Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Interview: Rocky Top Smokies

Team: Rocky Top BBQ Co. LLC
Location: Charlotte, North Carolina
Web Page:

I met Rocky Top Smokies at the Charlotte Blues, Brews & BBQ in 2012 when I was an onsite judge. They cooked a great pork shoulder and the hog looked delectable. Since then I have followed them on Twitter (add link) and Facebook (add link).

They cater in the Charlotte area and have been on the Wilson Show on Fox in the morning sharing the BBQ love. Jonathan and his team are fun to talk to and make a great product.

Q4Fun: How did you get started doing BBQ?
Rocky Top BBQ Co.: I guess you could say my love for grilling started out of high school and into college. I loved coming up with my own rubs for steaks, burgers, etc. I went to school in Stanley County, NC and I grew to learn more and more about the Lexington style of cooking BBQ. I loved the history and the labor that went into creating this prized “masterpiece” of meat. I have a tendency to take things and run with them and that’s what I did. I Googled, watched TV shows, and asked people for tips and hints to get started. I transferred to UNCC for my last two years and spent many weekends up all night smoking butts on the apartment grills. The first few were underdone and terrible. I almost gave up on it. My first smoker purchase was a Brinkmann smoker that I set up in the breezeway of our apartment complex when I would cook. I specifically remember the day I cooked my first successful butt. It snowed all day and I recall smelling the hickory, coal, and boiling apple juice fill the complex as I cooked what turned out to be quality stuff. Ever since then, I tweaked my product, bought new cookers, got my own rub and sauce recipe, and then have taken off in the competition and catering world.

Q4F: You also do catering, how did you get started in that?
RTBC: My catering and competing all happened at once. While most people compete then cater, my product I cooked for people led me to believe that I could compete with some big names. Its not easy to cook quality stuff, but I knew I could do it. I stepped out, created an LLC, wrapped my Tundra, and branded my products and services as higher end BBQ. Because of the time, energy, and quality of product I put out, I knew I could demand a slightly higher price. We aren’t a run-of-the-mill BBQ company. We set ourselves separate, because we can. I came to the realization early on that the market we pursue appreciates the art of BBQ and the quality of the product, so my mission is to deliver that quality and tell them how it got there.

Q4F: What was your first competition and how did you fare?
RTBC: My first ever competition was the 2010 Charlotte Smokin Flavor Fest in Matthews, NC. It was a small, local, non-sanctioned event. However, we came in first in boston butt and finished 4th out of 25 teams. I surprised myself and everything took off from there.

Q4F: How many competitions a year do you compete in? What’s the furthest you've travelled for one?
RTBC: As a new father, this past year was a little rough in scheduling as well as being able to truly concentrate on our competitions. I’m literally just now recovering from lack of sleep! We average around 6 competitions a year. I work a full time job in sales with Sherwin Williams Paint, as does my assistant. Between that and catering we stay pretty swamped. However, we plan to hit it full force this year with a new rig and a new mindset on it all. The furthest so far we have gone is Tryon, NC for the Blue Ridge BBQ Festival. We plan to go further and actually missed the qualifier for Memphis in May at the TWC BBQ and Blues 2 years ago. We didn’t compete in it this year because of the baby, catering jobs, and my assistant, Graham Young, tore his ACL.

Q4F: What is you’re favorite style of competition? KCBS, MB, other? Why?
RTBC: Honestly, I love MBN. To me, and I know I may step on some toes out there, but MBN is the truest test of skill out there. Anyone can run a cooker where you turn a switch and leave it for the night for some chicken, ribs, and pork. But when you can turn a 185 lb hog into a masterpiece, cook 12 whole shoulders to a perfect temp, 12+ racks of ribs to a dark mahogany with perfect tenderness and present to 9 different judges plus finals, you have mastered it. We have a crew that cooks our night shift and I am right there with them through the whole process, beginning to end. That’s true BBQ skill and success.
Q4F: What type of cooker do you use?
RTBC: I cook on the 72” Myron Mixon hog cooker. It is a indirect water smoker. You can look at them at . We cook with cherry and peach wood and it boils as it smokes. These cookers are completely insulated and boils out approx. 10 gallons of water an hour, yet has a regulator that keeps it full. There are absolutely no electric parts to it which is very appealing because you don’t run the risk of shorting out because of the heat. It will cook approx. 60 butts or two 200 lb hogs to absolute perfection.

Q4F: Do you have any advice for those wanting to start competing in BBQ?
RTBC: Read all you can, research it, ask questions. Don’t rely on what other competitors tell you unless they are trustworthy. Maybe even take a judging class to learn what judges are looking for. Don’t get caught up in the “Bobby Flay” or fully involved recipes. Keep it simple. When guys or gals lose sight of simplicity, they screw it up. Sometimes, when I get to thinking real hard about it, I remember those Lexington guys shoveling coals, or think of Myron with his simple approaches. Yes there are things you can do to stand out, but at the end of the day, the judges want to taste the meat. Use rubs and smoke that compliments those flavor profiles, not hides it. The worst thing you can do is eat pork that tastes like a tex mex beer infused turducken. Lastly, if you want to win, don’t go out there and drink like a bunch of idiots. Would you go to the store and hand some stranger $1,000 then take some meat and beer home just to get drunk and burn it? Heck no. I personally have too many diapers to buy right now. I can literally pull into a competition, then check out everyone who is hammered by midnight and determine what place I will be in in the absolute worst case. Its fun to have a few drinks with your buds and that’s fine, but don’t spend your money just to turn your booth into a frat party. If you wanna beat us, show up and bring your game. Your beer won’t help you.

Q4F: Can you give one piece of advice for those who want to cook BBQ?
RTBC: Learn the history. Appreciate it. Watch as many shows as you can and see how the different regions do it. Experiment with rubs and make some of your own. Have fun but don’t lose sight of simplicity. When I cook at home and I can load that cooker up and let it hum all night at 250, that’s when I can sit back and unwind from the week. Then I reap the benefits of it the next day. Smoke on and have fun with it. KEEP IT SIMPLE!

Q4F: What is your favorite meat to cook? What is your favorite to eat?
RTBC: Whole hog by far. My favorite to eat is either hog or ribs. Hog, and big ones, are the biggest challenge for any BBQ cook. So when I can stand back and look at 185+ lbs of beauty, I just pat the back of my badass self and smile.

Q4F: Since the Superbowl is coming up do you have anything special you smoke for it?
RTBC: Most likely wings, ribs, and then brisket chili. The chili is my father-in-laws recipe that I have and then we add the brisket to it. The recipe is mine as long as I treat his daughter right and I have done well so far!

Q4F: What's the strangest thing you've ever cooked on the smoker?
RTBC: Hmmm…that’s tough. Nothing yet, but coming up we have a shipment of the new “pork wings” from Smithfield coming in which are part of the ham hocs. They look like real wings and still blow my mind, so I will let you know how that goes.

Thanks again to Jonathan and the Rocky Top Smokies for taking the time to do an interview. Good luck in the next year year of competition. If you see them on the circuit stop by and say hi. If you need a caterer in the Charlotte area give them a call.