major League Soccer’s D.C. United, and David Spychalski, who has worked with Wolfgang Puck and is currently executive chef of Windows Catering Company, also in Alexandria, a company that caters for the State Department and plenty of Washington think tanks.
McPeake’s lessons start with the basics: how to build a fire.
“The big thing is how to manage the fire and control the heat overnight,” Spychalski says, adding that one of them must constantly tend the fire throughout the night to be ready for judging at noon on Friday.
Next, McPeake coaches them to use ingredients the judges like.
“I advise when you go to the store you buy some honey,” McPeake says. “The judges here like it hot, followed by sweet.”
The team decides to use McPeake’s Rib Stars rubs but devises its own sauce for each competition meat: chicken, pork ribs, brisket and pork butt.
“I thought it would be good if we didn’t have everything taste the same,” says Spychalski, who offered up a creation he dubbed the Four Horsemen, a sauce he’s been working on for a couple of years tweaking the sweet heat of the ghost peppers.
McPeake leaves his charges with instructions on when to start cooking each meat and stops by periodically to give them pointers, like wrap the ribs bone-side down so they don’t get greasy. Or “be sure you don’t knock the bark off,” as Drysdale and Spychalski rewrap the pork butt in aluminum foil using a “pillow fold” and place it back on the smoker to keep warm.
As the mercury jumps to 100 degrees and the clock strikes noon on Friday, the team begins turning in its meats, nestled into a leaf lettuce-lined plastic foam box, to the judges. All the while, a steady stream of ACF chefs stop by to check out the team’s progress and sample its wares.
“That’s love in a box!” says Greg Sharpe, as he admires a mound of shredded pork butt.
High praise from a former Washington Convention Center executive chef who has cooked for presidential inaugurations, orchestrated a three-course meal for 17,500 people and once cooked an omelet for former President Bill Clinton when he wandered into Sharpe’s kitchen.
“This is the kind of experience I want,” says Sharpe, who hangs out to help with time keeping instead of attending meetings. “Quite honestly, I don’t need to learn to sculpt butter. I want to explore the city.”
“Hey, you want to start a barbecue team?” asks his friend Paul Suplee, an assistant culinary arts professor at Wor-Wic Community College in Salisbury, Md.
Out of 28 teams, McPeake’s team of professional chefs ranked 14th overall, winning the People’s Choice first-place award for chicken wings.
“Richard just set us up like crazy,” Spychalski says. “How can you not do well when you learn from somebody in this area? It’s priceless.”
Rub elbows with the chefs
Chances are if you dine out this weekend, you’ll run into chefs who are here for the American Culinary Federation’s national convention.
The two-day trade show with 100-plus food service exhibitors and cooking demonstrations is open to the public from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday. Admission is $40 for a day pass.
Johnson County Community College students will compete against four other student teams for the Student Team National Championship on the trade show floor from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday. A day pass is required.