by Brandon Fox
Ribs: The meat shouldn’t fall off the bone, despite popular notions to the contrary, but it should have a silky, tender chew. But it can’t be tough either. And the brisket — when you slice it, it needs to hold together — but just barely.
“When you’re working at that level of perfection,” says Tuffy Stone, “it’s intense.”
Stone, owner of Q Barbeque, Rancho T and the Sharper Palate, won the 2015 Jack Daniel's World Championship International Invitational Barbecue competition last week, along with his Cool Smoke team.
This is a little like winning the Oscar for best picture or the Pulitzer Prize. Actually, it’s more like winning the Nobel Prize in barbecue. The first two are national contests and the Jack is international. And Stone’s done it twice — he also took home the grand prize in 2013.
Co-host of Destination America’s “BBQ Pitmasters,” Stone had an large entourage throughout the entire competition. In addition to his three-man team that included his father, Snake River Farms, Yeti Coolers, representatives from his PR firm, a couple of uncles and Daniel Vaughan, the barbecue editor of Texas Monthly surrounded him.
Add to that Stone's celebrity on the barbecue circuit. He’s also won the 2013 American Royal World Series of Barbecue Invitational and the 2014 American Royal World Series of Barbecue Open.
Plus, don’t forget — “Barbecue Pitmasters” has made him a TV star in this world. That meant fans were coming up to him throughout the day while he was cooking to ask for autographs and photos. It was a crowd — non-stop.
“I always take the time to talk or take the picture,” he says. “But as far as that goes, it’s a big challenge to hit my marks and cook as well as I want to — it’s a world championship! Everyone there is a grand champion of some contest or the other.”
And the schedule for the Jack is tight. At 11:30 a.m., the judges start with sauce, and each half-hour, chicken, ribs, pulled pork and brisket are due in succession. It’s a lot of cooking times to juggle.
For Stone, most of the work comes in the preparation. He’s known as “the Professor” on the circuit and is a classically trained French chef. That means he drills down on the details of the process to achieve perfection that competitions demand. Pieces of wood are cut in half vertically and then split horizontally. He chooses the best ones out of the pile to load in his truck for the trip west. He searches for the particular cuts of meat that he thinks will cook better than others and will make those choices all over again when he send the cooked meat to the judges. He tears dozens of pieces of aluminum foil and crimps them together.
“I have my whole mise en place together — which is something no one from barbecue would ever say,” Stone laughs.
He started that morning of Oct. 24 at 4 a.m. and tried to stay focused despite the constant interruptions. When it came time for the winners to be announced, Stone was sitting on a hay bale in the back. For the first time, he felt good about what he’d produced in every category — he usually looks at his food with the rigor of a restaurant reviewer —and Vaughan, a keen critic of barbecue, liked everything.
“Everybody just wants to be called one time — to be one of the 10 winners in one category,” he says. But he wasn’t entirely happy when he won third place for his sauce. There’s a superstition among competitive pitmasters that if you do well in the sauce category, you won’t do well in the meat categories.
“I was thinking in my head, ‘We’re sunk,’” he says.
Stone was called to the stage three times — for his chicken, ribs and pulled pork — but says the category that you don’t win has the potential to sabotage your chances as grand champion. His stumbling block this time was brisket — he didn’t even place.
Overall, Stone thought, it was possible that he might not even make it into the top 10.
The cameras were on him. And when the announcement came, he hung his head for a moment, and with his father, made his way through the crowd. There were tears.
“They called us for the grand and it just blew my mind,” says Stone. “I probably hugged a hundred people trying to get to the stage.”
It’s back to normal for him this week — business at Rancho T, the Sharper Palate and the four locations of Q Barbeque go on. But only one other team has won the Jack twice. None have won that competition two times and the American Royal World Series of Barbecue twice.
This October, Tuffy Stone and Cool Smoke made barbecue history.