It’s time for our Grillstock Bristol 2013 report! Sorry it’s been a while coming all you Backyard Brummies fans.
Cutting to the chase: we exceeded our own expectations and came 5th overall, with an outrageous win in the brisket category! Yes as the man Dr BBQ described, the hardest meat to cook! Here’s a link to the final points and positions at the Grillstock 2013 Bristol King of the Q competition.
The weekend started on a wet and windy Friday 9th May (wet and windy would aptly describe the rest of the weekend so I won’t mention it again). Dave and I arrived late afternoon and bagged a pitch next to the reigning champs Bunch of Swines, Ed and Emma (who, contrary to their moniker are in fact jolly nice people). I wanted to learn some more competition BBQ skills from them, having had the luck of pitching with them last year. They even kept an eye on our smoker! Perhaps some of that champion form would rub off on us? As it happens they retained their title, so maybe pitching with the Backyard Brummies was a good omen for them. What you think Ed?
Also sharing our pitch were two new teams; the Bare Grillers and Becky’s BBQ Shack. Who we were glad to share our andouille and war stories with, no longer being BBQ compo virgins. This year’s Grillstock King of the Q competition appeared on paper to be lot tougher than last year. In the line-up were two ex-judges, Andy Annat’s Crackerjack team and Enn Tobreluts as well as veteran US team BBQ Guru who actually design the electronic fan system used by Champion BBQ teams around the world. We were in no doubt that a good finish this year would be doubly difficult than last.
Set up and ready to go on Friday evening, but wait, where is Nick, I hear you murmur? Well Professor Smokey Brisket didn’t make it to the party until 8:30, leaving home later than planned and in his own words having to turn back four times because of stuff he forgot to bring. Only he will know how far he got down the M5 each time. But more importantly the winning brisket was travelling with him and that big of lump of fatty Wagyu* should have been inspected and be marinading in its first salt rub hours before he actually arrived on site.
* A little aside on Brisket, in what I will newly term The Wagyu Wars. Nick being the laid back gent he is, decided to contact Jeanette (from our meat sponsor, Alternative Meats) only two weeks before the competition. He was told that the only two briskets available had been taken by none other than Ed of the Bunch of Swines! Actually living up to his team name for once. The git! But after much reasoning and charm, and only minor blackmailing and guilt-tripping, Nick managed to persuade her to part with one of the briskets. So we ended up cooking the same meat from the same animal as the Champions. A direct head to head in which we beat them into second place – hugely satisfying! More on this later…
The Friday evening at Grillstock for the competition teams mostly involve drinking beer which I can report we did successfully, interspersed with the occasional rubbing down of spare ribs and brisket injection. At the stroke of midnight, after what we felt was only just long enough in the dry cure, the brisket went into one of our ProQ smokers. Compared to the set-up the Swines had; thermal blankets and electronically controlled fans on their Weber Smokey Mountains, our hand-vented smokers were looking distinctly stone-aged. So we prayed to the ProQ gods and left it overnight for the smokey magic to work with vague instructions to the Bare Grillers, who were valiantly camping out all night, to “open the vents or something if it looks like it’s going to go out”.
The running order for Saturday was Chef’s special, ribs, lamb and brisket. So Saturday morning Nick and I were up before 6am to tend to brisket and ribs. It was a pretty sleepless night anyway, due to some Bristol clubbing idiots running up and down the corridors pissed as newts, but anyone serious about Q knows what it’s like to check on your coals half asleep at the break of dawn. If you sleep, you dream nightmares of fluctuating temperatures and coals dying out. Only at Grillstock though are you joined by two dozen teams doing exactly the same thing and only at Grillstock will Dr Sweetsmoke offer you slug of bourbon for breakfast. Four racks of St Louis cut pork spare-ribs went in around 6:30 for a 1:30 turn-in. I figured a slow smoke for 4.5-5 hours or so, before holding in foil and finishing them on the grill. I had plenty of time to kick back for a few hours before I needed to think about my Chef’s Special turn-in at midday.
