There were 200-plus teams at this year’s Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, but only one that included five James Beard award winners and a whole hog pitmaster featured in a documentary film.
The Fatback Collective made its inaugural appearance on the barbecue circuit with a culinary dream team that’s the equivalent of Zach Randolph, Michael Oher and Albert Pujols. In other words, this Collective is made up of some real heavy hitters.
Let’s “meat” a few of this illustrious cooking team: There’s Herbsaint’s Donald Link, the celebrated New Orleans and his cooking colleague at Cochon Stephen Stryjewski, who was fresh off a win at Monday’s James Beard Foundation awards in New York City. Those awards are often called the Oscars of the food world, but they’re really more like the Oscars, the World Series and the Olympics all rolled into one.
Sean Brock’s part of the collective, a chef from Charleston, S.C., whose restaurant Husk recently received a rave review in The New York Times. “I’ve always wanted to come to Memphis in May,” he said.
Then, there’s John Currence, the Oxford, Miss., uber-chef with four successful restaurants including City Grocery, Big Bad Breakfast and Snack Bar who was the 2009 James Beard Foundation’s best chef in the South.
These stellar culinary pros, and a half dozen more, made their first-ever appearance at the Super Bowl of Swine, determined to come out on top. Not only had they rounded up some of the finest cooking chops in the South, they also sourced a couple of exotic heritage breed pigs. The Mangalitsa is prized for its rich flavor and its thick fat cap.
The seed for this Collective effort was first planted came during a Pappy Van Winkle-fueled discussion among Nick Pihakis, Drew Robinson, Donald Link and Southern Foodways Alliance executive director John T. Edge at a Jim ‘N Nick’s in Charleston. They cooked up a juicy mission statement, fired by a common passion for the simple pleasures that come from making and eating succulent swine.
After scoring the Mangalitsa pig from a Seattle, Wash., based breeder – Heath Putnam is the sole breeder of these “Wooly Pigs” in the U.S. -- the Collective chewed over their strategy. But things got a bit sticky when a former judge wandered into the tent on Friday and suggested the fatty pork wouldn’t fly. The cooks went to work, performing emergency liposuction.
When the trimmed-up whole hog was laid out in the cooker, the excess fat was laid on top. Jim ‘N Nick’s chef Drew Robinson said no seasonings were injected into the pig, just spices rubbed on the outside. As far as The Collective was concerned, the objective was to showcase the meat.
While the team took turns showing off the potentially prize-winning porcine to various admirers and camera crews, the chefs also passed around cooking duties, serving round after round of dazzling meals to fellow competitors and visitors to the booth, which was in a prime location near the main stage.
There was fried chicken and pimento cheese from John Currence, crispy softshell crab from Sean Brock and mounds of spicy crawfish boiled up by Donald Link’s cousin, Bobby Link from Crowley, La., near Lafayette.
Even if the Fatback Collective didn’t make the finals, they had to be No. 1 in meals served in between all the action.
And there was a lot of action.
About 8, Friday evening, smoke began pouring out of one of the cookers. The temperature had spiked and the hog was in danger of flaming out.
This is where veteran whole hog pitmaster Rodney Scott, from Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, S.C. stepped up and deftly handled the situation, shoveling hot coals out from the bottom of the cooker. Patrick Martin, a native Memphian, who has Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint just south of Nashville was also on the front lines.
The pig was saved.
Then, there was judgment day. On Saturday, the Collective diligently prepared the blind box, the first round of this massive contest. The box for whole hog must contain samples of shoulder, loin and ham.
Scores from the blind box and the on-site visits were tallied and by noon, teams knew whether they’ve made the cut.
The Fatback Collective made it into the finals, taking third place for whole hog, an impressive feat for first-timers, though not exactly surprising considering the considerable culinary talent assembled for this effort.