Thursday, March 27, 2008

INTERVIEW: Pat McSparin of Gremlin Grill


In our continuing exploration of cook-offs, we present this interview with Pat McSparin of Gremlin Grill BBQ. Allowing for an examination of contrasting opinions, the questions are the same as our earlier interview with Red Todd.

We appreciate Pat’s time and thoughtful answers.

In 1994, Gremlin Grill barbecue team out of Kansas City, Missouri, competed in our first KCBS contest. We took 4th in ribs. Now entering our 14th season, Gremlin Grill has competed in about 80 contests, and won about 80 awards. In 2007, we cooked five contests, won five awards – one in each category, twice in chicken. But the awards were all at different contests. Consistency wasn’t our strong suit last year. Our best showing ever was probably when we had two top fives at the American Royal, and finished 17th overall. That was a looong time ago. We do have a couple Reserve Grand Championships over the years, but never a Grand Championship. And we’re not losing much sleep over it. The team, comprised of me (Pat McSparin), my brothers Al and Brett, and our friend Kent Bjork, is more concerned with having fun than we are with winning.

And we have had our share barbecue success away from competitions. After a Chiefs Monday Night Football game in 1997, NFL analyst/very large carnivore John Madden included us in his book, Ultimate Tailgating, and said our recipes were his favorite in the book. Of course, they left the black pepper out of the brisket recipe, and called me “Larry” throughout, but whatcha gonna do? Emeril Legasse once demonstrated our pork recipe on Good Morning America. In 2003, author/food writer Peter Kaminski featured us in a New York Times article titled “Tailgating with Gusto.” And thanks to barbecue, we’ve been barbecuing and catching a few tires for Jay Robinson Racing of the NASCAR Nationwide Series for a few years.

If we hadn’t honed our skills at contests, we wouldn’t have had those opportunities. And while we don’t have that elusive Grand Championship yet, we’re having fun. And we’re like the Cubs: sooner or later, we have to win one. Right? Right?

(By the way, the recipes in Ultimate Tailgating are outdated. Talk to me before trying them.)

Q. When did you first get interested in BBQ?

It’s hard to live in KC and not love barbecue. There are people who do, but when we find them, we tie them to a rail and ship them to St. Louis.
I guess our family discovered “real Kansas City barbecue” in about 1987, when my oldest brother, Al, moved his family here from where we grew up in the Quad Cities area of Illinois/Iowa. Our folks joined Al and them soon after, then younger brother Brett moved here after graduating from college, and I joined them all when I got out of the Air Force in ’91. Gremlin Grill “Chicken Man” Kent Bjork basically did the same thing. He moved to KC from Nebraska after college, started working with Brett, and joined our team in our second year of competing, I think it was.

Q. How did your interest morph into an interest in competing?

I think it was Christmas 1992 that our mom bought my two brothers and I each a Brinkmann Smoke-n-Grill. That’s right: the “El Cheapo Brinkmann.” Brett probably still has his. We messed around on those a few times, thinking we were doing pretty good, until one of Al’s co-workers tried some pork loin that we thought was excellent. She told us about her parents’ barbecue team, Armadillo Bob and Margaret Nolop. Bob and Margaret were among the best in the KCBS at the time, so our first exposure to contest barbecue couldn’t have been better. They taught us a few things, and in ’93, they and another champion team, Smokin’ in the Boys Room (Lynn and Rich Kancel) mentored us at a few contests. We were hooked. Think about it: it’s barbecue better than at any restaurant, plus cold beer and some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. How can you not be hooked?

Q. Have you ever assisted in the running of a competition and if so what did you learn from the process?

None of us has ever helped run a contest. The closest we’ve come is pressuring our favorite meat guy into putting one on. Jimmy Dunn is the meat department manager at the Barry Road HyVee (supermarket) here in KC. Their third annual contest is coming up in April. I’ll tell ya what I learned from Jimmy: organizing a contest is an incredible amount of work. I mean, I can’t even imagine. He works on it all year, getting everything together, then the week of the competition is non-stop contest prep as well as his regular duties at the store. And last year, after the awards were given out and everyone was all but packed up and heading for home, Jimmy was out picking up trash bags in the lot.

