Grill masters brought their best on Saturday at the BBQ at the Summit in Dillon.
Steamboat Springs Sleep is not one of the ingredients competitive barbecue cooks stock up on during a competition.
Midnight becomes a frenzied witching hour of barbecue sauces and dry rubs as cooks begin firing up stacks of apple and hickory wood and charcoal to smoke hundreds of pounds of pork, ribs, chicken and brisket. For nearly 14 hours, smoke plumes from dozens of barbecue smokers while the intoxicating smell of dinner lingers in the air.
Like the dad of a newborn child, Steamboat Springs resident Dean Montgomery was up every hour on the hour Friday night tending to the hundreds of pounds of meat sitting on his smoker, making sure the temperature was just right, spraying just enough apple juice on the ribs to keep them moist, and most of all, worrying.
"I'm nervous," he said Saturday while buzzing around a small booth space stacked with barbecue sauce, spices, cutting boards and knives. "I started cooking (Friday) at about 6 (p.m.), but it got pretty cold - it was a challenge to the keep the temperature up. I was worried about what was going on in my smoker. I was having dreams of barbecue going bad, so I didn't get a lot of sleep."
Montgomery, who has worked the Steamboat sushi and bar scene for years, has found a new passion: the chaotic world of competitive barbecuing.
All of Montgomery's worry and preparation was to present his own special chicken, pork, ribs and brisket during the 12th annual BBQ at the Summit in Dillon. The two-day event, which drew more than 25,000 people, is a Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned competition, and the only barbecue competition held at an elevation higher than 9,000 feet. Winning cooks at the BBQ at the Summit move on to the highly coveted American Royal Barbecue in Kansas City, Mo. Nearly 500 teams compete during the Kansas City event.
Montgomery's pulled pork placed fourth among those 500 teams several years ago. Since then, Montgomery has won awards for his pork and chicken. On Saturday, Montgomery placed fourth again in the pulled pork category. His barbecue sauce placed eighth among the 44 sauces that were tasted by judges. Overall, he placed 33rd among the 67 competitors who were gunning for the title of grand champion.
"I'm still learning," he said. "These things are always a crap shoot."
Although he's a modest man who hates clamoring about how great his barbecue is, Montgomery said he knew the pulled pork was a winner.
"I wasn't fooling myself," he said. "When it's good, it's good."
'People love barbecue'
Rob Irvine, the "Head Steer" and co-organizer of the BBQ at the Summit, said the event began as a way to raise money for the Summit County Rotary Club.
After exploring their options, Rotarians agreed that the key to successful fundraising is to go through people's stomachs.
"How do you draw 25,000 people to a bake sale?" he said Saturday afternoon. "People love barbecue."
BBQ at the Summit offers a unique opportunity to provide the public with samples of the barbecue. Other competitions do not allow the public to wander around tasting meats and licking barbecue sauce off their fingers, he said.
About 80 teams from across the country entered the BBQ at the Summit.
"A lot of these teams come here just to compete. They come here strictly for the competition," Irvine said. "It's a very big deal to these guys because the American Royal (Barbecue) is the big daddy of the Midwest."
Co-organizer and "Head Hog" Nancy Youngsteadt said the event served many purposes, including raising money for the Rotary Club, putting Dillon on the map, providing family fun and entertainment, and allowing past and future barbecue champions the opportunity to show off their creations.
"Everybody here just loves it," she said. "The food is great, the teams are friendly. It's just a great day."
Walking from barbecue booth to barbecue booth for two days was dangerous, she said.
"All I heard was, 'Try this. Try that,'" she said. "I'm full right now. I just have to build up to the next wave."
Low and slow
Montgomery, who is a relatively new face to the barbecue scene, began getting serious about competing when an old college friend from Missouri lured him to the Kansas City competition.
"That wasn't the best place to start off if you're just getting started," he said. "I learned a lesson. I really didn't realize it was such a mecca."
Growing up in Missouri, Montgomery said he never developed a taste for barbecue and only began cooking with the advice of his mother.
"I'm no Bobby Flay," he said, referring to the famous chef and TV personality.
After purchasing a $4,000 smoker from someone in Texas, Montgomery knew he was getting serious.
Montgomery's team name, "The Q Live Crew," and motto, "We smoke you long time," sum it up.
"We're as tasty as we wanna be," he said. "A lot of people don't get what my team name means."
The Q Live Crew is a reference to the 2 Live Crew rap album "As Nasty As They Wanna Be."
After developing his own special spice and dry rubs, sauces and cooking styles, he began hitting the road to share his pulled pork sandwiches with the community and competition-goers.
"I'm in love with this pork," he said, pulling apart three pork shoulders for the judges.
"A good barbecue isn't oversmoked or undersmoked. You have to cook things for a long time. Low and slow is they key."
However, there's always the chance that something that doesn't turn out, he said. Saturday's brisket was a bit of a letdown, Montgomery admitted.
"My brisket was overcooked, and that threw me way back," he said. "It messed up my overall average."
But winning awards isn't everything, he added.
"Just being here is cool because there's a lot of camaraderie amongst the other cooks," he said. "It's all friendly competition. I like to say it's like that scene in 'Kingpin' when they're all sitting around eating bowling alley food and pizza and someone says, 'It's an honor to be among such great athletes.'"
Chef Dean Martin, also of Steamboat Springs, is one such athlete in Montgomery's eyes.
Martin has developed a line of sauces and gourmet foods that have helped him garner awards as well as his own line of products.
Martin was busy grilling shrimp and sashimi-style tuna Saturday, not pork and brisket.
"I don't compete with these smoky guys," he said laughing.
However, Kiowa resident J.R. Keller of Burnt Offerings did.
"Competitive barbecuing is totally different from your backyard grilling," he said. "It's all about getting out and just seeing how good you do."
Fellow competitor Steve Blair of Franktown was hurriedly preparing a tray of brisket for judges as Keller counted down the nine minutes he had to get the entry in.
"I'm getting nervous," Blair said, brushing barbecue sauce on each slice.
"It's like your painting a masterpiece," he said. "A brisket Renoir."
For nearly four hours, 80 Kansas City Barbecue Society-certified judges sampled barbecued beans, pulled pork sandwiches, desserts, chicken, salads and sauces, all with the end goal of finding the best.
Judge Rick Myers of Colorado Springs said he was "comfortable" after all that eating.
"I guess all in all I ate about 1 1/2 pounds of barbecue," he said. "I can't say I had any real bad barbecue either."
The average judge eats about 2 pounds of meat during the competition.
Myers said his philosophy on judging was simple - slow and steady.
"You just go through and nibble at each one until you find something you really like - then it's gone," he said. "You're not overdoing it. You're not miserable by any means."
Each judge looks for taste, texture and appearance when judging meat, he said.
Judging the pulled pork category - Montgomery's strongest suit - is a challenge, Myers said.
"Pulled pork is a difficult category because it all kind of tastes the same. You have to try to set it apart with spices or something," he said.
The Pueblo team "Carcass Cookers" was named Grand Champion during Saturday's awards ceremony. Reserve grand champion went to Brimfield, Ill., team "QUAU."
Montgomery said he was satisfied with the weekend's competition.
"I saw people coming back to the booth for seconds and thirds," he said. "For being by myself I think I've done pretty well. I've been able to beat out some restaurants and catering companies that have, like, 20 employees."
To sample Montgomery's pulled pork, head to the Mainstreet Steamboat Springs Farmers Market from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. The Q-Live Crew also caters. Call 846-5952 for more information.