A look under the smoker lid with Frisco BBQ Challenge competitor Jonathan Knopf
On Tuesday morning, pit master Jonathan Knopf started prepping six racks of pork ribs, or about 80 individual ribs. On Saturday, only eight of those will make it into the 10-by-10 inch box he’ll deliver to the Colorado BBQ Challenge judge’s room in Frisco, where his meats will be rated on appearance, taste and tenderness.
Anything can go wrong over that five-day span, Knopf explained as he deftly trimmed away excess fat from the bottom of a rack at his home north of Silverthorne.
“Even if you’ve got a methodical process, you’ve still got to be on your game,” he said. “Generally, good cooks are able to flex and adjust and make the most of any situation — that’s what separates the men from the boys.”
Naturally, something went very wrong at Knopf’s first competition 11 years ago in New Jersey: The grease port on his team’s smoker clogged, and when they opened it up, a fireball billowed out, singeing mustaches and eyebrows and burning a 3-foot hole in their tent.
There was a bigger problem though — their meat was on fire.
“Teams were coming over with fire extinguishers ready to spray the meat and we said, ‘No, no, no!’” Knopf recalled.
His team, “Ribs Within,” still managed to win first prize in a field of more than 25 competitors. The episode earned them a new slogan, which they emblazoned on their rig: “We’re on Fire.”
Knopf’s one-man team, Crazy Coyote, will be one of 66 vying for the coveted Grand Champion title this weekend, not to mention bragging rights for beating some of competitive barbecue’s best.
“We’ve been getting some of the biggest names in the barbecue world, and that’s exciting — it shows that we’ve gotten a pretty big reputation,” said Frisco events manager Nora Gilbertson, who is coordinating the BBQ Challenge for the sixth year in a row.
The competition has been around since 1993, when it was just a handful of teams barbecuing in the Historic Park. They decided to make the event a fundraiser for the community, and since then the BBQ Challenge has raised more than $800,000 for county nonprofits, Gilbertson said.
This year, Gilbertson estimated that the event would draw around 35,000 people to the streets of Frisco, more than the entire year-round population of Summit County.
They come to sample the world-class barbecue (around half the competitors sell to the public) but also for a host of other attractions including three days of live music, chef demos, pig races, a whiskey tour and the Bacon Burner 6K run.
Gilbertson said there will also be more than 100 vendor tents selling barbecue, beer and souvenirs.
Amid the revelry, however, cook teams will be working around the clock, sleeping in campers and RVs to keep a close eye on their smokers; barbecuing at high elevation can be tricky, requiring pit masters to adjust their cooking temperatures to ensure judges get that perfect, evenly-cooked bite.
Knopf, now competing for the third time in the BBQ Challenge, recalls the thin air spoiling his first practice cook several years ago. His smoker stopped getting hotter, or “stalled,” several degrees short of his ideal cooking temperature, forcing him to leave the meat in longer than usual.
When it came out, he recalled, it practically disintegrated. That may sound mouth-watering to laymen craving fall-off-the-bone ribs, but it runs afoul of the Kansas City Barbecue Society judges’ scrupulous standards.
“Cooking for competition is very different from cooking for customers,” Knopf explains as he peels away the fatty membrane on the bottom of a rack of ribs — a step skipped by many restaurant pit masters.
On Tuesday and Wednesday Knopf put in more than 10 hours of work prepping chicken, brisket, pork ribs and pork shoulder. On Thursday, he set up his cook station, with two pop-up tents next to his RV named “Roadrunner.”
That’s where he’ll catch an hour of sleep here and there after firing up his smoker at midnight on Thursday. Then the playbook takes over, with different meats going on at different times, coordinated for the 10-minute turn-in windows set for each meat category on Saturday.
In the mean time, he’ll rarely leave his tent spot, except at least once at 11 a.m. on Saturday for a quick shot of liquor with the other pit masters, a BBQ Challenge tradition.
“The camaraderie is a really big part of what we do,” Knopf said.
Other than that, he said, being present throughout the process is key in case something goes wrong.
“What if my grease port clogged and it started a fire?” he asked, grinning.
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