by: Jim Shahin
They arrived in southern California, some yearning to win the big prize, others content to watch and hope that one day they might be up on that stage.
No, the National Barbecue Association’s National Conference and Trade Show.
Held the past week in San Diego, the event was just like the Academy Awards — well, if Hollywood preferred downhome bonhomie over high-wattage glitz, big-bellied pitmasters instead of gorgeous actresses and belching wood smokers rather than celebs on a red carpet.
Regardless of the scenery, some barbecue bigshots were on hand to assess the state of the industry and give awards to what they believe are some of their best. They were also there to schmooze; the convention is a place where major players (primarily in the restaurant industry) can introduce new products, hold seminars and talk turkey. Well, ribs, really. And pulled pork and brisket.
This year’s keynote speaker was John Markus, executive producer of the TLC network’s “BBQ Pitmasters.”He talked about the upcoming “BBQ Pitmasters,” which will switch to a new network.
In attendance were such luminaries as Mike Mills, who, known as “The Legend,” has won several major championships and oversees the pits at six restaurants.
Pulling a last-minute no-show was Brad Orrison, pitmaster of the renown five-outlet chain, The Shed Barbeque & Blues Joint. He’s no Woody Allen, though. Unlike the famed director whose absence from the Oscars is routine, Orrison stayed home to rebuild the original Shed location in Ocean Springs, Miss., which burned to the ground a couple of weeks earlier. In solidarity for their colleague, the NBBQA obtained a piece of aluminum siding for Orrison’s new place and asked attendees to sign it.
Among the issues discussed was the state of the industry; it was generally regarded as healthy, said Jeff Allen, NBBQA’s executive director.
“Barbecue restaurants are showing some pretty robust growth, despite the economy,” Allen said. “The question is, what is the quality of those restaurants and how long will they be around?”
Allen’s words struck Smoke Signals as remarkably candid. In the tidal wave of new restaurants, their quality is the big question. On the one hand, massive ovens, enhanced by a log smoldering in a chamber, has made it easier to turn out good, consistent barbecue. On the other, those technological wonders can result in mounds of inferior smoked meat.
Allen said there seems to be two trends in contemporary barbecue: a dilution of regionalism and a rise of competitions. “Convergence of all the barbecue styles,” he said when asked about trends. “The world is getting smaller and people are opening up to other styles. That is one of the reasons we came to California — to expose people to Santa Maria-style [beef tri-tips]. The regional styles are starting to pop up in regions all across the country. Tri-tips might be the next big thing.”
As for competitions, Allen called them the bridge between backyard barbecues and the restaurant industry. “It used to be this little subculture and now it’s become. . .hard to go to almost any town and not find a competition,” he said.
So, you’re wondering, great, but who won the big event, the Barbecue Awards of Excellence? Some 350 products were entered into the competition. There are too many awards to go into here.