Dave had an easy day Saturday so had a lie-in and rolled up just before our brand new team member Dom turned up at 10am, staying up after working the night shift at Loaf bakery here in Brum. Fuelled by adrenalin and beer at his first Grillstock, Dom did some spectacular work in his category. Legend!
It was around 10am that I started to get a little worried about the ribs. The slow smoke I wanted hadn’t happened with the smoker running unusually hot. With ribs you can tell how done they are by the amount of pull back from the end of the bone. I aim for 5mm of pull back, ribs that have much more than that are to my mind overcooked. Ribs that are falling off the bone are seriously overcooked. Well by 10am my ribs were done. I’d been spritzing them for the past hour to cool them down and by now they were nicely burnished, a good ninety minutes ahead of schedule. There was no choice but to foil them and sling them in the coolbox to keep until turn-in time, a three hour rest – unheard of with ribs.
Well at least the long rest gave me a nice long prep time for the Chefs Special; jasmine tea-smoked scallops with ikura and ponzu. Aided by Dave we shucked ten juicy hand-dived scallops – special shout out to Brad Carter of Carters of Moseley for supplying these beauties (big up Brum!). These were smoked then seared off and presented on top of shredded daikon. Dressed with thai basil, Ikura (salmon roe) and ponzu. I was really happy with how the dish turned out in that it was executed as well as it could have been. Scallops were succulent, smokey and sweet, salty from the roe with ponzu giving the umami kick. Presentation was exactly how I intended. It was down to the judges now, good reactions in general but one screwed face “ugh I don’t like fish eggs!” meant we narrowly missed out on a top 5 finish and a failure to retain the title. Ah well I think I’ll hand this category over to Dom next year!
Before the next turn-in of ribs, the brisket was checked. Nick prodded and grumbled, we obsessed that maybe it wasn’t as good as last year’s brisket (which came 2nd) that we thought was the best brisket we’d ever eaten. He sliced the point off for burnt ends and gave the flat another grumbling prod before foiling it all up and holding it in the coolbox. One of the major problems with brisket cooking is that you just don’t know how good it’s going to be until just before you serve it, when you actually slice into the thing. And it’s too late to fix anything then. We had our fingers crossed that the long four hour rest would do the trick as it slowly reabsorbed its cooking juices. Anyway, we had ribs and lamb to worry about before brisket.
Pulling the ribs out of the cooler and unfoiling them, they looked good and I could feel that the meat was tender and juicy. Just a case of lacquering the ribs with sauce and searing it on the grill to finish. Slicing and choosing the eight best ribs to present in the box was easier this year, experience helps with consistency and I was satisfied with what I put out to the judges. A nice even smoke ring, juicy chewable meat with a layers of sweet and spice from the rub & sauce and a little pepper kick at the end, my idea of the perfect rib. (Nick’s edit: They were absolutely epic.). Good reactions from the judges, with most taking second and third bites without visible complaints (that is the best you can hope for with some judges). The four main meat categories; ribs, brisket, chicken and pork shoulder are always going to the most competitive at Grillstock with some teams offering only token efforts in the three side categories and some not putting an entry in at all! So to come 6th in ribs was very satisfactory. Feeding everyone the extra ribs is also very satisfying as the crowds at Grillstock are what make it special. They gather like bees around honey at the turn-in times watching the teams perform and hoping for the chance to eat some competition standard BBQ. They know that the best food at the festival is going to be at the competition area! They also seemingly went down well with legendary and jolly friendly London food bloggers, Helen Graves from Foodstories, Donald Edwards and Chris Pople from Cheese and Biscuits. Aw yeah!
So with the first two categories down, I kicked back a little and let Dom assisted by Dave work on the lamb category. Being a food obsessive and ex-chef I knew Dom would be super-organised and execute his dish of lamb sliders superbly. He’d baked perfectly cute slider buns so grilling/hay-smoking his lamb rump to medium rare was all the cooking that needed to be done on the day. The lamb was expertly sliced by Dom and dressed with BBQ sauce, it was thickly layered onto the lightly toasted buns and simply garnished with pickle and lettuce. A skewer and a sail of wax paper through each bun finished the presentation beautifully. It got a great response from the judges too, with head judge Dr BBQ purring at how cute they were. We got 2nd place for them! Which in a funny way Dom was gutted about, I’d rather come 10th he said. I told you he was an obsessive eh? Props to newcomers Bare Grillers, our neighbours, who won this category with their lamb kebabs and flatbreads.
