Barbecue master and BBQPitmasters star Tuffy Stone dishes on what it takes to be a champion
It was more than five years ago that Tuffy Stone was preparing for the Dillard Bluegrass & Barbeque Festival in Georgia when he received a phone call that forever changed his life.
Stone’s friend – TV producer John Markus – told him he wanted to send down a couple cameramen from New York to film him in action as he prepared his award-winning barbecue creations. He then went on to tell the Richmond, VA-based chef that he wanted to cast him on a new reality show he was pitching that revolved around the world of competitive barbecue.
The result was the popular TV series BBQPitmasters, in which Stone starred and was labeled “The Professor.” It’s a nickname the producer came up with because, as Stone tells it, Markus remarked, “Tuffy, you could speak for hours on smoking wood.”
Wood smoking is not the only topic Stone is confident in discussing. He’s an expert in beef brisket, grilled chicken, pulled pork and ribs – talking at length about the strategy of dry rubs, the right amount of sauce and the best piece of meat. Last year, Stone’s Cool Smoke team came away with three grand championships, including back-to-back wins in the two most prestigious competitions in the world – The American Royal Invitational in Kansas City, MO, and The Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue in Lynchburg, TN.
Stone’s come a long way since entering his first competition in 2004 in his hometown of Lynchburg, VA, where he took second place in pork and brisket. (Barbecuing legend Johnny Trigg won grand champion that day, and the two have become good friends.) It wasn’t until 2007 that Stone says he really started feeling confidence in his barbecuing abilities when Cool Smoke came away with the team of the year award from the Kansas City Barbeque Society.
Stone has spent the last decade entering competitions around the country, including a reserve championship at the 2012 New Holland Summer Fest. Today he owns a chain of barbecue restaurants outside of Richmond – Q Barbecue – on top of a successful catering business – A Sharper Palate Catering Company.
We caught up with “The Professor” as he just got back from vacation in the Outer Banks in North Carolina. He talked about his favorite meats to cook (brisket and chicken), how he got into barbecue and what it feels like to be considered one of the best barbecue practitioners in the world.
Fly Magazine: How have you seen barbecue competitions evolve over the last decade?
Tuffy Stone: Over the years, competition barbecue is getting a little more focused and serious with the competitors. Historically – if you went way back in time – it was a bunch of friends and family coming together having a good-hearted barbecue competition. But over the years, the prize money has grown and awareness has grown. There’s lots of classes people can take, and a lot of people have gotten really good at barbecuing. Your population of serious competitors is constantly growing.
FM: What has been your secret to success in barbecue competitions?
TS: When you do competition barbecue, for the most part you get one chance – one bite and one taste from the judge. Usually the barbecue that’s going to do the best is one that presents a pop of flavor as soon as you put it in your mouth that makes a judge go, “Wow.” You need to put out barbecue that’s going to get the judge’s attention on that first taste. One of the things that has helped me be fortunate on the circuit is finding and creating a taste in my barbecue that has broad appeal. Some people might like sweet barbecue. Some people might like a little tang in their barbecue. Some people might like a little spice. I try to put out a taste that’s going to have some of all those elements so at a table of six different judges I’ve got something there for everybody to like.
FM: Are there other flavors you focus on?
TS: When it comes to barbecue, one of the flavors everybody comes to expect is going to be some smoke – whether it’s smoke from wood or smoke from charcoal. But the best barbecue and the barbecue that’s usually going to do the best overall is going to be cooked by somebody who understands how to regulate that smoke and put the right amount on there. I treat smoke like salt and pepper. I treat smoke like a supporting flavor to the chicken or the ribs or the pork or the brisket. When you’re tasting my barbecue, I want you to be able to taste that meat itself and have smoke come in as a backdrop flavor. My rub’s going to have a little bit of salt, sugar and spice and some foundation flavors that all work well together. I don’t want to have anything in my taste that I present that’s going to run the risk of having somebody not like it and confuse them.
FM: So good meat is a key to good barbecue?
TS: I want the barbecue – the meat itself – to be succulent, juicy, tender and not tough. But at the same time, I’m going to hit this magic spot where it’s nice and tender and succulent, but it’s not overcooked either. That shows real finesse. When it comes to the sauce, my meat’s going to taste great on its own. I’m no going to come in with a heavy amount of sauce. I’m not here to disguise the meat. But with my sauce, my rub, my meat, the smoke and all my processes, hopefully there’s a marriage of all those tastes and textures that come together that becomes sublime and maybe a little bit remarkable and impacts you.
FM: How long has it taken you to feel you have the right combination of flavors to be a champion?
TS: I know that I’m never done. Every time I step up to the grill, it’s a new day. I’m never going to be so convinced. I’m still learning all the time, and I like that. My first contest in 2004, I was fortunate enough that day to get my name called two times and walk to the stage. That kind of got me excited, and I’ve progressively made improvements and learned and tweaked. One of the things that helps your confidence in anything in life is to have repeated success. That being said, you can have some great cooks who never get out of their chair to get called to the stage, and you can have some cooks who maybe weren’t as good but do get called. There’s a little bit of fortune that goes with this. But I like to say, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
FM: What made you decide to focus your efforts on barbecue?
TS: When I got into barbecue, I came from a cooking background – starting in a French kitchen. I got into barbecue with the hope that I could get reconnected with cooking because my business had grown, and I had a lot of responsibilities that took me outside of the kitchen. Yet, I was a chef at heart. In my mind, I was going to buy a pit, get some wood and take a modest cut of meat like a pork butt and figure out if I could coax something great out of it. Initially, it was a very humbling, surprising experience for me because I thought what I had learned in the kitchen prior to all that and some of the hard foods I had learned how to make – getting yelled at by a Frenchman – I thought I was going to be able to figure this out. Yet what I learned is this is probably one of the hardest cuisines I’d ever gone down the path to try and learn how to cook – learning how to cook with a wood fire and learning how to take long cuts that are tough and take a long time to render to a state of tender. So I went off the deep end trying to figure all of this out.
FM: How does it feel to be called “The Professor” and be considered one of the best barbecuers in the world?
TS: [laughs] I guess I can believe it in terms of the way I think and throw myself into learning this whole process. As far as the second part, I started cooking barbecue with this humble idea of getting reconnected with cooking. My goal was the purest and simplest in nature. To know then the path of barbecue and where that would lead for me and my life – I would have never ever guessed it in a million years. I’ve been so blessed and fortunate with barbecue. Last year I won two competitions that when I started I had hoped I would just get an invitation to cook in – the American Royal and the Jack Daniel’s. I never dreamed I could walk away winning one of those competitions – let alone both of them in the same month.
FM: What keeps you motivated in barbecuing?
TS: When I get to a contest these days, and I can take my little red stick burner, start trimming and seasoning my meat, and light that fire – I get to the goals of why I started doing it in the first place. For me, there’s such good therapy in lighting that fire and smoking that meat. And for a moment, those emails, texts and voicemails all seem to be secondary, and I can just immerse myself in trying to cook good barbecue.
Want seconds? Get a taste of the competitive barbecue circuit here in Central PA with an overview of this month’s events in our companion piece, “Smoking the Competition: In the BBQ Pit with Central PA’s Grillmasters.”