The International Chefs Congress (ICC) is in its eighth year, but this weekend in New York they hosted their first ever barbecue competition. It was simply called Smoke @ ICC. Ten teams from six states were competing for the grand prize of a trip for four to South Korea and a Southern Pride rotisserie smoker. It wasn’t much of a surprise that Texans took the top two spots.
The Carillon is a much-lauded New American restaurant in Austin. They don’t have a lick of barbecue on their menu and their Chef Josh Watkins doesn’t have much barbecue experience. They won the whole thing anyway. In an interview after the competition Chef Watkins said barbecue was something he did in the backyard, but never professionally. That is until The Carillon decided to enter this competition. He started playing with barbecue at their catering events and whenever he could fit it in. The practice paid off. What was their secret? Pecan shells. They smoked all of the four meat categories with that little taste of Texas.
There were four proteins that were part of the competition. Quail, pork butt and a leg of lamb all had to be done in one of three styles – American Regional, Asian and New World respectively. Brisket was the wild card that could be prepared in any way the competitors chose. The panel of judges consisted of barbecue author Steven Raichlen, Brad Orrison of the Shed, Kenny Callaghan formerly of Blue Smoke, Famous Dave Anderson and Andy Husbands of Tremont 647 in Boston. They chose the winners of the first three categories in a blind judging, while the event attendees chose the winning brisket.
It was San Antonio’s Jason Dady that led the winning brisket team. He chose to serve large cubes of brisket with a tamarind glaze, spicy peanuts and lavender mint. Asian pickles came on the side. The brisket preparation was a simple salt and pepper rub, but with the addition of gochujang – red pepper paste – made by event sponsor Chung Jung One. Dady thought it might have been the best brisket he’s ever smoked, but it didn’t come without challenges. The teams got the briskets delivered to their restaurants a few days before the competition. With an eight-hour limit at the event, they were given the opportunity for a head start. Dady started his briskets in San Antonio with five hours of smoking and a long sous vide bath before finishing them on a Lang smoker at the event.
Lang BBQ Smokers and Southern Pride were event sponsors, and there were five of each for the teams. They drew out of a hat to see who would use which. The Carillon rode their Southern Pride to victory, while Houston chef Ronnie Killen licked his chops at the chance to smoke on the Lang smoker. That’s the same smoker he uses at his very successful barbecue pop-ups in Pearland. He also thought using his buddy Matt Fisher’s smoker at Fletcher’s in Gowanus for the head start on his briskets would put him over the top. In the end it was the pork that got him the most praise. Judges gave him third place for his pork ramen featuring smoked mangalitsa pork in a pork-bone broth. Killen wasn’t sure of his overall spot in the competition since only first and second were announced, but he was happy with the experience. “It was a lot of fun.”
Killen will now shift his focus away from competitions and on to the finishing touches on his barbecue restaurant in Pearland. They had the busiest day of the year at his pop-up over the weekend, and plans to open the doors on his permanent space in about six weeks. When asked about adding that successful ramen dish to his new menu he said “I may have to have it on there.” But that will have to come eventually. He wants to focus on straight-up barbecue at the outset.
From the interview with Carillon’s Watkins, he may have caught the barbecue bug. “There are concepts coming out, there are future openings, and there are a lot of things on the horizon that are all surrounded with barbecue.” Does that mean a new player in the Austin barbecue market? I’m not sure, but Watkins will bring what he feels is missing from barbecue as a whole.
“Barbecue is an awesome piece of meat that has great bark, awesome fat, and all these great things. But where’s the flavor profiling in that piece of meat? Where is everything that goes with it? Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami… flavor balance. That’s cooking 101, so if you can apply that to barbecue, which hasn’t been done before, then you’re gonna win.”
If you do see barbecue show up on the Carillon menu, you can bet it will be smoked in that Southern Pride that they won. When asked about his thoughts when he drew the Southern Pride out the outset, Watkins said “Honestly, I was terrified because I’d never cooked on one before.” After the event concluded, his attitude had changed dramatically. “It’s an amazing piece of equipment…and I’m happy to own one.”
Chef Dady who drew the Lang smoker had plenty of praise for it as well. “It’s the best smoker I’ve ever worked on…It was a beast.” Dady also noted how serious the competitors were, including his team. “Everybody had their guard up.” But he wanted that trip to South Korea badly. He certainly came close. A second place finish in quail and lamb coupled with the winning brisket almost got them there. “We were so close I could taste the kimchi.”
Back in Texas, it was the rest of Dady’s barbecue team getting some accolades of their own. Two Bros. BBQ Market served four thousand barbecue meals at the San Antonio Stock Show BBQ Cook-off while also taking home sixth place in the rib category. “It was a good week for Two Bros.” said Dady, who will be in New York for a few more days attending the rest of the ICC. Although he wanted to take first prize, he put the Smoke competition in perspective for Texans. “I thought it would be really great if Texas would come and kick some a–, and we proved that by getting first and second.”