Chef Notes from Memphis

July 27th 2018

Chef Notes from Memphis

If you love barbecue, prepare to be jealous! McCormick Canada’s Executive Chef Juriaan Snellen had the pleasure and privilege to join the McCormick contingent at the World Barbecue Championships in Memphis.


I had the good fortune to be among the McCormick Canada employees invited to join the McCormick team at the World Barbecue Championships in Memphis back in May. French’s and Cattlemen’s, both of which are now part of the larger McCormick family, are long-standing sponsors of the event, but this was the first year McCormick sent a larger group down to participate.

This place was smokin’!

I’ll try and give you a sense of the scope of the event. The moment you enter the city of Memphis, you start picking up that BBQ smell of charcoal and wood. It’s absolutely phenomenal.

The event is spread out in a park along the banks of the Mississippi River. There were well over 200 booths and competitions in more than a dozen categories including ribs, shoulder, sauce, exotic (think raccoon, squirrel, and rattlesnake), and even best t-shirt. On top of the competition booths, there were also vendors selling all kinds of barbecue. It truly is a barbecue lover’s paradise.

An interesting note on the sauce category: for about the last 20 years, the person that has won best BBQ sauce has used one of our Cattlemen’s sauces as a base. Building a new flavour experience from an established base is a great way to create a unique but also consistent product.

We got in on a Thursday and checked out the tent and our set up there. McCormick had built a portable kitchen in the back of our tent complete with smokers, wash pit, and barbecues. It was really nicely set up. We hosted our guests for a variety of meals, plus live music and entertainment. I have to say, I felt proud to be a McCormick employee.

Friday the 18th was the first official day. We started off with a hog crawl, which is like a pub crawl, but with pork instead of beer. Our whole group split into smaller groups and we each got to visit 5 different competitors. They had a lot of food for us, and also shared some interesting facts. Most astonishing to me was that over that weekend they expected to go through 50,000 pounds of pork.

Every competitor is given a timeslot when they need to present their BBQ. But, they only want you to submit a small sample. Throughout the day you see people running with little styrofoam boxes in their hands. These are the competitors running to the judges tent, and that makes for a bit of a fun sighting and adds some excitement to an otherwise relaxed atmosphere.

Going whole hog for barbecue

The competitors seem to pick 1 or 2, maybe 3 criteria they want to complete in, and focus on those. On the Saturday, one of the criteria was a whole hog. They’ll season it and infuse it mostly with a mixture of apple cider, spices and sometimes alcohol. Those hogs are on there for an average of 16-20 hours. After bringing a small sample to the judging tent, they might be left with maybe 95 pounds of meat. They usually share it with friends, and family, but if you approach the pitmasters and show some interest, they’re all very eager to share their barbecue with you.

I was really impressed with the whole laid-back atmosphere. Barbecue is very time-consuming but it’s not labour-intensive. Especially if you’re cooking a whole hog, there’s a lot of sitting around doing nothing except chatting, occasionally checking on the meat, and enjoying a beer. They all have very comfortable chairs, even couches set up. Even though it’s a competition, people are very calm, except when it’s time to present to the judges!

There are a lot of secret family recipes being passed on from generation to generation. There was one group for whom the competition was a family reunion of sorts. Aunts, uncles, children, grandparents; they all come from across the country for the event. Everyone’s so proud. They’ve never won, but they wouldn’t dream of changing their recipe. I got the impression that winning is nice, but it’s not the main reason many of these people are here. It’s more the participation and the interaction with the other competitors and the crowd.

To me this event is all about taking pride in what you do and showing off your BBQ skills, and also sharing stories, sharing food, and sharing that Southern hospitality. They’re so friendly, but they’re also so excited about what they do. BBQ is in their blood - it’s a way of living for them. Just to have a beer and enjoy some ribs with these guys, that alone is worth the trip.

The art of the grill

Outside of eating a ton of BBQ (and no, I did not try the raccoon, although I might have if I’d seen it) it’s also very cool to see the variety of different smokers these pitmasters come up with. There was one booth where they’d converted an old NYC Yellow Cab into a smoker. The inside of the cab was a smoker and in the front underneath the hood, they turned that into a grill. It’s all about standing out. You want your food to be good, but you also want to stand out in a way that people remember you.

I think the best thing I ate was something called ‘beef candy.’ It’s essentially the fat that comes off a brisket on top of the burnt ends. There’s a lot of seasoning and brown sugar, and that cures as it smokes. It looks similar to beef jerky, but it’s soft and melts in your mouth. It’s very flavourful and I had way more than I should have. But, this whole week is about enjoying. No one’s worried about calorie count or nutrition!

A new world of sauces is coming to Canada

Barbecue is really starting to become more popular here in Canada. Generally speaking when you refer to barbecuing, it’s usually flipping a hamburger or heating up a hot dog. What I like about barbecue in the Southern states is it’s very regional. You can have a Carolina mustard-based sauce; a Memphis sauce which is a bit sweeter; you can have an Alabama sauce that’s a white, mayo-based sauce. Kentucky sauce usually has a bit of bourbon in it. We’re starting to see those trends coming to Canada a bit more. It’s the evolution from a “standard” barbecue sauce to more region-specific blends.

As far as trends and innovations go, the innovation was more about using different types of wood than different ingredients. We saw a lot of pecan, cherry, white oak, apple wood. Different types of wood give out different smokes that flavour your food differently. What I’m also seeing is hot honey sauce is really starting to gain a lot of traction, especially with fried chicken. Honey and Frank’s, honey and sriracha. Honey and Buffalo sauce or Chili Lime would also work.

Pitmaster vs. Chef

Now, to be clear, a pitmaster is not a chef, and a chef is not a pitmaster. I’m a chef, but I’d like to think I’m a pitmaster, too, at least when I’m in my backyard. I’m taking a couple of weeks off over the summer and I am definitely planning on smoking some meat. You really need to take the time and plan ahead – get a comfortable chair out, put a 6-pack on ice, and make an event out of it.

I guess that was my biggest takeaway from the event. You didn’t see people running around sweating and swearing at each other. The whole point was to enjoy. Have a good time. Relax. Connect. Share. And have some great barbecue.

Until next time, and my next culinary adventure - enjoy the summer!