The wood smoke and sizzling meat aromas wafting from Ric Gilbert's backyard smell like those from any other suburban home on a lazy weekend afternoon. But Gilbert is no ordinary burger flipper.
Stepping into his backyard is like entering an Olympic training center for the barbecuing elite. Barbecue isn't an Olympic sport, but for Gilbert and other competitive barbecuers, it might as well be. Smoke and fire and meat are serious business.
To prepare for an upcoming barbecue contest, Gilbert and team member Ben Lobenstein erected a white canopy in his backyard under which to practice their skills on the grill. Make that grills. Gilbert has a total of 10 barbecues scattered around his backyard. He started out on a classic Weber. He went on to a Weber "bullet," a blunt, torpedo-shaped device that's better suited to smoking. ("Barbecuing," by the way, is slow-cooking meat with indirect heat and smoke; "grilling" is cooking quickly and directly over a hot fire.)
He graduated to more sophisticated smokers and ultimately built his own rig, a trailer-mounted, blackened behemoth he affectionately calls "Sarah." It's named after Sarah Winchester because, like the legendary matron of San Jose's Winchester Mystery House, he just kept adding and adding new sections and features to the iron-clad, fire-breathing contraption.
But lately he's developed a fondness for a stout, ceramic-walled barbecue called the Big Green Egg. If a Weber's the VW bug of barbecues, the Big Green Egg is a Maserati. Or a Tesla. It's so fuel-efficient, burning slowly and evenly, that he rarely has to add additional lumps of charcoal. Big Green Eggs sell for about $1,000, and in spite of their simple, 1,000-year-old Chinese design, they are high-performance barbecuing machines. Gilbert has three of them. For him, barbecue isn't just a way to cook meat; it's a way of life.
"It's an obsession," he says. "It's a way of going over the top. It just sung to me. There's something really primal about it."
Gilbert has married the low-tech smoker to some very new technology. After losing a mystery-meat competition in which contestants had to cook kangaroo, Gilbert now makes sure he has an internet connection at contests so he can Google any technical questions that evade him.
"We're all wired up now," he says.
Today, his hands are on a slab of pork ribs that he's just pulled off the grill. In his estimation, the ribs were substandard. Too dry. While his style of cooking varies depending on where in the country he's competing or who the judges are, there are certain standards set by the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) that he's always shooting for.
The KCBS sanctions and judges barbecue competitions across the country and promotes barbecue as America's national cuisine. It's the largest society of barbecue enthusiasts in the world.
"We've been known to cook 10 racks of ribs in order to serve six good ones," he says.
In competition, competitors cook to a different standard. Judges evaluate barbecue on the basis of texture, flavor and presentation. But because judges sample so much barbecue in a contest, they may only take one or two bites of each contestant's entry before moving on to the next competitor. That means competitive 'cuers like Gilbert have to get everything right in just one bite, and therefore their meats are intensely flavored, more hyperdelicious than what you'd find in a barbecue restaurant.
"You want to cook something that's going to dance on the judges' tongues," he says.
Gilbert says barbecuing at this level, where competitors vie for thousands of dollars against dozens of other teams, is intensely mental. Those not fit for the rigors of competition get burned.
"When most people think of barbecue, they think of beer-guzzling bubbas in the backyard with a Weber," he says.
For the record, Gilbert did have beer on hand among the relics of old Webers, but I would not call him a bubba. This program director of a special-education school takes a more cerebral approach. He's noticed, for example, that when people like his barbecue sauce they smack their lips and aerate their mouth as if they were tasting wine.
Gilbert holds an informal contest in his backyard once a year where teams can hone their craft and get extensive feedback from judges. At official contests, all competitors gets is a numerical score. It was at one of these backyard scrimmages that Ryan Pang met Gilbert. If Gilbert is a barbecue guru, Ryan Pang is a disciple.
"He's got the passion," Gilbert says. "He's been bitten by the bug."
Pang and his Bad S Barbecue team are up-and-comers on the barbecue scene. Pang is a loquacious, bespectacled private chef who graduated with honors from the Culinary Institute of America. Although he and his friends have been competing for less than a year, they've collected some impressive winnings. Inspired by the TV show BBQ Pitmasters and Gilbert's get-togethers, he and his buddies decided to go pro and compete.
Pang has a few more events he and his team are planning to compete in. Next year, he's planning to step up into the big leagues and compete in higher profile contests with bigger cash prizes.
"We're just trying to cover our costs," he says. "We're not trying to turn a profit."
But for the full-time professional chef turned part-time professional barbecuer, the thrill of the grill fulfills a higher calling.
"The biggest thing about food for me is satisfying other people," he says. "It's what I want to do—and when I do it, I want to do it right."