King of the Smoker Invitational, La Quinta Resort and Spa, Dec 8, 2012
It was an honor and pleasure to receive an invite to the eagerly awaited King of the Smoker (KOS) Invitational cookoff hosted by Sterling Ball of Big Poppa Smokers barbecue team and online store. The premise was simple, pick 24 of the best teams in the country comprising of long-time BBQ legends, up and coming teams, and current superstars. To draw them to the West coast, put out $50,000 in cash prizes, ask for no entry fee, provide free hotel rooms at a 5-star Waldorf Astoria resort, feed the teams in grand style from Friday through Sunday, give all the teams premium contest quality meat, and pay for the cost of shipping teams products and supplies to the contest. Caveat: teams had to comply with Sterling’s cardinal rule which was “no whining” else he would refund you the entry fee . . . wait, there was no entry fee!
As part of this charity driven event, Sterling was able to raise $152,000 for the Casey Lee Ball Foundation. The Casey Lee Ball Foundation is a nonprofit organization where 100% of every dollar donated goes directly to pediatric kidney research and it has gathered over $7M since inception some 19 years ago. Its celebrity supporters include George Clooney, Wayne Gretzky, and Alice Cooper.
The team list reads like a who’s who in barbecue including top names like Johnny Trigg, Chris Lilly, Tuffy Stone, and Rod Gray. Many of the top national teams included Munchin Hog @ The Hilton (2008 and 2011 KCBS National Team of the Year), Pig Skin BBQ (winner of the 2012 Jack Daniels World Championship and 2012 1st KCBS Ribs TOY), TippyCanoe BBQ (winner of the 2011 National Sam’s Club Cup), BIG T’Z Q CRU (2012 KCBS 1st Brisket TOY), 3 Eyz BBQ (2012 KCBS National Team of the Year), and SYD (2012 1st KCBS Chicken TOY)
The venue chosen for this throwdown was the beautiful La Quinta Resort and Spa, a Waldorf Astoria property in the Palm Springs area about 2 hours east of Los Angeles. This tranquil retreat dubbed the Jewel of the Desert was built in the 1920’s to become the getaway destination for Hollywood’s elite such as Greta Garbo and Clark Cable. Frank Capra of It’s a Wonderful Life loved this place and returned to his “Shangri-La of Screenwriting” again and again before eventually making it his home. My casitas (previous occupant was Kirk Douglas) was right beside Frank Capra’s one.
Sterling decided to pay homage to old style barbecue cooking and required the teams to cook without using electricity to run their pits so no pellet cookers or pit control devices (e.g., Stoker or Gurus) were allowed. There was no garnish except of a piece of foil to line the Styrofoam box and all teams cooked using the same meat which they drew an igloo from a randomly assigned number and ping pong ball. To ensure fairness and adherence to rules, Kelly and Kathleen McIntosh, two officials from the Kansas City BBQ Society, oversaw this event which was sanctioned under the KCBS Competitor Series.
I arrived around noon on Friday and was pleasantly surprised to see that teams were allowed to cook on the beautiful manicured lawns outside their assigned casitas. All the teams were provided with brand new King of the Smoker canopies and individual team banners. There were two folding tables, folding chairs, case of KOS water, foil, aluminum pans, and assorted barbecue supplies at each team site.
Red shirted KOS volunteers were on hand to greet us when we arrived and to ensure that our every need was taken care of during the entire event. At around 12:30 pm, my KOS volunteers dropped off a big sack lunch provided by the La Quinta Resort. The hotel and KOS staff golf-carted our barbecue pits and gear from the parking lot to the front of our casitas. It was an idyllic setting to setup our barbecue pits fronted by beautiful rose bushes. This was certainly a unique venue as it’s the first time I’ve cooked a contest at a 5-star resort.
At around 3 pm, the teams participated in the meat draw where each team was randomly assigned a ping pong ball with a number using a bingo machine. Kelly would call out a team name and Kathleen would then draw a ball from the bingo machine. Sterling then announced the number of the ball. SYD was assigned ping pong ball #13 so we went to the refrigerated truck and located our contest meats in Igloo #13. I was amazed at Sterling’s attention to detail for the entire event from KOS branding the trash cans, KCBS printouts, and even my ping pong ball which had a logo of the event on the opposite side of the number 13.
The two 12 lb Wagyu briskets were donated by Strube Ranch. Sterling purchased the 12 chicken quarters, two 9 lb bone-in pork butts, and 4 spare ribs from Snider Brothers Meats of Salt Lake City. The butts and ribs were Champion Reserve premium grade contest meat.
There was a slight snafu with the briskets as some were still frozen. Sterling was deeply apologetic but no harm no foul and I just dunked my two in my casitas bath tub in cold water to thaw. They were defrosted and ready for prep within an hour.
