[FTC Standard Disclaimer] My travel expenses for this event were paid for by a representative of Smithfield.
In boxing, you will hear the term "Unified Champion." That is because there are different sanctioning bodies - WBO, WBC, IBF, etc. Each organization might have its own champion. When things align, and the same person wins championships from the WBO, WBC, or IBF, that is referred to as a Unified Champion.
Over the past year, Smithfield created a unified championship across the BBQ sanctioning bodies when they established the Smokin' With Smithfield National Barbecue Championship, which was held in New Orleans last weekend. I was lucky enough to be invited to tag along as part of the media team. Here are scenes from this inaugural championship.
|The event was held in New Orleans, so naturally, they had a Mardi Gras theme going on.
This unified championship started long before last weekend.
- Two years ago, it began as an idea - a points chase across BBQ sanctioning bodies culminating in the top group going head to head in a "back-to-back-to-back" triple-contest.
- Last year, teams signed up at Smokin' With Smithfield and BBQData began tracking the points of the 370 registered teams.
- After a full year of competitions, the top 24 teams were invited to the Smokin' With Smithfield National Barbecue Championship.
I loved that this contest didn't get into silly stuff that televised food competitions do, like mystery proteins and special challenges. They kept it to traditional BBQ contest formats - who can cook the best chicken, pork ribs, pork, and brisket.
Another refreshing spin they did to level the playing field was that everyone was cooking with the same set of meats:
- Ribs and pork from Smithfield
- Chicken and brisket from The Butcher Shoppe in Pensacola.
The organizers did their best to have evenly sized meats divided up into Yeti 65 coolers. Then teams are drawn by a bingo-style ping-pong ball dispenser to determine who gets which cooler. You can't get fairer than that.
|It's a good thing these are heavy or I might have grabbed one and run off with it :) The pork was provided by Smithfield and the brisket and chicken by The Butcher Shoppe.
Because of travel arrangements and work, a lot of the media team did not make it in until after Day 1 was in the books. The 12 teams advancing on to the second round were:
|Fancy graphics, eh?
|Before heading to the event site, we decided to hit the French Quarter for coffee and beignets at the world-famous Cafe du Monde. Here are Kevin of Wile E. BBQ and Dan of Learning To Smoke, putting in their orders. We lucked out and there was almost no line when we got there. Twenty minutes later, the place looked like Franklin's BBQ with a line down the sidewalk.
|We had some time to kill, so we walked around taking in the architecture, local artists, shops, and bars. Lots and lots of bars. The French Quarter was just waking up and hosing off the sidewalks.
|I applied for the position of Assistant Voodooer but was told that they didn't like "that Voodoo, that you do."
|There are a ton of fascinating things to see in and around Bourbon Street. What caught our attention the most? Peeping in the window at the aged meat at Doris Metropolitan.
|The event was held at NOLA Motorsports Park, a sports car road track. It was exciting to see these cars fly around the track, but their roaring engines did create a few sound issues at times.
|Five-time BBQ World Champion, Iowa Smokey D's BBQ, was rocking their Jambo offset pit and drum smokers.
|Both Shake'N Bake BBQ and Gettin' Basted have kicked my team's butt at BBQ competitions before, so I wasn't surprised to see them here. Both were using Gateway drum smokers and they will be doing a Hot and Fast BBQ class in a weekend or two.
|The backdrop for the awards ceremonies area was a Mardi Gras float loaded with beads.
|RazorRacks BBQ's offset pit looks right at home on a race track, doesn't it? He didn't have the tent walls up trying to hide anything, it was for dealing with the stiff, cool breezes that dominated the day Saturday.
|Another Jambo pit, this one belonging to Fred Robles of Rio Valley Meat BBQ. I love his "BRI5KET" license tag, don't you?
|Christie Vanover of Girls Can Grill interviewing Tuffy about the event. You can view the video here. Christie is a BBQ badass, has ridiculous social media savvy, and is one of the coolest BBQ kids around.
|An insulated box smoker and, appropriate for the race track, a pair of Race Crew drum smokers.
|Boomerang BBQ rolled in with their dual-threat Yoder Smokers trailer outfitted with an offset smoker and a pellet cooker.
|RazorRacks getting his rib turn in ready for Round 2.
|Gettin' Basted knows their way around a drum smoker, for sure.
