Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

Under fire: Behind the scenes at competitive barbecue

Long days. Early mornings. Plenty of smoke at Porkapalooza 2018.

It’s just after midday on a scorching Sunday at Porkapalooza, a barbecue competition held in Edmonton every June. Inside a dimly lit cooking tent, NAIT Culinary Arts instructor Nigel Webber (Culinary Arts ’04) takes stock of his team’s latest meaty masterpiece: about 10 pounds of pork butt that’s slightly blackened but anything but burned.

Underneath the dark exterior crust of this cheaper cut that’s tailormade for barbecue is a juicy, smoky, savoury interior that’s the product of many hours of marination, cooking over a smoker, basting, rubbing with spice mixtures and resting. A thermometer probe tells members of BBQ Team NAIT the pork’s level of doneness, but no amount of kitchen gear can tell whether they’ve mastered this meat until it’s time for tasting.

“Barbecue has time pressures and performance pressures just like industry would have but it’s a completely different setting.”

The world of competitive barbecue is a completely different realm from the professional kitchens that NAIT’s team members typically navigate. Despite that, it’s a great place for staff and students to hone skills in challenging culinary settings. There’s no shortage of heat – especially when under fire.

“Barbecue has time pressures and performance pressures just like industry would have but it’s a completely different setting,” says Webber.

As he begins to separate the “money muscle” from the rest of the pork butt (it’s actually a shoulder), his four teammates with BBQ Team NAIT gather round to watch. The money muscle is a small cylindrical portion of meat that contains a lot of marble, a.k.a. tiny flecks of fat that provide flavour. When cooked properly, it’s soft like a tenderloin and one of the highlights of competitive barbecue, often served on its own in slices beside samples of pulled pork and larger chunks of the butt.

Webber cuts one slice of meat before he’s urged to stop.

“The shape is no good on this one,” declares teammate and fellow Culinary Arts instructor Ron Wong (Cooking ’89). He refuses to taste it. “Don’t even waste your time. Forget it.”

“Well, very decisive today,” Webber says of his colleague’s instant feedback.

“The meat speaks for itself.”

And just like that, nearly 24 hours of toil that went into preparing the perfect bite for competition judges is relegated to the bin, so to speak. (The team actually eats or gives away everything they prepare).

Webber moves on to slice off a hunk of money muscle from a second pork butt. Teams never cook just one type of meat that’s part of a barbecue entry, just in case something goes awry, like it has today.

“That’s better,” says Wong. “The meat speaks for itself.”

Bringing the heat

Barbecue and barbecue competitions are part of a rich tradition in the United States, where winning teams can earn big paydays, and are slowing gaining in popularity here in Canada.

Some 51 teams from Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia competed at Porkapalooza and endured late nights, early mornings and plenty of eye-watering smoke while preparing five entries for judgment: chicken, ribs, pork, beef brisket and chef’s choice. 

“Getting that perfect smoke ring and flavour – what’s not to love?”

This is BBQ Team NAIT’s seventh competition since forming last year. Composed entirely of staff (pitmaster Josh Ward sat out Porkapalooza due to an injury) and students of the Culinary Arts department, the group formed out of a mutual love of barbecue and a desire to master cooking techniques that are as old as humankind’s taming of fire.

“I love the challenge,” says Wong. “Getting that perfect smoke ring and flavour – what’s not to love?”

Other teams are there to represent their food or catering businesses, or to just get away from the doldrums of 9-to-5 life, says Webber.

“The most enjoyable thing is visiting with all the people, looking at different smokers, different methods of smoking and cooking,” he says. “People are always willing to share tips and tricks and ideas.”

BBQ Team NAIT is unique in that competing is a learning opportunity for Culinary Arts students Louie Angelo Vargas, Riley Elliot and recent program grad Ethan Barlow. Each volunteered to assist instructors with all aspects of the competition: setup, trimming and preparing meat, stoking fires and the all-important three-minute march from their competition tent to the judging area.

“They share the same love of barbecue,” explains Wong.

BBQ Team NAIT has placed in several categories since forming last year, winning best ribs at the Smokin’ Q competition near Okotoks and first in chicken and at the Calgary Stampede’s BBQ on the Bow. But every competition is different.

