Moving on to the KC International competition
By MARY ANN O'TOOLE HOLLEY
Danny Vohs, a 20-year member of the Sprinkler Fitters Local 268, has long been instrumental in helping to put out fires. But that’s his day job. In his off-hours, he perfected the flames of his barbecue smoker and moved to the top of the top tier of grilling competitions.
On Oct. 9, Vohs won Reserve Grand Champion at the Rock Road BBQ Battle, taking home a $2,000 prize with the title and other winnings in $200 to $500 increments. Vohs and his partner took first in pork, fifth in ribs, 10th in brisket and 13th in chicken, making them overall Reserve Grand Champions or second place winners overall.
Vohs is a pitmaster, a man with the ability to select, prepare and serve the best of the best, competing against 30 other pitmasters in the recent competition.
“I have always loved to grill, but taking it a step up came somewhat by accident when a buddy who had competed in the national pitmasters’ competition asked me to join his team,” Vohs said. “He came to me one time and asked me to try out the contests. I barbecued with him for about a year, and he recommended I start my own team.”
Now Vohs and his friend, Nathan Harrison, are their own team. They have competed in five contests this year and won prizes regularly.
“We’ve proven to be a pretty good pair,” Vohs said. “We’re both on the same page about how we cook our meats.”
Being a prize-winning pitmaster isn’t about the barbecue sauce, Vohs says, it starts with selecting the right cuts of meat. Vohs and Harrison drive 100 miles round-trip to Korte Meat in Highland, Ill. to purchase their delicacies.
“They take care of the competition guys,” Vohs said. “They’ll let you come out and look at the meat, because there are certain things we look for. With ribs, you want straight bones. Chicken is chicken. With pork butts, we buy the ‘money piece,’ the meaty best part of the pork.”
Their attention to the intricate details of meat has filled the bill. For instance, the thickness and grain of a cut of brisket will affect its taste. Vohs says you always want a thick flat cut of brisket with the grain of the muscle running straight. Brisket is a tougher meet, he says, and a straight grain allows you to slice it evenly.
Vohs says he used to smoke his meats for hours on end, a bit like your grandma, who used to boast of ‘putting that turkey in the oven last night.”
“I’ve gravitated toward a ‘hot and fast’ approach. It will taste like it’s been cooking 14 hours, but it may take me four hours,” Vohs said. “We found you can get the same, if not better, flavors and you’re not up all night.”
That explains their team name: “Comin’ in Hot.”
Despite its billing as a barbecue competition, Vohs says he and Harrison use very little barbecue sauce. He has a secret recipe that involves mixing a variety of store-bought sauces.
“We want the taste of the meat, with a slight accent of sauce,” Vohs said. “Judges don’t want to see a puddle of sauce with meat in it.”
Judges rate meat based on appearance, taste, tenderness and presentation, he says.
“With brisket, they’ll do the finger test, where they hold a strip of brisket and it must naturally bend over the finger. When they pull it apart, it can’t fall apart. With ribs, everyone loves fall-off-the-bone ribs, but for judges, they want to take the rib bone, bite into the meat and pull it away. It’s the same with chicken.”
MOTIVATED GUY WITH A GRILL
Vohs says his culinary capabilities are generally self-taught, but he did take a barbecue class hosted by the winner of the Kansas City Royal competition.
“These were serious barbecuers,” Vohs said. “I studied it, but at my first competition, I bought a brisket and had no idea how to cook it.”
One trick he uses today is the reverse sear, where he smokes the meat until it reaches a certain internal temperature, puts it on the grill and then sears it to lock in the smoky flavor.
“What keeps me going is winning in the brackets,” Vohs said. “The prize money is a bonus, but I want those wins and I want that Grand Championship.”
The barbecue competition circuit isn’t just about barbecue, it’s also about the friendships and the camraderie.
“You get to the competitions and you get together for a night or two of hanging out, and it’s one big family. It’s a great time. You have potlucks with some pretty great food, and the night before the competition is like a family reunion,” Vohs said. “Once the competition begins, it’s a different story.”
MOVING UP TO THE BIG TIME
This was Vohs’ first time for taking first place in the pork category, after a string of second place finishes.
Vohs and Harrison are members of the St. Louis Barbecue Society. The Society’s competitions are finished for the season, but with the recent win, “Comin’ in Hot’ was invited to participate in the Kansas City Barbecue Society World Invitational Nov. 13-14 at the Prairie Band Casino & Resorts in Mayetta, Kansas.