Media Foodie & KCBS Master Certified Judge | 1:1 with Chuck Thomas

Chicago native Chuck Thomas is the ultimate foodie. A veteran media professional, Thomas feels fortunate to be able to marry his love of food with his day job as producer and host of Eat This!, a digital weekly covering the “local foodie scene” based out of Philadelphia.

Most recently, Chuck attained KCBS Master Certified Judge status, further cementing his dedication to the barbeque food category. He loves to cook, says he makes a “mean German Sticky Bun” and has traveled to more than 250 BBQ restaurants across 24 states, D.C. and Canada developing his palate.

How did you get into food media?

I’ve always been in newspapers. I worked my way up to photo editor and then ended up in Philly. It naturally evolved when the company [Calkins Publishing] realized they needed digital presence, product coverage and so forth.

We started with “Man Up” where I’d go and do manly things – I learned how to smoke a cigar, get a ‘manly shave’, etc. But that didn’t work out the way we wanted it to. Considering I had done food segments before, [Chuck was the “Cookie Man” in the Quad Cities when he worked there], competed in chili cook-offs, have my own barbeque sauce, etc., it seemed natural to regroup toward food. The next thing I knew I was creating my own food news.

Working with restaurant owners and chefs, what does the industry climate look like?

Everyone seems very positive for the future. Philly is quickly evolving to be a Chicago. It’s tough for us since we’re so close to New York, but some people are coming here from there now for dinner. We have great chefs, Jose Garces is here, Steven Starr and others.

Right now it’s thriving. The Pineville Tavern is going to be on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, (they drop the whole turtle in the pot [for their Snapper Soup]), and they are also opening up a drive-thru BBQ and a chicken place. I see a lot of the new owners who’ve seen this boom. It used to be you went to a chain restaurant or went to the city – the dining out market is strong.

What do you see as the biggest trend?

Farm to Table; really cashing in on fresh, local, regional foods. For example, you don’t get brats or sausage out here like you do in Chicago. Chefs are looking for speciEat This - Federal Donutsal ingredients they can be creative with.

How about BBQ?

In the ‘burbs they come and go; in the city they’re doing really well. High end BBQ especially – dinner only and other like places.

Pictured above: Chuck on location for Eat This!

What made you want to become a KCBS judge?

My first job was in Texas out of college. My dad was a great cook, but not a real BBQ’er. When I arrived in Texas, I quickly learned what BBQ was about – it was fabulous.

When you love food, you experience what the area has to offer. When Johnny Trigg challenged me on who had the best BBQ, and I said, ‘Clem Mikeska’s Bar-B-Q’, [in Temple, Texas] he was surprised because he didn’t think I’d say that – it’s his best choice too.

I did my 30th comp the first week of May this year. I did it [master certification] all in one year too; people were shocked – I also did it across 13 different states. I love doing this, and it also helps me with my job. My company helped me get my certification and with some of the travel.

Once you get out there, you get involved with the teams and spend time after judging hanging out with them. (There’s no conflict since you neve7.22THOMASct_trigg_1r know what team’s box you’re judging.) I can be in the middle of West Virginia in a tiny town and see people I know now, and many of the guys have restaurants too.

Pictured Rt: Trigg and Thomas mugging up at a competition.

Do you agree with the notion that the only way to win brisket is with wagyu?

NO! That’s not true! There are people with Creekstone beating them. It still comes down to a nice tip, good point and decent fat content. The top teams enter slices and burnt ends – unless they are dead on with those slices, sometimes those burnt ends can raise it a point. I think the best teams can do it without wagyu – they know how to smoke, season and re-season.

How do you feel about injections?

Injecting brisket doesn’t win. The best briskets are a good piece of meat with a good rub and decent fat content. You’ll see teams trim all the fat off. The best briskets we see, have a little fat on them.

What turn-in tips can you offer?

