The World's Best Barbecue - Really
In the world of BBQ, passions run much hotter than the roughly 225° temperature at which most pitmasters cook their meats “low and slow.” Few ‘cue lovers from the Carolinas will concede that beef brisket has a place in the barbecue pantheon, while Texans often feel the same way about pork shoulder, the Carolina staple. Ask almost anyone in Memphis and they will tell you their city’s famous style of BBQ is unequivocally best, yet denizens of Kansas City believe exactly the same thing.
Beyond regional differences in barbecue – and these are huge – there is much heated debate over individual restaurants. Inevitably one person’s favorite BBQ joint will be deemed “touristy” by fans of another, and even in the same locale tempers flare: Gates and Arthur Bryant in KC are like the White Sox and Cubs in Chicago – you are bound to love one but are less likely to root for both.
But no matter how strong your feelings about regional styles or particular places, I can tell you exactly where you can find the very best barbecue in existence (By BBQ I mean the collection of smoked ribs, pulled pork, chicken, brisket and related items that Americans collectively refer to as barbecue, not the global definition which includes everything from Argentineans skirt steak to Korean kalbi).
I’ll give you a big hint – it’s not at any restaurant.
This is one of the oddities of American barbecue. If you want to eat the finest haute French cuisine (or most other foods) you will undoubtedly find it as a restaurant, either a Michelin 3-Star gastronomic temple in Paris or Lyon or a place Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas. The world’s best Italian fare is found at restaurants in Modena, Florence, Milan, Rome and Cortona in Italy. That’s because the natural evolution in most foods drives the best cooks to restaurants, but then again, unlike barbecue, most foods don’t have a highly organized series of competitive events that have been perfected over decades solely for the purpose of identifying the very best that can be made. Even owners of the most famous barbecue restaurants in America will concede (usually off the record) that what they cook for competition is markedly better than what they serve in their restaurants. And unlike most cuisines, many of the best barbecue masters don’t even have restaurants – there is no huge hobbyist group of ultra-passionate sushi cooks who devote all their time and resources to traveling around preparing sushi for competition judges. The world’s best brisket or ribs are more likely to come from a retired dentist or a schoolteacher using summers to smoke competition-worthy meat than from someone you’ll see on Top Chef.
Over 500 judges - myself included - did blind tasting at the World Series of Barbecue at Kansas City's American Royal.
Despite concerted efforts by TV to make food into more of a competition, most of which is badly misguided, Barbecue remains the only major cuisine driven by competition cooking first and restaurants second (there is no actual situation in which a famed Michelin-starred chef is going to walk into his kitchen just before opening for dinner and find only a handful of esoteric ingredients, so staged shows like Iron Chef may entertain but they have nothing to do the quality of dining experiences). In this regards, barbecue is more like wine than food, highly driven by awards. In fact, winning one of the big competitions often directly leads to opening a restaurant, rather than vice versa, the opposite of other foods. New York’s R.U.B, Las Vegas’ Memphis Championship BBQ and Kansas City’s legendary Oklahoma Joe’s, often cited by critics as the nation’s best barbecue restaurant, all exist because their owners first won at least one of barbecue’s four “Majors.”
The competition barbecue circuit is huge, and in many ways patterned after golf, with the Kansas City Barbecue Society, or KCBS, playing the role of the USGA. They have created elaborate rules under which almost all important competitions are conducted, supplying their own officials. Every single weekend there are dozens of competitions around the country at all different levels of competitiveness, sort of like golf’s mini-tours, plus at least one important, high-profile event in nearly every state, usually a state or major city championship, competitions that are the equivalent of regular season PGA Tour events. The multi-event tour series sponsored by Sam’s Club, competition barbecue’s biggest financial backer, are like the FedEx Cup events in golf. Finally there are the four Majors: Kansas City’s American Royal, Memphis in May, the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, and the Jack Daniels Invitational. The American Royal , officially known as the World Series of Barbecue, is the biggest and most competitive and can be qualified for, and thus is akin to the US Open, while the small but prestigious by-invitation-only Jack Daniels is like the Masters. The other two have no real correlation to the PGA Championship and British Open, but I wish they did – it would be more fun.
Many BBQ competitions allow spectators to buy food, like pulled pork sandwiches, directly from the world's best award-winning BBQ teams.
I have been a judge at both the Jack Daniels, (last year) and the American Royal (this year), as well as at other sizable events including the New England Championship of Barbecue, held annually at the Harpoon Brewery in Windsor, Vermont. As someone who writes regularly on barbecue and has eaten at most of the most famous restaurants from coast to coast, I can absolutely guarantee to you that the very best barbecue is found at these events. There are occasional misses, but the standards are so high that most samples you taste are as good or better than the best restaurant barbecue you will ever have.
Think of it this way – a top restaurant like Oklahoma Joe’s cooks dozens of whole briskets every day. But when Joe’s owner competes, he likely selects two or three of the most perfect pieces of meat he can find, cooks them with the highest level of hands-on love and care, and then chooses whichever came out best to submit. It’s not just the very best cooks; it’s the very best cooks cooking their very best dishes, truly at the top of their games. In many case they might even use better meat, natural, heritage breed, grass fed, or whatever, than they can afford to use in their restaurants. They brine, they inject, they pray. At the American Royal, more than 500 of the best teams (many have already won other events) compete – that is bound to produce exemplary barbecue. And again, many of the very best competitive barbecue chefs don’t have restaurants; they have trailered smokers and RVs and spend their life cooking on the circuit. If you don’t taste their rock-your-world BBQ at a competition, you won’t taste it, ever. There is no equivalent of these guys (and gals) in the realm of gastropubs.
The good news is that you can try all of this great barbecue. Unfortunately, due to local health codes, many competitions do not allow competitors to sell direct to the public – but many others do. So if you go to the Jack Daniels Invitational, you can watch the best barbecue teams in the world (and they come from many countries) cook, but you can’t taste it – you have to buy your barbecue from a concession stand that bought a spot. But at other events, like the New England Championship of BBQ, the competitors sell – it’s like a State Fair of incredible barbecue and you can wander the grounds buying a rib here, a plate of wings there, a sausage there – world class barbecue to your heart’s desire!
Attending an event that sells to the public is the path of least resistance, Plan A, and almost every barbecue tournament – and there are hundreds – is listed on the KCBS website.
Plan B is to become a judge yourself – it’s not that hard. The KCBS regularly puts on weekend judging seminars around the country (more than 80 each year), and all you have to do is sign up and attend one to get certified as a barbecue judge. Once you do, it is highly unlikely you will be able to jump in and judge at a Major, since these are oversubscribed by applicants and they favor the most credentialed/experienced, but you can certainly judge smaller local and regional events, and work your way up. I did it and it’s a lot of fun. You don’t get paid, you don’t pay, but you get to try the most amazing barbecue you can imagine, better than that served in any restaurant, better than any that the majority of even the most dedicated foodies will ever taste.
I travel to learn, eat, golf and ski, but mostly for travel’s sake
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