12
Feb

King of the Smoker 2013

KingOfTheSmoker_1What started out as a one-time “getting the band back together” cook at the 2013 Memphis in May seems to be morphing into something else. The 25th anniversary of the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest came along in October and Apple City Barbecue cooked as part of the Winners’ Circle , finishing with a respectable 2nd chicken, 4th pork, 9th ribs, and 20th {yikes} brisket for a 9th overall finish. Then came the invitation from Sterling Ball to compete in King of the Smoker in La Quinta, California.

King of the Smoker, in its second year, is a premier invitational cook-off with 24 of the best competition teams from coast to coast, many of whom are part of Big Poppa Smoker’s Elite program – a group of outstanding teams to whom he provides coaching, support, and product. Chris Lilly and the Big Bob Gibson crew won the 2012 inaugural event.

The gorgeous La Quinta Resort provided a spectacular venue. While waiting for my room, my first stop was the Twenty6 restaurant for wine and cheese. The gorgeous sunset pictured above on full display when I exited the restaurant.

Jamie Greer wedding anniversaryAn outstanding host, Sterling organized most of the festivities around his favorite foods. On Wednesday night, the few teams who arrived early were treated to El Mexicali where we sampled his favorite banana peppers stuffed with shrimp, as well as many other Mexican specialties. So, so good. It was also Pamela and Jamie Geer’s anniversary and they were serenaded with beautiful harp music.

Mike and PhilMike and Phillip arrived the next day and they could see immediately that this was no typical barbecue contest venue.

KingOfTheSmoker_3Thursday morning was a “board meeting” {one of several convened throughout the stay} at Twenty6 so everyone could try the eggs benedict. Their menu features eight or so different varieties, all delicious. I opted for oatmeal and learned that the area is known for its dates {in the small ramekin}. Fresh and flavorful.

Jambo parked out frontChristmas was on full display at the resort. I’ve never seen such lavish decorations and attention to detail. A distinctive Jamie Geer Jambo pit, right by the entrance, added to the glamour and piqued the interest of the hotel guests.

KingOfTheSmoker_9More of the hotel grounds. Lush, meticulously groomed, and and teeming with gardeners who take extreme pride in their work. I swear they were arranging blades of grass with tweezers.

KingOfTheSmoker_6I stayed in a different part of the resort and this was my pretty, semi-private courtyard. I could hear the trickling fountain in my room. Very feng shui.

KingOfTheSmoker_25This spectacular tree, dripping with giant ornaments and twinkling lights, greets you upon arrival.

Sterling Ball gives an Ernie Ball factory tourOne of the many highlights was a tour of the Ernie Ball guitar string factory in nearby Indio. Founded by Sterling’s father, he’s now at the helm, and his passion and vision are evident in every aspect of the business. Sterling is deeply committed to providing an exceptional workplace – from paychecks accompanied by candy {usually a Payday ~ clever!} and family meals served each day in the cafeteria to a scholarship program for employees’ children, the friendly, smiling faces I saw throughout the factory are a testament to his leadership and vision.

Sterling Ball, Ryan NewstromThursday night’s welcome party featured a jam session with Sterling and a group of studio musicians. Ryan Newstrom, of Big T’s Q Cru, is a classically trained voice musician and he took to the microphone, as did Scott Kee of Little Pigtown. The best part was having a chance to relax and hang out with this elite group of teams from all over the country, many of whom I only knew from Facebook.

Tracy Hixon of 3Eyz orchestrated these Liquid Cocaine ShotsTracy Hixon. of 3 Eyz, was the ringleader behind many, many shots of Liquid Cocaine and she singlehandedly depleted the bar of Jåagermeister and peppermint schnapps in the process. NOTE: these were California-sized shots.

La Quinta Resort and SpaThere is a famed spa at La Quinta, and I made time to check that out on Friday morning.

La Quinta SpaI didn’t have enough time to take full advantage of all of the services, but I did have an outstanding massage and a relaxing celestial bath. The bath was outside in a tiny courtyard with lush plantings and trees dripping with fruit hanging overhead. The weather was a bit chilly, so I warmed up by the outdoor fireplace before heading back to the cook site.

KingOfTheSmoker_15This was the scene early Saturday morning: rolling smoke set against the rising sun. Nestled amongst the mountains, the teams stayed in a village of casitas in the middle of the resort. The crackerjack Big Poppa crew set up a tent for each team right outside each casita. Buzzing about in Gators, they distributed beer, ice, and anything else we needed.

KingOfTheSmoker_10This was the second year for this very unique contest and I can attest that every team there was feeling hugely honored to be included. Sterling conceived this invitational event to show what a barbecue contest could be.

First he leveled the playing field as much as possible. No electricity of any kind was allowed. That means no BBQ Gurus, rotisserie pits, pellet cookers, Stokers, or any gadget or pit that requires electricity.

