Barbecue has become a Westport Labor Day weekend tradition. The sixth annual Blues, Views and BBQ Festival runs Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, at Levitt Pavilion.
Blues bands will play. Michele’s Pies is running a pie-eating contest. Bobby Q’s is running the rib-eating contest. Restaurants — Bobby Q’s and Bar Q, Blue Lemon, Winnie’s Jerk Chicken and Melt Mobile — will sell barbecue, lobster rolls, jerk chicken. There will be beer and Newman’s Own wines and juices for sale. And 11 local chefs will demo creative barbecue recipes and give out samples at the CTbites tent.
Most anticipated — by the team members doing practice runs the previous weekend — is the amateur BBQ competition, judged by Kansas City BBQ Society members. Cookin’ for a Cause, which has a $100 entrance fee, will benefit the Westport Women’s Club’s Food Closet.
Twenty-one teams have signed up. Barbecue is a hot hobby, fueled by television programs like BBQ Pitmasters. Cookin’ for a Cause contestant Marco Agular calls himself a rookie. He got into barbecue not that long ago. He broke his collarbone and was flipping through the channels when he found the BBQ Pitmasters championship. Agular, an 8th-grade history teacher who lives in Wethersfield, bought a smoker from Home Depot and started experimenting.
His team is made up of two good friends and his dad. They’ve been practicing all summer. Agular’s father is Portuguese. “I don’t have a clue what barbecue is,” his father said. But although he’s more of a “seafood guy,” Agular’s father “knows how to put flavors together,” and helped develop the team’s rub. The team’s style “leans toward Kansas City flavors, sweet and slightly spicy,” Agular said.
“We decided to challenge ourselves and have fun,” he says. Contestants may use grills and smokers, and the heat source must be wood or charcoal. Agular will enter in the chicken, ribs, chef’s choice (he’s doing pork loin) and dessert (cinnamon swirl bread pudding) categories. The challenge he foresees is the chicken thighs, getting the skin just right so it isn’t rubbery or “comes right off in the judge’s mouth.” His team planned to experiment with a butter bath, then hit the grill before smoking. The next challenge is to make sure the pork loin doesn’t get too dry. “We were headed down the wrong path,” he says. “We were going to stuff it, but Kansas City rules don’t let you.”
Jason Canell of Milford is another first-time BBQ contestant. He’s been smoking for about three years. “My wife thinks I’m obsessed,” he says. “I watch all the barbecue shows.” His team is called Big Boy Barbecue, and of the four guys, “I’m the smallest and I’m six-foot-two and 260 pounds.” Canell, Scott Kessler (Stamford), Matt Stevens (Greenwich), and Phillip Ferrigon (Bronx, N.Y.) all work in banking and add up to a combined weight of 1,200 lbs.
Canell came to the Blues, Views and BBQ last year, “and totally loved it. I’m a huge fan of blues. The crowd was good.”
The Big Boy team is feeling confident about their chicken thighs, keeping the temperature consistent and making “the skin almost melt into the meat.” They’re making brisket for the chef’s choice. As for dessert, “I’m not a dessert-maker,” Canell says. In their practice runs, “We’re going to try several ideas, like a cobbler or something.”
Michael Beeler has been barbecuing for 15 years, but this will be his second competition. The summer before last, he and his 12-year-old son Wes entered Blues, Views and BBQ and won third place in the chef’s choice category with their pizza with duck three ways (shredded, smoked thighs, slices of grilled breast and cracklings), pear and goat cheese. This year, for the chef’s choice, he’s thinking about chicken and waffles and “a take on syrup.”
He describes the difference between cooking at home and competing as the difference between “laziness” and “all hell breaking loose.”
The day begins at 6 a.m. with set-up. Judges inspect contestants’ coolers, making sure meat is in its original packaging and hasn’t been injected with brine. The moment the contest begins, chefs prep with purpose. Removing the silver skin from the back of the ribs requires a sharp knife to pry up a corner, and paper towels to hold the slippery skin while pulling it off at the perfect pace. All the while, “People are looking at you and smoke from all the smokers is getting in your eyes,” Beeler says. “It’s pretty exciting.”
Wes encouraged him to enter the contest after they went to Blues, Views and BBQ three years ago. “He said, ‘Come on Dad, you could do it.” Wes was around 11, and handy in the kitchen, so he joined the team. When the King Beez, as they called themselves, got to the competition and looked around, they saw teams of what looked like 10 guys — “And it was just me and my son,” they had a moment of doubt. But they went on to win.
This year, the King Beez team will again be Michael Beeler and his son Wes, 13, turning 14 soon. And “maybe my brother will show up,” Beeler said.
Beeler, 50, has no illusions about making barbecue a profession. He’s a web designer, and while he was in art school, he cooked in restaurants. “I spent 15 years cooking. I love cooking. I just don’t like doing it in restaurants,” he says, “Family and friends are more grateful.”
Blues, Views and BBQ
Aug. 31-Sept. 1, $15-$45, Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts, Westport, bluesviewsbbq.com