Daily photos by Gary Cosby Jr.|
Jason Owens of Trinity pulls a rack of ribs out of his smoker to season as he cooks on a fold-out portion of his sponsored competitive barbecue team trailer.
RIGHT ON ’CUE
Competitive barbecuer follows the smoke to Riverfest this weekend and revs up his custom grill and two on-the-go kitchens
By Patrice Stewart
A year ago, Jason Owens of Trinity competed in a hot, 16-foot homemade trailer under the name “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Barbecue.”
Now he’s going first-class to Decatur’s Riverfest next weekend, with a fancy 40-foot air-conditioned rig, two national sponsors and a new name: Team Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet.
There’s still plenty of smoke and barbecue, however. Owens proved that while practicing his cooking techniques last week and explaining how he “can seriously sear some meat” with his new equipment. Distracted by a photographer and reporter, he left a trailer door open, and his smokin’ ribs set off the smoke alarm.
“My wife’s going to kill me when she smells this smoke in the camper,” he said.
Owens, 34, is typical of the younger set now into competition barbecuing. The pitmaster’s team often includes his wife, Amy; dad Barrey Owens; friend Steve Bolan; Valley Homes business partner Jeremiah Frost; and others.
Children Jacob, 6, and twins Charlie and Hannah, 5, may be watching TV in the living quarters of the trailer or playing nearby.
“We have a ball going to competitions, but it’s not for the money,” Owens said. “If I did it for the money, I would go broke, because it’s expensive. We do it for the family fun. The kids think barbecuing is great!”
Though Owens has been competing for less than two years, he is beginning to have success with prizes, too. He took first place in barbecue sauce this year at Springville and has placed in the top five at several competitions.
“You just keep trying until you get it to the taste you like,” said Owens. “It all depends on the judges’ tastes, and you may do well one week and be dead last the next. But you should be consistent from week to week.”
After Decatur’s Riverfest, he will compete in Nashville and perhaps Demopolis, pulling his custom trailer emblazoned with Kalamazoo’s name and equipment with his pickup.
He has been successful at picking up sponsors, too. After buying a grill at an auction, he went online to learn more about it and found it was “a really good one.” Later he simply called the company and told them what he wanted to do, and they agreed.
“We just kind of clicked. They felt that what I was doing by traveling around to competitions was the best way to reach their key audience,” said Owens, who distributes brochures, demonstrates and answers questions.
“It’s a big rolling billboard for them, and I wouldn’t be able to go as much as I do without them.”
He said his is the only cook team the Kalamazoo, Mich., firm sponsors, and it helps with all kinds of expenses, from entry fees and equipment to meat and more. Soon he’ll be writing a column for their Web site, as well as competing in various cities during the March to December barbecuing season.
He ordered his specially equipped Fleetwood trailer free of graphics so it could be fitted with an advertising bodywrap showing Kalamazoo grills and flames. It says, “Team Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, Bringing Gourmet Lifestyles Outdoors Since 1906, Competition Barbecue Team, Trinity, Ala.”
Jason Owens travels to barbecue competitions in this specially equipped trailer sponsored by Kalamazoo.
The custom rig has two kitchen areas, plus queen bed and convertible sofa and dining areas for sleeping, and a bathroom with a tub-shower combination for scrubbing off the barbecue sauce and smoke.
One end of the converted toy hauler, which some people use to carry motorcycles, can be opened, grills rolled out and secured and a canopy raised before the barbecuing begins at competitions. About 22 drawers, neatly labeled and kept stocked by his wife, hold supplies such as foil, knives, aprons and first-aid kit.
“My two cookers never hit the ground now,” Owens said. The Kalamazoo Bread Breaker II is a dual-fuel model using charcoal and wood; he uses it to grill his chicken. He usually cooks ribs and other meats in his Fast Eddy’s Cookshack smoker.
A technology buff, he recently added Stoker BBQ Controls of California as a sponsor. That equipment, combined with his cell phone and laptop, keep him updated on the temperature of every rack and every piece of meat.
“I can go walk around and visit, and when my meat hits the temperature I set, it sends a signal and my cell phone rings to alert me to go check it,” said Owens.
But the equipment and technology is only part of the fun.
“I enjoy seeing friends from previous cooking competitions and meeting new ones wherever I go,” he said.
Rodney Richardson of the Heavenbound Hog Smokers from Talladega is one of them. He and Owens met at the Springville contest and have requested spaces next to each other at Riverfest. Meanwhile, Richardson, who owns a concrete company, shares news and tips from their Kansas City Barbecue Society world while visiting Owens in Trinity to do some subcontractor work.
“Jason cheats by using those wood pellets and temperature sensors,” joked Richardson, “but he gets a lot more sleep than the rest of us.”
Richardson and others may be up all night, checking their fires and meats, but Owens said he sleeps on his sofa and makes checks perhaps hourly.
“That’s not cheating; that’s technology,” said Owens.
As preparations for Riverfest mount, a barbecue buddy from the “Full of Baloney” team called in to ask Owens for his cooking secrets. “Just remember the name Fleet Enema; that’s the secret ingredient you need,” Owens said, laughing.
He has always liked to cook indoors and figures he got started grilling out with buddies when he got his first apartment. The laughter has always been part of the fun.
“Cooking is one of my passions,” he said. “When I am cooking, I never think about work. It’s some of the best time spent with my family.”
In addition to barbecuing chicken, brisket, ribs, pork butt and shoulder, Owens makes up sauces and talks with the Kalamazoo chefs about what to prepare for the “anything but” category. That may be decoratively served seared tuna, steak, shrimp cocktail or anything but the barbecue entered in the rest of the competition. His wife often makes cobblers, pies and cakes to enter in the dessert category.
Owens also coaches Upward Football and does some hunting and fishing. He just brought back 300 pounds of fish from a Gulf fishing trip. His team won third place in fish in the Morgan County Wild Game Cook-off last year with catfish and mango salsa.
“Pretty much, if I can kill it and it will lay still, I’ll put it in my smoker,” said Owens.
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