"Actually, it was numbing. I was numb for a week."
Kerry Fellows knows. He's the pitmaster of the Across the Track barbecue team that won the Grand Championship in 2013. Fellows's tent is smaller than those with large corporate sponsorships, but his passion for barbecue runs strong. "I picked it up from my grandmother," he explains. In college, he started cooking on his own before moving to Houston to attend law school.
Of course, he hasn't had as much time to practice law since his victory. The cookoff winner represents Houston at competitions in San Antonio, Lynchberg, Tenn., Kansas City and New York.
The cookoff even sees celebrities join in. Tuffy Stone, a judge on the TV show BBQ Pitmasters, earned second place.
Across the Tracks is one of hundreds of teams participating in the event that kicks off the Rodeo activities at Reliant. While the cookoff committee has taken steps to make the grounds friendlier for those without an invite to a tent by adding a beer garden and more live music to the barbecue sandwich that's included with admission, the real action is in the booths where private teams gather once a year to celebrate friendship and food. The largest tents hold more than 1,000 people and have stages of their own, but access remains limited.
Not every team aspires to win the championship. Jimmy Henrichs and Tommy Erickson have earned three most unique pit awards for their converted oil barrels. The design allows the pit to maintain a constant 225 degrees that the duo says is perfect for pulled pork, ribs and turkey.
Most teams stick to a variation on the familiar Texas trinity of brisket, ribs and sausage, but the Longhorn cookers team entertains hundreds of guests from Louisiana. Therefore, pitmaster Chris Sams mixes things up with a menu that includes alligator and sausage gumbo, court bouillon-made alligator and gator legs, which Sams says are like chicken wings.
Just as the alligator stands out, so too does a 120-pound whole pig roasting over a fire. That's on the menu at the Devils River Mountain Men booth. Team members Dave Loveless and Justin Treat say they've been here for 26 years. Their distinctive setup arrives in the Reliant parking lot in a caravan lead by two, 30-foot long gooseneck trailers.
"The ribs are the best," Loveless says, "but the brisket is really close."
The cookoff even sees celebrities join in. Tuffy Stone, a judge on the TV show BBQ Pitmasters, earned second place in brisket and third overall at his first ever HLSR cookoff. At the USO tent, which is free to all active military members, celebrity pitmaster Johnny Trigg tends his rig while Franklin Barbecue pitmaster Aaron Franklin looks on. Fans walk by to greet Trigg and pose for pictures with him and Franklin.
Houston's professional chefs get in on the action, too. Batanga/Goro & Gun/Uchi alum Matt Wommack has been helping Rusty Coasts and the Throwdown Cookers team prepare a feast for its guests for seven years, using a rotisserie smoker built into a recreational vehicle to prepare brisket, ribs, sausage and chicken. Wommack recruited former Batanga chef Ben McPherson and friend Steve Early to join him this year, and the team's beans with burnt ends and peaches certainly ups the flavor of that traditional side.
Still, Coats prepares the Wagyu brisket he'll submit to the judges himself. Does every team serve the pricey, Japanese-style beef for the competition?
"If they want to win, they do," he answers.
The full cookoff results:
Overall Grand Champion: BBQ Commanders 3
First Runner Up Overall: Fayette County Go Texan
Second Runner Up Overall: Jack Daniel's Winner – Cool Smoke
Champion: Fayette County Go Texan
First Runner Up: Jack Daniel's Winner – Cool Smoke
Second Runner Up: Jack Daniel's Barrelhouse Cookers 1
Champion: Tejas Cookers 2
First Runner Up: Hot Knots Cooking Team
Second Runner Up: The New Bull @ 100.3
Champion: BBQ Commanders 3
First Runner Up: Bulldog Mountain Cookin' Crew 3
Second Runner Up: Killin' Time Kookers 2
Best Barbecue: Fayette County Go Texan
Runner Up: Colorado County Go Texan
Dutch Oven Dessert
Champion: Triple A Cookers
First Runner Up: Be Somebody
Second Runner Up: Texas Night Owls 1
Most Colorful Team: Rams Club
Runner Up Most Colorful Team: Bad Girls Gone Wild
Go Texan Most Colorful: Colorado County Go Texan
Runner Up Go Texan Most Colorful: Nueces County Go Texan
Most Unique Pit: Lost Village Team
Runner Up Most Unique Pit: Cowboy Mardi Gras Kookers
Best Team Skit: Harrison County Go Texan
Runner Up Best Team Skit: Devils River Mountain Men
Cleanest Team Area: Rams Club
Runner Up Cleanest Team Area: Holy Cow Cookers
Go Texan Recycling: Calhoun County
Recycling: Texas Social Club