Barbecue ain’t no game

It’s also a heckuva lot of work competing at a handful of weekend barbecue competitions every summer stretching across much of Alberta. At Porkapalooza, BBQ Team NAIT moved an entire mobile kitchen complete with full-sized fridge, portable cooktops, coolers, prep tables, wash basins and tools along with four different smokers at Northlands Park Racetrack and Casino.

It’s a serious mobile operation that costs upward of $5,000, which is why many teams rely on sponsorship to help offset costs.

NAIT’s team received some sponsorship support, but it also has the entire institute rallying behind it to help raise the culinary program’s profile on the circuit. Culinary Arts provided seed funding, while the team’s fridge was customized in NAIT blue by Auto Body Technician students. One of their largest wood pellet smokers has also been NAITified with an engraving of the institute’s shield on the lid.

Heat of competition

Prep work begins Saturday with the first competition, chef’s choice – smoked chicken skewers dipped in a soy-chili sauce with sesame, hot mustard, sriracha cilantro and scallions.

Saturday afternoon, bigger cuts of meat like the pork butt are trimmed of excess fat and given an injection of marinade deep inside the meat and left to rest for several hours before cooking in the smoker.

There’s downtime between preparations, but the work doesn’t stop until dishes are turned in for judgment. The team members take shifts through the night, monitoring and checking the meat to avoid a sudden change in temperature that could ruin an entry. Sleeping happens either sitting up in outdoor lounge chairs or cots in the back of the team trailer.

By 4 a.m. on Sunday, the team is up in full force wrapping butts and briskets in aluminum foil and adding rubs and marinades before resting and final preparation.

Serving the perfect bite

Teams have full creative freedom for how they prepare meats in the competition's main categories – pork, ribs, chicken and brisket – provided the meat is cooked over charcoal, wood or wood pellets. NAIT uses mostly wood pellets in three of their smokers, partly influenced by sponsorship but also the control that this fuel provides, Wong says.

“Pellet smokers are more forgiving. You set the desired smoking temperature and can pretty much leave it,” he says.

For chicken, the team uses a combination of charcoal and wood chunks in a ceramic egg smoker. “We believe it yields a better end result,” says Webber.

Once meats are cooked and rested, entries are served in a styrofoam box – typically atop a bed of parsley.

“For ribs, you should be able to bite it off the bone. It should come away with a little bit of resistance.”

Teams aim for a perfect single bite to serve to the six certified barbecue judges who rarely eat more than one mouthful. Judging happens every half-hour starting at noon. Entries are assigned a number that no one but the organizers know, so judges can avoid bias.

“We judge each entry individually, so we’re never comparing one team to the next,” says David Whitaker (Cooking ’83), a Culinary Arts instructor and one of the certified judges for Porkapalooza.

Whitaker says judging follows criteria set by the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS), including appearance, flavour and texture.

“For ribs, you should be able to bite it off the bone. It should come away with a little bit of resistance,” he says. “If it falls off the bone it’s overdone.”

Beautiful brisket

Like pork butt, beef brisket is a tough cut of meat that requires lots of cooking at lower temperatures to break down muscle fibres and connective tissue. Team NAIT cooks one brisket to an internal temperature of 96 C, and slightly less for the backup portion.

There’s a palpable sense of nervousness whenever the team is about to sample their finished products. But like the money muscle, it doesn’t take long for a verdict. The first brisket is too dry, but the second is just right.

“Man, this is good,” says Wong.

“Yup,” agrees Webber. “Even a few degrees makes a major difference.”

Team members crowd together to take pictures of the finished entry before it’s whisked away for judging – just don’t expect to ever see one of those images in public. Barbecue teams are notoriously secretive about their final dishes to avoid giving competitors a leg up.

“Everyone has their secrets,” says Webber.

When the long days of cooking are finished and the smoke isn’t as thick, there’s a sense of relief and satisfaction. The team won’t know how they placed for several hours, but there were no major mistakes or mishaps (they placed 15th overall out of the 51 teams, scoring highest for brisket, which came in fifth place).

After the competition, Webber says he’s pleased with how the team performed. Yes it was hot and they didn’t win, but they made no major mistakes and it’s all part of the learning process.

“Bottom line, we give up four weekends a year, including Mother’s Day and Father’s Day because we love doing it,” says Webber. “We enjoy the competition, the student interaction, the other people around us competing. It’s always good learning.”

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