Q. Have you ever judged a competition, and if so what did you learn from the process?

I’ve never judged. My dad and Brett are Certified Barbecue Judges, but I just never got around to it. By the time we’re turning in brisket at a contest, I’m so tired and full of barbecue, the thought of judging scares the crap out of me.

Q. There is a vocal minority of competition cooks who believe that judges are inept and don’t have a proper appreciation for the efforts of competitors. What are your thoughts?

I don’t agree. Don’t ask me that right after a contest, though. Seriously, every team gripes about judging at one time or another. But ultimately, it’s a crap shoot. It all comes down to individual taste, and that can’t be taught. No one should even attempt to teach it. I like sweet, my teammates like more spice; is one of us wrong? No way. The basics of tenderness and texture should be taught, along with some education on what real barbecue is, but after that, it’s a matter of what the judges like. The opinion of the average Joe off the street is every bit as valid as someone who’s a certified judge.

When we started competing, judges were usually local celebrities, dignitaries, and a lot of those aforementioned average Joes off the street. I love cooking for people like that, because they’re often having the best barbecue they’ve ever had. And that’s why you cook: to make people happy. From a grandma to a celebrity chef, cooks cook because they like to make the people eating it happy. Let us cook ribs for someone who thinks Applebee’s riblets are the epitome of barbecue, and we’ll all have a better time than if we’re cooking for someone who’s convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that he/she knows exactly what barbecue should taste like. And that’s what it’s about: having a great time.

I will say, though, I think some of the vitriol towards judges these days is in response to some judges’ superior attitudes. When a CBJ acts like he/she is the heart of the competition, it makes cooks mad. But we’ll save the topic of barbecue contest egos for another day.

Q. Do you tailor your style of ‘Q to the region you are competing in?

We usually only cook around KC, so it isn’t really a problem. Our tastes and styles are more of an issue within the team than at contests. For instance, I like ribs all but candied, but I’m the only one on the team who does. And judges seem to agree with my teammates, because the ribs I did last year bombed completely. And Al puts a little somethin’-somethin’ on the brisket that I thought was nuts, but it was a consistent scorer last year, including our first blue ribbon in the category in years.

I believe you should cook what you like, if for no other reason than you’ll be taking leftovers home – might as well like ‘em. Last summer, I did a backyard rib and wings competition in Geneseo, Illinois, about 180 miles west of Chicago. That’s where we grew up: it’s the in the self-proclaimed pork capital of the world, and a land where boiling the hell out of ribs is considered a barbecue technique. Well, at this contest, I thought I should tone down the sweetness on my ribs to better fit their taste, and I turned up the sweetness on the wings, trying to surprise them. Nope: finished second in both categories.

Q. Who was your biggest influence or guide when you were starting out?

Our mentors and teachers, Armadillo Bob and Margaret Nolop, and Lynn and Rich Kancel of Smokin’ in the Boys Room, and Cimarron Doc (Larry Koch). They taught us a lot. Not just about barbecuing, but about competitions. Many an early, early morning, Rich reminded us that it wasn’t about winning money or awards, it’s about fellowship. It’s about having a good time. Which is a hoot, because Smokin’ in the Boys Room were an incredibly competitive team. They liked to win. But we always had a great time with them. And wow, could they barbecue.

Q. What resources would you recommend for new competitors?

The BBQ Forum, blogs like Home of BBQ, there are a million books out there now, and I learned a lot of cooking techniques on TV. But mostly, talk to other competitors. There are always some “I’d tell ya but I’d have to kill ya” teams, but most folks are happy to help new teams. That’s what it’s all about: teaching as many people how to make great barbecue as you can.

