BBQ heavyweights duke it out

From left Steve Wargo Rodrick Ventura and John Linicus all members of the New London Fire Department prepare their brisket BBQ entry for the Best Backyard BBQ Chef Competition held at Waterfront Park in New London on Saturday.

New London - Tim Rohrs had barbecue sauce on his hands, face and shirt Saturday afternoon, but he was happy.

He was preparing a batch of beef brisket, the final of four categories, for the judges at the second annual Best Backyard BBQ Chef Competition at Waterfront Park. Rohrs was reluctant to assess his handiwork, though.

"Whenever I say it's some of the best food I've cooked, it's always tanked, so I'm superstitious and I don't want to say that," Rohrs said.

Rohrs and his TNT Dynamite Barbeque team (his wife, Sandy, and son, Jake), out of Oceanside, N.Y., were one of 15 teams to cook their best brisket, chicken, pork ribs and pork shoulder for the competition, which featured 15 certified judges and was officially sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS).

Teams of three to five people - with names such as "Three Men and a Baby Back," "Redneck Caviar" and "Perfect Butt" - competed for about $4,600 in cash prizes, organizer Barbara Neff said, with money given to those who came in first through fifth place in each category.

Competitors arrived Friday afternoon, braved the wind and rain to set up tents and smokers, and were ready with their finished products Saturday afternoon.

Rohrs took his beef brisket out of his pellet-fueled, computer-managed smoker around 1 p.m. Saturday after about 17 hours of slow cooking to prepare for the judges. The computer balances the heat, Rohrs said, meaning he doesn't have to stay up all night "babysitting" the meat, while the pellets, he said, are made of 60 percent white oak and 40 percent cherry and pecan to give the meat the flavor he strives for.

He sliced into the cut, tasting it and balancing it on his finger to find the most tender cut to have judged. Then, to counteract the drying that he says begins as soon as it's cut, he placed several pieces of brisket into a bowl filled with beef drippings. It's this dedication and attention to detail that earned Rohrs four second-place finishes while participating in 15 competitions last year, some that had as many as 132 contestants, he said.

"I thought it would be fun to do, and to see how my barbecue stacked up against others," Rohrs said of entering competitions, which he started to do in 2005.

ZBQ, out of Rhode Island, took the title of best overall and the $1,000 prize that goes along with it.

"They said it's the best site they've ever been to, and that they'll be back next year," Neff said of the winners.

Because Saturday's event was the Connecticut championship, Neff said ZBQ also earned an invitation to the 2012 Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue in Lynchburg, Tenn., one of the most prestigious cook-offs in the world.

And in New London Saturday, there wasn't sneaking any sub-par eats by these judges. The experts, like Nicholas Morello, of Fairfield, came from all over and have to participate in a half-day class to become KCBS certified barbecue judges, Morello said.

"I just enjoy food and barbecue and decided to do it," Morello said.

On hand to ensure that the event went smoothly and was accurately adjudicated were KCBS contest representatives Rich and Bunny Tuttle, who came from Missouri to oversee the sanctioned competition.

Rich Tuttle said the KCBS, which has contest representatives all over the country, began as a small group of friends in 1985 and quickly grew into "a huge, huge deal." The group sanctions more competitions than any organization in the world, he said.

A competition needs at least 15 teams to be eligible for a state championship, so New London's event just made it, Tuttle said. But Neff, who ran the contest last year as well when it attracted only three entrants, said everyone enjoyed this year's event and that it will surely only grow in popularity.

After all, it's hard to frown with so much barbecue sauce plastered to your face.

s.goldstein@theday.com

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