So we come to the last category of the day, brisket. It’s a big deal brisket, the most elusive of all the BBQ cuts and definitely the hardest to get right. It takes practise, something we were lacking as Nick had cooked only one brisket this year and, well, that hadn’t been a stellar success honestly. Most teams are hampered by the quality of the meat but we, along with Bunch of Swines, had sourced the best we could get our hands on for Grillstock. Fatty wagyu brisket. Ours got a double rub and an injection marinade before hitting the smoker. Real low and real slow. Maybe ideally we’d liked to have cooked ours for around 20 hours but we had to do with around 17 hours in the end. Some teams only started their brisket in the morning, favouring a hot and fast 6-7 hour cook time but c’mon, really? Has that ever produced a nice brisket? Our brisket flat alone was rested for about 4 hrs! We finished the point on indirect heat on a Weber kettle with more smoke to make the best burnt ends we’d ever tasted. Seriously these were gold-standard burnt ends that exploded in your mouth with fatty beefy spice.
But … the first slices taken off the actual flat when we unfoiled it and sliced it were a disappointment. It was slicing well enough but we all remembered, misty-eyed, the brisket from last year and the slices just weren’t as juicy or tender as that one. Nick thought we might have undercooked it, I thought he was undercooked for not practising more. (Nick’s edit: WHAT??). I toyed with the idea of presenting a box just of burnt ends! In the end, using all the mystical BBQ powers we had and something akin to muscle memory (literally), I made 7 slices out of the middle of the flat which felt better to cut. Nick dressed them with extra sauce and I laid them neatly in the box above the amazing burnt ends. We sent it to the judges. But none of us were actually that happy with what we put out. Especially not me because I tried Bunch of Swine’s brisket soon after and it was truly awesome. Perfect smoke ring, deep flavour and just the right tenderness. It made me cry a little.
None of the results were actually announced until all the rounds had been completed on Sunday. So we had no idea of how we’d done so far. We could only really compare what we’d done to our own standards. On day one we were happy with the first three categories but not the brisket. So it came as a shock to us when chatting to judge and chef Neil Rankin of John Salt (previously Pitt Cue) later that day that he thought that the only two briskets worth eating were the Swines and “Team 11″… Well we looked at one another in disbelief when we told him we were number 11! “Great guys, those burnt ends were like my burnt ends!” he declared, we knew they were good but we told him that we didn’t think the slices from the flat were up to scratch. I actually let out a little squeal when he responded “It was great, it must have been the way it was sliced!”. (Nick’s edit: Lap sliced the brisket.) Just goes to show that you can’t eat those seven slices you give to the judges, they must have had all the magic in them. So we finished the day happier knowing we actually did ok with at least one of the judges.
We drank quite a lot of beer again on Day One, Dom crashed around 7pm having been up all day after a night shift. I was pretty relaxed in the evening as I only had to do the dessert in Day Two. Dave was moving up through the gears as he was chief of chicken and pork so had to prep those for the next day. This year Dave decided that he’d cook three different shoulders, a small Tamworth from my favourite butchers, a mystery one that Dave sourced in Bristol and a massive one supplied by Grillstock. Dave injected the marinade and rubbed them all down before sticking them in the smoker around midnight again. Before going to sleep he brined his chicken ready for an early morning smoke, it was his turn to get up early. Before Nick called it a night he smoked some clotted cream, made a salted caramel and combined them to make a smoked salted caramel custard. This was to be churned into ice-cream the next day to accompany the chocolate pecan pie.
Day Two run order was chicken, dessert then pulled pork before the grand ceremony when the top 5 in each category were announced and the Grand Champion decided. So it was my turn to have a lie-in, when I turned up about 9:30am everybody was in full flow. There was a concerted effort this year to do better in the two categories that let us down last time, chicken and pork. A big responsibility for Dave who was the team lead for these two.