Q. What do you believe the biggest misconceptions are for new teams?

That if you play your music as loud as it’ll go, chicks will dig you. Actually, a lot of veteran teams seem to think that, too, so maybe it’s true? Note to self: get a new stereo.
Seriously, people think that it takes a ton of money to compete. You do not need a $2,000+ tailored rig with a computerized temperature system to win. We built our main cooker out of a Model A axle, some scrap metal, an empty keg and parts from my old AMC Gremlin. Parts cost a few hundred bucks. Labor’s different – it helps to know a good welder. Like our dads. But teams win on old barrels, Brinkmann bullets and Weber kettles. All the gadgets and fancy equipment make it easier, not better.

And remember that gambling adage: don’t play with scared money. If you’re too worried about winning money, you won’t have fun. And if you’re spending more money than you can afford, you shouldn’t be doing it.

There also seems to be a trend of people who think competition barbecue is a great way to make money. It ain’t. Few if any teams compete for a living. Unless you have a barbecue product to sell – rub, sauce, a restaurant, whatever – treat this as a hobby or you’re heading for trouble.

Q. What was the most important lesson that you learned while moving from novice to journeyman?

Always take your own toilet paper to a contest. Port-o-potties run out.
Also, never, ever take it too seriously. It’s a barbecue contest. If you’re not having fun, why do it?

Q. What similarities do you see among your favorite cook-offs?

We don’t win at any of them. Actually, the contests we cook are all laid-back and relatively small, with no obnoxious amounts of prize money. We cooked in the American Royal for 12 years, and as grand an event as it is, it was just a ton of work. On the other hand, the Basswood Resort (Platte City, MO) contest usually has about 50 teams, I think, and it’s just a nice, relaxing weekend. It’s held in a campground with fantastic facilities. We usually leave Basswood empty handed as far as awards go, but having had a wonderful time with family and friends. That’s what we’re in it for.

Q. How many competitions do you expect to participate in this year?

Right now, we’re planning on HyVee, Basswood, Excelsior Springs, Blue Springs, and Pleasant Valley (all Missouri). It’d be nice to work in a couple more somewhere, but we also have graduations and parties like that to cook for, and with cooking for Jay Robinson Racing at a few races throughout the season, and Chiefs tailgate parties are a pretty big deal. So five contests over six or eight months doesn’t sound like much, but when you add in the other barbecue events, half the summer weekends are gone. In a good way, of course.

Q. What value do you find in competing?

Getting to hang out with the idiots…I mean, with my teammates. We’ve talked about retiring from contests and just barbecuing and hanging out at home or the lake, but we’d never get together. There’s too much going on. But barbecue contests trump everything. Well, almost everything. If we decided to compete more often, the wives would eventually rein us back in.

Q. What type of sauce do you use in competitions? If you make your sauce, can you share the recipe?*

We usually use The Slabs sauce. Pretty much straight-up on ribs, but on pork, I sweeten it with raspberry All-Fruit. And for chicken, we combine Slabs with a sweet homemade glaze. I’ll give you that recipe (it’s probably already online somewhere), but your readers have to figure out how to use it on their own. Or just ask me at a contest. Actually, ask anyone at a contest – it’s a pretty common technique.

Q. How many people do you have on your team and what are their roles?

For 13 years, we all did a little bit of everything, except Kent Bjork has been on chicken most of the time. This year, we’re going to try something different. I’m taking pork, Al is on brisket, and Brett’s on ribs. We figure it’ll make assigning blame much easier. We also have team engineers (our dads designed, built and repair the smokers), and we get support and heckling from moms, wives and kids.

Q. Do you have a website where our readers can learn more about your team?

We have a blog at It mostly consists of me ranting about whatever is grinding my gears at the time. And lately, bacon. A lot of talk about bacon.

Chicken Glaze
2 12-oz cans frozen apple juice concentrate
1 Cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 Cup catsup
¼ Cup apple cider vinegar
4 teaspoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce (or to taste)
dash of cayenne

Heat it all up in a saucepan just to get it all incorporated well


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