Food judging is a puzzle. Into the round hole of subjectivity, it tries to place the square peg of objectivity. After all, isn’t taste a matter of, well, taste?
Take barbecue, a food especially prone to the whims of personal preference. Sure, there is science and skill to it. Application of specific methods, under specific conditions, yields specific results. But that just begs the question of what results you like. A pronounced smoke flavor? Or, delicate smoke so you can taste more of the meat? Shredded? Or pulled? Whatever style you prefer, if your tastes happen to differ from mine, I would never call yours “wrong.” And yet, barbecue may be the subject of more competitions than any other food. What gives?
To help, I called on two master certified barbecue judges: Dr. David Heilbronner, a retired orthopedic surgeon who co-founded the award-winning Bone Doctor barbecue sauces; and John Maloy, another lifelong enthusiast. Combined they have judged more than 60 competitions for the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the world’s largest barbecue organization.
Our venue was Smoked Kitchen & Tap, a beautiful new Crozet restaurant Kelley Tripp and Justin van der Linde opened in December, giving a brick-and-mortar home to van der Linde’s beloved food truck, Smoked BBQ Co. As a big fan of van der Linde’s barbecue, I was curious to see how it holds up to official scrutiny.
The judges were skeptical. Restaurant conditions, they say, can make it difficult to match the quality of competition or backyard barbecue, which are free of the challenges of smoking mass quantities or keeping cooked meat warm. Despite those challenges, I asked the judges not to hold back, but render their opinions just as they would in competition.
Judges rate barbecue on appearance, tenderness and taste, with the heaviest weight on taste. For appearance and tenderness, KCBS guidelines do offer a few objective criteria. Meat should be “moist and yet not mushy,” for example, and pork ribs should not fall off the entire bone with one bite. Taste, though, the guidelines acknowledge, is “very subjective and therefore very hard to teach.” Judges are told to assess if there is “balance of flavors by incorporating the five tastes—sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.” Maloy and Heilbronner admit it can be hard to set aside personal preferences, but “a good judge will be able to do that,” says Heilbronner.
Maloy’s test is simply whether an entry “lights up my taste buds.”
First to face the judges was pulled pork shoulder. Appearance? “Phenomenal,” said Maloy. “If I look at it and want to stick my face in it, that’s a great sign.” Heilbronner agreed: “Excellent appearance and layer of bark.” Taste and tenderness also won huge raves. “Spot-on texture,” said Maloy.
The brisket he liked even better. “Perfect amount of rub and smoke,” Maloy said. “This is excellent,” Heilbronner echoed. “And, I love the burnt ends,” referring to the pitmaster delicacy made from charred pieces of the fattier pectoral cut.
Next came Heilbronner’s top choice: pork ribs. “Ribs are usually my favorite and these were excellent,” Heilbronner said, citing the “good glaze” and how the meaty texture avoided the mushiness of badly overcooked ribs. “The flavor is outstanding,” he said. Maloy went a step further: “The ribs are unbelievable.”
Finally, there was smoked turkey, van der Linde’s own current favorite barbecue item, which smokes for four to six hours after a 48-hour brine. Once again, the judges raved. “Really good flavor,” said Maloy. “I love it.”
The key to great barbecue, the judges said, is “low and slow”—smoke meat at a low temperature, very slowly, sometimes for more than 12 hours at a time. This is what creates the challenge for restaurants, and van der Linde meets it by arriving at 2 or 3 every morning. “It’s hard to keep up and keep it right,” he says, “and we spend about 20 hours a day trying to accomplish this goal.”
That care goes into everything on the menu, reflecting the well-trained kitchen. Van der Linde is a Johnson & Wales graduate who was a sous chef at Boar’s Head Inn, while Tripp cooked at Clifton Inn and Petit Pois. All six sides were “delicious,” the judges said, their favorite being creamed corn. “A fascinating blend of flavors,” said Heilbronner, “with the smoked jalapenos and a bit of Parmesan, which created a great taste and interesting mouth feel.” My favorite is dirty rice, with house bacon, sausage, peppers, onions, garlic and a house spice blend. Also great are non-barbecue items such as the stellar fried chicken and a burger that is an instant contender for best in the area.
After our meal, the master judges declared it the best restaurant barbecue they’ve had in the area, and even better than many competition entries they’ve tried. This pleased me. Sure, I already knew how much I enjoyed the food at Smoked, and would have continued to go to whether the judges liked it or not, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t glad that they did too.
Simon Davidson also writes the restaurant blog, charlottesville29.com.