Amateur backyard grilling teams compete in first Charlotte Smokeoff on Saturday

jdepriest@charlotteobserver.comApril 19, 2014 

A soaking rain and raw temperatures in the 40s didn’t faze amateur chefs grilling meat at the first Charlotte Smokeoff on Saturday.

They were doing their thing – and the weather didn’t matter.

About a dozen teams gathered at the Unknown Brewing Co. on South Mint Street, three blocks from Bank of America Stadium, for an informal cooking competition where no professionals were allowed.

Backyard chefs used secret recipes and techniques to grill pork, beef and chicken. Organizers said proceeds from the event would go to the Wounded Warrior Project and the Statesville-based Purple Heart Homes, two nonprofit organizations that benefit veterans.

The event opened to the public at noon and visitors could sample the tangy food after the judging ended at 4 p.m.

Among the four bands providing music was Outlaw 21, a Statesville group made up of veterans, including a double-amputee drummer.

Cooking teams showed up at 6 a.m. and fired their smokers under tents.

“They can cook anything they want,” said Unknown Brewing owner Brad Shell, 30. “The one rule is you have to be an amateur.”

Teams competed for People’s Choice and Judge’s Choice honors. The top prize was the Golden Rib Plate – rib bones spray-painted gold.

Although Shell couldn’t compete in the Smokeoff, he still wanted to take part for the fun of it.

An Atlanta native, he cooked a Georgia-style Brunswick stew in a 15-gallon cast iron pot that has been in his family since before the Civil War.

The recipe had also been in the family for generations, and Shell recalled his grandfather’s advice on how long to cook it.

“He said to keep going until it sticks to the wooden spoon,” Shell said. “Then you’d know it was done.”

For him, the Smokeoff was a chance to “stay with your roots and try new things.”

Matt Howard, 32, a landscape contractor from Kernersville, came to his first cooking competition with a smoker he made from an old filing cabinet.

Inside the smoke-filled tent he remembered his uncle, Joey Howard, calling him “a big grill man.”

“His advice was that the charcoal must be ready,” said Matt Howard. “You cannot rush it. Take your time.”

Also on his mind Saturday were the veterans in his family – two uncles and both grandfathers. One uncle served in Vietnam and a grandfather in World War II.

Howard was proud to be in Charlotte cooking meat and honoring veterans.

Originally, he’d planned a family outing to the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro for Saturday, but canceled the outing because of rain. His wife stayed home “and I got a free passport to get out of the house,” Howard said.

E.J. Schwartz, 44, and his friends Patty Verhey, 46, and her husband Matt Verhey, 47, all of Charlotte, were also cooking at their first competition.

Usually, they grill out for friends, but figured the Smokeoff was a good way to get the public’s reaction to their food.

“I do all the prep work and hand it over to them (team),” said Patty Verhey, who works in software support and training.

Their big dream: “Having a food truck someday,” she said.

Constantine Kogan, 29, of Hickory kept tabs on grilling pulled pork, ribs and cupcake chicken with his team members Drew Amitrano, 41, and Jennifer Micucci, 29, both of Huntersville.

The owner of Cosmo Motors in Hickory, Kogan started cooking at age 5 in his mother’s kitchen in Syracuse, N.Y.

Amitrano, who works at Kogan’s dealership, also cooks and has come up with a recipe for what he calls “Big Dog Sauce,” which he hopes to market in stores. He’d like to start competing at other cooking events.

“It would be pretty cool to be on TV,” Amitrano said. “Maybe one day we’ll do it.”

As the rain fell on Saturday, Shell knew it would probably hurt overall turnout and proceeds to the veteran groups, but said “even if it’s a little bit we’ve done our job.”

DePriest: 704-868-7745

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