Earlier in the week, it looked like temperatures would be sunny and mild. Nature decided to drop the temperature by about 20 degrees, and it was a cold Friday and Saturday.
|Fortunately, Whistle Pig was there to warm us up with their rye whiskey.
|The Whistle Pig Punch was quite tasty. I might have had a few glasses....just for the Vitamin C, of course :)
|I was glad to get my copy of Tuffy Stone's excellent cookbook, Cool Smoke, signed by him. I've cooked out of this book for a while and enjoyed everything I've made. I put it right up there with my favorites, such as; Big Bob Gibson's BBQ Book (Chris Lilly), Franklin's Meat Smoking Manifesto, Diva Q's Barbecue (Danielle Bennett), and Meathead's book. That's high praise.
|Turn in times were an hour earlier than most events that we cook.
The judging for this event was different in several ways. Here are some of the differences.
- Scale - The ratings went from 1 to 12, giving more room at the top end.
- Categories - Presentation, texture, and flavor
- Comparative ranking - a 4th category had the judges rank the samples in order of preference. This is awesome since, at big contests like The Jack, you can have the dessert category have 9 or 10 180's and several "perfect 180s". This ranking practically eliminates the dreaded coin toss.
|While we waited for the scores to be tabulated, Tuffy Stone gave a demonstration of one of the recipes from his book - a Smithfield pork tenderloin with Alabama white sauce. I have a follow-up post about some of his tips and tricks.
|I never thought about pairing Alabama white sauce with pork tenderloin, but this was exceptionally good. The crowd loved it.
Only 6 teams advance to the final round and they were:
- Heavy Smoke - A father/son team from St Louis, they scored a 4th in pork and a 6th in brisket.
- Cajun Blaze - The local team had a 4th in pork ribs and first in brisket.
- Iowa Smokey D's BBQ - Always a strong competitor, Darren got 5th in chicken, 2nd in pork, and 3rd in brisket.
- Shake'n'Bake BBQ - They followed the beat of their own drum (bad smoker joke) to get 2nd in ribs, 5th in pork, and 2nd in brisket.
- Buckshot BBQ - Jayde got calls in all 4 categories with 1st in chicken, 5th in ribs, 3rd in pork, and 4th in brisket.
- Rio Valley Meat BBQ - Fred killed it with 5th in brisket and firsts in both ribs and pork.
|Our hosts brought in fresh oysters for Happy Hour, and we got a lesson in shuckin'. Here Dan Phelps of Learning to Smoke is digging in.
|It turns out that my good friend, Clint Cantwell (AmazingRibs and Grillocracy), didn't need lessons and was quite the pro. He blistered through about a dozen oysters in the time it took most others to do a couple.
|Kita Roberts (Girl Carnivore) is a rock star at making things happen. On our way in that morning, she said, "We WILL ride those gocarts!" She talked to our hosts and at the end of the day...
|We had the Smithfield Cup! It was a blast with some rubbin' (rubbin's racing! they say), a lot of laughter, and no one really cared who won in the end (said the 11 people who didn't finish first).
|The end of a beautiful but chilly Day 2 at Smokin' with Smithfield.
|Chris and his dad checking those Smithfield pork ribs in the final round. Chris said his attitude evolved from "Wow, I'm just happy to be here" on Friday, to "Well, I don't want to go home yet" on Saturday to, "I could actually win this!" on Sunday.
|Cajun Blaze has a roomy patio style trailer with an Ole Hickory CTO, a Backwoods insulated box cooker, and a pellet cooker.
|Shake'n'Bake BBQ recently won Reserve Grand Champion at The Jack and are always a serious contender.
|Darren Warth putting his Smithfield pork ribs back onto the cooker to finish.
|As I mentioned, it was cold and breezy and that affected turn-ins. For example, most teams used some type of insulated carriers, like this one, to keep their food warm until the last possible minute.
For turn-ins, teams typically have a 10-minute window to get their judging samples to the table.
- Miss it, and you are disqualified for that category.