The chicken category is a funny one, we’ve all smoked good chicken at home but there’s a style of BBQ competition chicken that as a team we just don’t buy into. The uniform pillow-looking chicken thighs. I tried them last year without much success but that may have been down to the unusual jerk seasoning I used. This year we went with smoking whole chickens in a conventional BBQ rub, presenting the breasts sliced and the legs pulled. Dave cooked an absolutely spectacular one at a practice session a month before, perfectly juicy moist breasts and succulent dark meat, we all hoped he could repeat the same feat. When it came to the turn-in the birds looked glorious. Dom tried to crisp the skin up separately in a pan, to disprove the BBQ dogma that this is impossible, but added another burnt casualty to the list of failed attempts the world over. So ended up discarding the skin and just presented the chicken as planned. Tasting the chicken breast naked without any sauce we realised that it wasn’t quite up to the standard we’d set ourselves. It was a tad under-brined and not as juicy as it had been. The pulled dressed dark meat tasted great, but apparently not good enough to boost us from a disappointing 17th place with the judges. Not much better than last year. Dave has vowed to perfect the competition style BBQ thighs for next year. The chicken round always sucks!!
Back to work for me, chocolate pecan pie with smoked salted caramel ice-cream. Nick was the churning the custard in his ice-cream maker as I made up the pie filling. The sweet buttery shortcrust tart case was prebaked and waiting on the baking stone in one of the smokers. All I had to do was pour the filling in, arrange some more pecans nicely on top, close the lid and keep an eye on the temperature. Half an hour at around 190C should do it. It turned out beautifully, along with the smoked ice-cream it was a dessert I’d be happy to pay for in any restaurant. The base was perfect, the filling just set and the ice-cream was bold, unusual and delicious. Like with the scallop dish, I thought we’d executed the dish brilliantly and it was down to the judges now. I took a peek at one of the judges scorecard and saw that he’d scored 100 out of 100 for it. I wheeled away from the judging tent delighted but was less so when the actual results were announced later in the day. A bit of a palaver with the dessert results as first place was given to a team that hadn’t put a dessert in! An on-stage recount was ordered and we still didn’t make top 5, coming in 8th. That pecan pie was scrumptious, maybe the other judges couldn’t get their heads around smoked ice-cream? Well there’s no accounting for taste, though I still think the scores are wrong!
Pulled pork, the last category and the one we did dreadfully on last time. Dave had put some serious effort into improving this dish and we had been well pleased with the results at the previous week’s practice. We had three shoulders to choose from this year, all from different sources. I was fairly convinced that the rarebreed Tamworth pork that I’d supplied to him would be the best and I was proved right. It was simply the tastiest of the three. Unfortunately it was the smallest cut of the three so there wasn’t much money muscle to serve up as chunks. We pulled as much of the Tamworth pork shoulder as required for the judges but had to sub in some inferior chunks from the other shoulders. But still it tasted really good. The judges agreed and gave us a very respectable 7th. We picked up some useful hints from Ed on alternative ways to pull the pork that we will try next time.
The crowd lining our pitch were drooling at the amount of extra pulled pork we had and they were well fed that day. Many comments, including one from Jon the King of the Q organiser, that it was the best pulled pork they’d eaten. I think in general we make BBQ that we like to eat and like to feed our friends and family with. But if we want to win next time, do we need to change it up and try to please the judges at the expense of our own tastes? That’s a debate for next time around.
After we picked up the brisket award I overheard Nick say to his dad, “You can take the boy out the Ashkenazi, but you can’t take the Ashkenazi out the boy!” Too true, brisket is in the blood.
We had a blast at Grillstock again and we are very thankful to everyone that supported us, from our dutiful wives and girlfriends who put up with the inevitable disruption, and to our friends and fans who came to support us on the day or sent us good luck messages via Twitter. Special thanks also to Jon, Jon, Ben and the other organisers of Grillstock who put on another slick event (despite the counting cock-up!) and of course Dr BBQ who is just such a legend and makes time to speak to everyone on the day.
Bring on 2014!?!