Countdown to the Kingsford Invitational: Pellet Envy
November 5, 2013
Another tension filled season of Destination America’s BBQ Pitmasters is in the books and a champion has been crowned – Kansas City’s own Rod & Sheri Gray of team Pellet Envy. Not only did the win further solidify Pellet Envy’s place among the country’s barbecue elite, but it also secured him a place in the winner-take-all 2013 Kingsford Invitational.
Clint: Rod, you’re a well-seasoned competition barbecue cook with countless wins under your belt. How did your participation in BBQ Pitmasters compare to those previous successes?
Rod Gray: It was like starting at square one. I’ve cooked over 450 contests in the past 13 years and these days nerves just never factor into what we do. But as soon as they turned those cameras on us, all those feelings came flooding back. It was crazy.
Clint: Are you fairly comfortable cooking whole hog? Or, more importantly, what was going through your mind when you realized that you’d be cooking and presenting a whole hog to two individuals, Myron Mixon and Melissa Cookston, who are known for their hog cooking abilities?
Rod: As the show goes, the meat(s) are revealed to the cooks at the beginning. However, once we’re instructed to be on set a day earlier than normal, asked to travel to Tryon, North Carolina, the home of a 25 year barbecue contest where whole hog is grandfathered in, and it’s the season finale, you have an inkling that you could be about to cook a whole hog . . . we all did. But, you add the pressure of $50K, and serving a whole to two of the best hog cooks on the planet, and I don’t care who you are, you’re seriously nervous, no two ways about it.
Clint: Was there any one thing that you did during that final showdown that you feel really gave you the edge you needed for the win and was the absence of a blind box much of a distraction?
Rod: We’ve cooked in a few MIM style events and in general, I’m comfortable in public speaking roles. So, the personal presentation didn’t bother me. Taking Melissa Cookston’s class and reading the whole hog chapter of Myron Mixon’s book were the two things that made the difference for us. We’d cooked a couple 50 lb pigs for contests before, but without that knowledge, cooking that 135 lb. hog would have seemed like an insurmountable challenge.
Clint: Now the finale was actually filmed several months ago and just recently aired. Have you spent all of the money or is it still burning a hole in your pocket?
Rod: We haven’t spent a dime of the money . . . . yet. So, I’d guess you’d say it’s burning a hole in our pockets.
Clint: So let’s back up a bit and talk about your personal interest in barbecue and grilling. Did your family cook out a lot when you were growing up?
Rod: My dad worked long hours during the summer. He liked to grill. One year for Christmas, my parents got all of the kids a new Weber kettle. Dad was so proud to give the gift of grilling to us all. While grilling was common, barbecue was completely foreign to me until I went to college, and that passion was developed many years later.
Clint: When and how did you get involved in competition barbecue?
Rod: I’ve told this story a bunch, but living in Kansas City, there is a barbecue competition just about every weekend somewhere close. In 2001, our brand spankin’ new NASCAR track opened and celebrated by hosting a barbecue contest on the infield. It was in July and so, so hot. I went, expecting to see teams withering and miserable in this heat and on new, black asphalt Instead, I found 200 teams partying and celebrating on Friday night with family and friends. I knew right then, I had to figure out how to be a part of it.
Clint: And it’s just you and your wife Sheri who compete as Pellet Envy, correct? How many contests do you all do during an average year?
Rod: For the longest time, we averaged about 35 events a year. Now, with some success on the circuit and being a full time competition cook with sponsorship and other commitments, we’re down to 25 – 30 events each year. It’s still full time barbecue, with a schedule that starts the end of January and goes until mid December, but it’s a mix of things now, including classes we teach all over the country.
Clint: Out of all of the contests since 2001, all of the GCs and all of the record-breaking perfect scores, is there one contest or win that you hold closest to your heart.
Rod: A couple of years ago, I would have told you there was one or two wins that were really special. As I get older, I’ve learned to appreciate every win. There are so many great memories from barbecue. If you made me pick just one, it would have to be the win in Arizona at the end of the 2009 season that sealed the deal, solidifying Pellet Envy as the national champions.
Clint: And you primarily cook KCBS sanctioned contests, correct? Any interest in doing a MBN style contest now that you’ve mastered whole hog on-site judging thanks to the BBQ Pitmasters finale?
Rod: Ha ha on that “mastered” comment. I’m always looking for new challenges. BBQ Pitmasters was definitely a challenge. We cooked MIM back in 2009 at the request of our major sponsor, Greased Lightning. It was a blast, but we were honestly a little lost in it all. I’d love to try my hand and cooking MNB events again if it fits in our schedule.
Clint: Do you get much time to barbecue and grill at home these days? Is there one special dish that you like to grill up when you have friends and family over, like “The Rod Gray Special” or something like that?
Rod: I’m a griller at heart, although my time is limited and I don’t get to grill as often as I’d like. Our family loves a perfectly grilled steak, and I don’t mind saying, I’m pretty damn good at it. Nothing beats a perfectly seasoned and grilled ribeye, cooked over charcoal fire.
Clint: Now with your hard fought victory on BBQ Pitmasters you’ve earned an invitation to the second annual Kingsford Invitational later this year during which you’ll go head-to- head against the winners of many of the year’s most prestigious contests. Do you have any particular expectations going in to the invitational? Have you spoken to any of last year’s teams or re-watched the television special to gain an edge going in?
Rod: Wow, you know me too well. I have the season one Kingsford Invitational on my DVR and have watched it since earning a spot into this year’s event. I don’t want to tip my hand here, but I may have spoken to at least one of last year’s competitors. We’re excited to be involved this year. It’s going to be an amazing event and we wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Clint: So aside from finishing out the competition season, is there anything else in the pipeline that you’d like to share with the Grilling.com community like your upcoming competition cooking classes?
Rod: Not only do we travel the country teaching these crazy, in depth competition barbecue classes, which by the way, are being sought out and attended by more and more folks that just want to cook competition quality barbecue in their backyards, but we’ve introduced our very own line of product rubs and sauces. They’re called EAT Barbecue and you can find out more at eatbarbecue.com
Congratulations again, Rod, and we’ll see you soon enough at the Kingsford Invitational!