- Chicken is typically the first entry, and teams will turn their samples in at the beginning of the 10-minute window since the entries pretty much go straight back to the judges without waiting around.
- With the following categories, teams use a few strategies for the timing of the turn in. Factors include the teams that are competing, the weather, and the layout of the contest site.
|With there being 6 teams and 1 judges' table left, the primary strategy was to keep the food warm until the last possible moment. Teams would get to the table and keep their food insulated until the literal last minute per the table clock.
|Sometimes, teams cut it close. The clock on the table shows just 17 seconds left in this photo.
|A fact I found interesting is that every sanctioning body that had a team in the event had a team make it to the Final Round. It wasn't structured that way, it's just how the scores worked out.
While we were waiting for the judges to finish their work, we hung out, waiting for the results.
|Clint showing off the monster beads that the Grand Champion recieves.
|We were lucky enough to get to sample the leftover turn-ins.
|Since we were in New Orleans, they also brought in some po' boys for lunch.
|After back-to-back-to-back competitions, who arose from the smoke as the 2019 Smokin' With Smithfield National Barbecue Championship?
Here is a video of the awards announcements courtesy of Girls Can Grill.
6th Place - Heavy Smoke
From O'Fallon, MO, Chris Schafer and his dad cooked their tails off to finish in the top tier of this national championship. I've never met Chris before, but after this weekend, I can tell you that he is an example of class. When it initially looked like he had won, his first thought was sharing recognition with the Reserve Grand Champion, as well. That tells me a lot about him as a person.
5th Place - Shake'n Bake
Shake'n Bake is well known for kicking butt on the BBQ circuit, so I wasn't surprised to see them finish in the top third of this national championship. They got 1st in chicken in the final round, which required submitting dark and white meat from whole birds.
4th Place - Cajun BlazeCajun Blaze is from Gonzales, LA, so they could be considered the home town team. They killed it, getting a first in Smithfield Fresh Pork and two firsts in the brisket category for the weekend.
3rd Place - Iowa Smokey D's BBQ
Darren and Sherry Warth, of Iowa Smokey D's BBQ from Des Moines, were my pick to win this event. After all, they have won 5 World Championships - 3x winner at The American Royal, once at The Jack, and once at the Houston Rodeo. But this wasn't to be their weekend, they were edged out in an extremely close competition. Still, a well-earned congratulations to Sherry and Darren for Top 3.
Reserve Grand Champion - Buckshot BBQTexas kicked some BBQ butt this weekend. From Midland, Texas, Buckshot BBQ captured Reserve Grand Champion. Jayde Henley used his years of experience on the BBQ circuit and kept it simple to shine in this national championship. They won Reserve Grand Champion in both of the final two rounds.
|Photo courtesy of Girls Can Grill
2019 Smokin' with Smithfield National Barbecue Champion - Rio Valley Meats BBQ
Also from Texas, Fred Robles of Rio Valley Meats BBQ defined consistency during this triple-competition. Rio Valley Meats bested the entire field three times in a row in the Smithfield Fresh Pork Ribs category, winning first place back-to-back-to-back. If that wasn't enough, he also won Reserve Grand in the first round and Grand Champion in the second round, before claiming the overall title.
|Photo courtesy of Girls Can Grill
This was an exciting concept for the BBQ competition world, and I'm thrilled that Smithfield and its partners had the vision to bring it to fruition. I loved that this championship brought the best from the various sanctioning bodies, leveled out the playing field, and laid down the BBQ gauntlet to determine the 2019 Smokin' With Smithfield National Barbecue Champion. I look forward to seeing this event becoming a crown jewel in the world of competition BBQ.
Huge thanks to the sponsors - Yeti, WhistlePig, Kingsford, Big Poppa Smokers, Abita Brewing, The Butcher Shoppe (Pensacola), and of course, Smithfield.
For further coverage, check out:
- Smokin' with Smithfield - Event's official site and how to sign up for Smithfield's competition programs, including their Committed Cooks and Grant programs.
- BBQ Central Radio Show - Sterling Ball explains the scoring error in the final round in detail, the integrity of the judging team, and how Smithfield ponied up the extra funds to make sure that every team was made whole. Sterling appears at about the 36-minute mark.