We bought this charcoal grill locally …

Big Poppa Smokers Drum and Ole Hickory Pits Ace… and Big Poppa Smokers was kind enough to loan us one of their custom drum smokers as well. I love the added design elements including a bottle opener and hooks for tools. The drum was so well insulated that the coals were still piping hot at 5 o’clock Saturday evening. We couldn’t empty the ash until the next morning.

David Knight of Ole Hickory Pits shipped out two of the new Ole Hickory Pits Ace models for us to use as well. These pits use charcoal only and, while they do have a fan requiring electricity, we simply didn’t plug it in, managing the fire manually. Phillip stayed up with them all night and learned that wasn’t necessary. They maintained a constant temperature all night, as though the needle was painted at 210•.

KingOfTheSmoker_14Another unique aspect of this contest: coolers of meat were provided for each team and randomly distributed through the ping pong ball system. Again, as level a playing field as you can engineer.

Kingsford Charcoal and Western Wood ChunksWe cooked with Kingsford charcoal and, sticking to our roots, apple wood, and a little pecan, from Western Wood.

KingOfTheSmoker_17Two whole chickens were provided, requiring some butchering skill. Phillip did a masterful job as you can see.  This also means we had to mix up the chicken entry – we couldn’t just turn in thighs as there wouldn’t be enough for six judges. Breasts, legs, and wings added a new twist. I mixed up some delicious sauce.

KingOfTheSmoker_18A favorite moment with Mike and Sterling. Shared values and a love of barbecue make for a genuine connection and meaningful conversation.

Pink ThermapenThe brisket is getting there. Note: we exclusively use pink Thermapens. We’ve found we can keep them around longer as other men tend not to permanently “borrow” that color.

Brisket Smoke RingStrube Ranch sponsored these beautiful briskets. You can order them directly from Big Poppa Smokers.

Personalized Messermeister steak knives This gorgeous set of personalized Meissermaster knives was just one of the gifts with which we were showered in between turn-ins.

Woodhouse chocolatesAnother delicious gift: custom Woodhouse salted caramels, dusted with Big Poppa Smokers Jallelujah Seasoned Jalapeño Salt on the dark chocolate caramels and Jallelujah Bacon Rub  on the milk chocolate caramels. Wow.

More details about the level of care and hospitality : gift bags with coozies, a commemorative poster, and t-shirt, boxed lunches prepared for the teams so we could keep diligently working, an outstanding Friday night meal with special guests including Randy Jackson of American Idol fame, a hearty breakfast buffet early Saturday morning, the grand finale dinner with live entertainment, and late-night chat around the fire pit. You’ve set an incredibly high bar, Sterling Ball.

Vodka and beer Phillip feeling good after the final box went off for judging.

Many California barbecue fans came down for the day. The doors officially opened at 1:30 for guests with a gate fee benefitting the Casey Lee Ball Pediatric Kidney Research Foundation. Operation BBQ Relief was vending, with proceeds going to fund their disaster relief efforts. Casey Lee Ball and Antoine Dufour entertained the crowds with guitar music on the stage. {Click on that Antoine Dufour link … beautiful, beautiful music.} Bill Murray called in from a movie set in Hawaii with well wishes and a generous donation.

We met so many nice people, signed books, and offered our leftovers for people to sample. Several teams gave scheduled demos. Our apologies to the few people who snuck in early and tried to chat while we were in the thick of building boxes. Every minute counts prior to turn-in and we were unable to be as hospitable as we would’ve liked.

KingOfTheSmoker_20Meeting Michael and Stephen, the La Quinta chefs, and talking to them about our barbecue world was such a pleasure. We dined in several of their famed restaurants, all well-deserving of their reputations. These men run finely tuned kitchens.

Tippecanoe BBQ Crew Wins King of the SmokerHuge congratulations to Grand Champions Tippy Canoe BBQ Crew. See the final results here. In addition to sizable checks, the winners received fully functional miniature Black Poppa Smokers drum smokers with commemorative insignia. {Grand Champion photo courtesy of Joe Beland.}

Most heart-warming was the money raised: over $20,000 for Operation BBQ relief and over $250,000 for the Casey Lee Ball Pediatric Kidney Research Foundation. The music world is much like the barbecue world with a sizable donations coming from D’Addario, the Ernie Ball company’s colleague and competitor in the guitar string business, BJ’s Brew House, and Bill Murray, to name a few. In the spirit of giving, several teams donated their prize winnings as well.

KingOfTheSmoker_28The view during the drive back to the airport in Palm Springs, with incredible memories and a full heart. Hugest thanks to Sterling, Jessie, Jody, James, Holly, and the Big Poppa crew as well as Jay, Zakee, and the LaQuinta Resort staff for the warmest hospitality and over-the-top fun. We are so very grateful!

If you ever have a chance to vacation here, I highly recommend it! 

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