* Don’t sweat the greenery so much. We hate parsley stuck to the meat product! It drives me nuts when I can take a whole salad off a rib. If you’re picking the greens off, it’s in your head. There are some judges that will mark down for this. Don’t use red tipped lettuce either; use the proper greens, like green leaf lettuce and iceberg sliced thin. It should be about “putting green for the meat”, the meat is the star. And, NEVER put cilantro in the boxes – it will lend a flavor to what it touches.

* Nothing should be swimming in sauce – or mess to pick up. We’re not supposed to judge sauce, but you can lose points quicker with sauce. The good teams know there’s a balance, not too spicy – you want to please as many people as possible.

* Be consistent with your meat product. When I watched Tuffy cut his ribs, he used an electric knife and put them back together so well they looked like they’d never been cut. Make it look as good as it can possibly look.

Chuck will be judging at the American Royal this fall. Keep your eye out for him; he’ll be doing “a couple of periscopes” while he’s there for his show.

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It’s All About The Call │ 1:1 with David Stidham

StidhamNo one was more shocked than Pitmaster, David Stidham when he got “three top twenty calls” at his first major invitational last fall. A relative newcomer to the professional BBQ circuit, (with less than 20 competitions in his first two years), Stidham is wildly enthusiastic about the 2015 season, further honing his skills and the amazing success of his competition BBQ sauce.

How did you get interested in competition BBQ?

Most guys like to grill – and, of course, every guy thinks he’s the best. I fit that description.

I’ve always been someone who likes to cook and experiment with sauces and my own unique flavor profiles. I used to make my own pepper sauces, steak marinades, infused olive oils and so forth, and give them as gifts to my family and friends. I’ve dabbled in wings, almost got serious about it, and even in chocolate.

One day, my son, Jacob, and I were watching BBQ Pitmasters on TV; he was 8 at that time. He said, “Dad you could do this! Why don’t we start a BBQ team?” It definitely piqued my interest.

I didn’t even have a smoker at the time, so I called a long-time friend in Nashville (Jason Cole of The Hot Cole’s BBQ Team) to chat with him to get advice for smokers. I just wanted to get a smoker to cook for family, and he convinced me to get something a little bigger “in case” I wanted to compete someday in the future (he knew how competitive I was). I took his advice, ordered a large pellet smoker, started cooking that winter and fell in love with it. That’s when I knew I was going to end up competing sooner than planned.

In early May of 2013, we borrowed someone’s camper, showed up and didn’t really know what to expect from our first pro BBQ competition. My wife, two kids and my dog were all there; it was a chaotic mess.

By the time the cooking and turn in s were over we were exhausted, – it’s really a 30 hour process – so when we got to the awards, we just wanted to see who won. There’s no way we expected to get a call. It blew our minds when we placed 2nd in Chicken, 3rd in Pork, 7th in Brisket, 11th in ribs and 3rd overall!American Royal Ribbon

When I came back from the stage with that very first ribbon in my hands, my hands were shaking. My wife said she’d never seen me like that before – I was stunned by it too.

How did your family like the experience?

A large portion of the [BBQ] population is family, so it’s a fun atmosphere. We got team hats and shirts – my kids want to enter some of the junior competitions this year. We typically don’t even see the boys (Jacob, now 11, and Jack, 15) at comps now till the awards.

Where did you grow up?

I was a military brat, born in Tampa, Florida, but grew up throughout the southeast including Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida and even lived in South Carolina for a while. Most of my adult life has been in Nashville, and I also spent a lot of time in Memphis. I grew up loving BBQ but never thought about competitions back then. I live in a small town just north of Madison, Wisconsin now.

How’s that working out?

Wisconsin is one of the fastest growing states for competition BBQ, and the people are very genuine and friendly. We moved here for my full time job – I have been blessed with this wonderful hobby and am very fortunate to be able to do this. BBQ people are the real deal, and they all are willing to give you a hand. Many folks here in Wisconsin really helped me, and I am very grateful for them.