After the KCBS officials Kelly and Kathleen McIntosh inspected the meats, the teams began their meat prep until we were all called for the cooks meeting at 5 pm. We all posed for a group picture after the cooks meeting.
Sterling, our host and organizer, cooked a smoked prime rib dinner for all the teams and the buffet style side dishes were provided by the La Quinta Resort. I was a bit late for dinner as I had to get my briskets on the pit by 7:30 pm.
Since we were not allowed to use electricity, I could not use my Stoker control system and had to cook old school style with my WSMs. I started a little earlier as it’s a bit more work to get the pits up to temp. I brought along the Extreme Makeover WSM as backup pit because of the high stakes nature of this contest. In case you’re wondering, cooking old school style is very doable and I teach both high-tech and old-school style cooking in my SYD barbecue classes. I watched the pits until midnight and Mimi, my assistant and helper, watched it from midnight until about 3 am so I could get some rest on the 750 count sheets in our warm and toasty casitas.
The overnight cook went smoothly without a hitch and come morning; teams were treated to a full breakfast at the Adobe Grill located at the resort. There were to-go containers available so teammates could grab food to go and take it back to the team’s sites. If there were no teammates, the KOS crew even delivered the breakfast to-go boxes!
My cook ran smoothly and since there was no garnish, it was not a big effort to cut up the meats to place into the Styrofoam boxes. Turn in times were standard KCBS with chicken at noon and the rest every half hour later.
Since this was a public friendly event, the teams got a chance to mingle with the VIP groups touring the contest. Sterling also had Neil of Big Mista BBQ and Stephen of Simply Marvelous BBQ cater for the VIP guests so the teams could concentrate fully on cooking for the contest. So the VIP guests and public were treated to real competition grade BBQ.
After the brisket turn-in, the teams took turns putting on demos for the public. I had to cook chicken for my 4 pm demo but I found time to stop by to shig from the numerous barbecue masters when they did their sessions. To give you an idea of what topics were covered, the schedule was as follows:
- 1:40PM – Messermeister Knives Demo at the Johnny Trigg Booth
- 2:00PM – BBQ Q&A with Johnny Trigg
- 2:20PM – BPS Rubs with Scott Nelson of Pigskin BBQ
- 2:40PM – Plowboys Rubs & Sauces with Todd Johns
- 3:00PM – Smoke On Wheels Marinade with Andy Groneman
- 3:20PM – Competition Brisket Q&A with Rod Gray
- 3:40PM – BBQ Q&A with Chris Lilly
- 4:00PM – Competition BBQ for the Backyard with Harry Soo
- 4:20PM – All Things Competition BBQ with Tuffy Stone
- 4:40PM – Rib Trimming demo and Rib Q&A with Dan Hixon
- 5:00PM – California Competition BBQ with Matt Dalton
Since the sessions ran into overtime, my buddy Matt Dalton of Left Coast Q did not get an opportunity to present as the award ceremony started at 6 pm sharp! Sterling conducted the awards Academy Awards style and the scores were verified by the independent firm of Deloitte and Touche. Everyone waited anxiously as the top five names were called for the various categories. I was thrilled SYD finished first in ribs but was worried as SYD did not get called in any other category. When the top 7 were called, I was surprised that SYD finished third overall with 1st ribs, 7th pork, 7th brisket, and 13th chicken. The GC was Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson BBQ and the RC was Rob Magee of Munchin’ Hogs @ The Hilton.
After the awards, everyone attended a Mexican buffet reception hosted by Sterling. The food was awesome and what was totaling amazing was a musical tour de force performance by Andy McKee who is one of the world’s finest acoustic guitar soloists. It sounded like a whole band was playing and your ears can’t process what your eyes are seeing. Just watch the video as words cannot describe what this man can do with a guitar.
After another night luxuriating on 750 count sheets, it was time to say goodbye to the La Quinta Resort the next morning. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this is the best BBQ contest, I’ve had the privilege to participate in. I think Jaime Greer, the maker of Jambo Pits, summed it best at the Mexican dinner the night before when he said to me, ”In 23 years of competition barbecue, this was the most amazing event I’ve been in.” I couldn’t agree more. In his first time out as a contest organizer, Sterling has blown it out of the ballpark with his superb execution, attention to the finest detail, and his generous contribution to charity. The BBQ community will certainly be talking about this contest in the months to come. Sterling announced that the KOS series would continue across America in 2013 and I cannot wait for the details!
A big thank you goes to Sterling Ball and his 20+ person crew who put on a one-of-a-kind marquee event. Congratulations to Big Bob Gibson for GC, Munchin’ Hogs @ The Hilton for RC, and to all the teams who participated. Thank you to the officials Kelly and Kathleen McIntosh and all the judges and volunteers. A big thanks to the La Quinta Resort and staff for taking care of us.