How did your BBQ sauce making come about?current sauce

It was never my intent to sell BBQ sauce. I just wanted to have my own flavor profile. But when we came in 3rd overall out of the gate, people came up to me and wanted to try the sauce I used. They really seemed to like it, and several people asked me to make them some. It all kind of snow balled from there.

I initially made it in my kitchen, and that’s how we ended up coming up with the name for our BBQ team. I first used wine bottles to package the sauce – that’s why we’re A Fine Swine, like a fine wine. When demand grew, I had to go to a commercial bottle. I never expected this to catch on as it has; the sauce is now sold nationwide through a wide variety of mostly online BBQ stores. I have to stock 2-3 full pallets of two different sauces in my garage at all times as more and more orders continue to come in.

You mentioned the ‘cost of competition’ before – how challenging is that?

Between supplies, travel, meat, entry fees, fuel, equipment, etc., it costs anywhere from $800-$1,200 a weekend to compete. It gets pricey; it’s not a cheap man’s game. I have heard others say how amazing it is the amount of time, effort, and dollars we spend just to hear our name called. It’s true. But it is also about the camaraderie and the true friendships we make. I have made more friends through BBQ in the past couple years than I can count, and that’s really what it’s all about.

I can only compete about 14-17 times per year tops right now, but if time and money weren’t an object, I would love to do this full time, every weekend. I’d love to see how I’d do if I was able to compete full time. Maybe someday I will.from the stage at American Royal

What are your current competition goals?

Last year, I had set a goal of winning my first Grand Championship and qualifying for the American Royal Invitational Tournament. I was fortunate enough to accomplish that and more as we not only won our first GC, we also won a reserve GC as well as numerous category wins and top ten’s overall. (Pictured above: View from the stage at the American Royal.)

I was fortunate enough to have two top 20’s with a 16th in Chicken and 17th Ribs out of 186 Grand Champion teams at the American Royal Invitational. The next day was the American Royal Open, where all the grand champions from the Invitational plus hundreds of other professional teams across the country competed. There were nearly 600 teams! I got called for 15th in Chicken and placed 70th overall which was a very proud moment for me.

I would love to win the American Royal. I want to get my feet really dirty.

What do you mean by that?

“Getting your feet dirty” refers to where the Royal is held. You get your feet dirty if you get called because you have to walk across an arena where livestock shows and rodeos take place to get your award.11157989_10153209432539886_1605373569_n

Competitive Pitmasters are highly dedicated to their protocols. What are some of the things you use?

I use a gravity fed Southern Q Limo and bring a junior gravity feed along too. I also only use Royal Oak charcoal and Hickory and Cherry wood chunks.

Do you “inject”?

I will inject brisket and pork.

How about flavor?

I use my sauce, a variety of commercial rubs and sauces and mix them all up.

How did you first hear about Buedel?

I saw you on BBQ Pitmasters. You really do have a good rep for providing great meats – especially the Compart and Creekstone brands that people are already winning with on the tour.

Is that why you like competing with our pork butts and briskets?

When I start out with the best meat, it helps me to compete to win. You have to use top quality to be competitive – you can’t run a race with an Escort engine in a Ferrari body. If you start out with high quality meat, odds are you’ll finish high. It’s worth the extra investment in your products.

What do you think is the difference between winning and not winning?

I believe it’s the details and being very organized. There’re a whole lot more details that go into this than people know. You have to be organized and consistent, have a system that is a refined process and be lucky; there’s a lot of people out there cooking the same stuff you are.

image2Follow A Fine Swine on Twitter and Facebook. If you’d like to try David Stidham’s sauce, find it any of these online retailers: thebbqsuperstore.com   atlantabbqstore.com   thekansascitybbqstore.com   bigpoppasmokers.com

Buedel Fine Meats is the official pork butt, ribs and brisket supply partner to A Fine Swine this season.

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