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Kings of Q: Second annual cook-off and festival brings barbecue lovers to Ayden

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Scott Young and Jason Butler of Country Road Smokehouse Barbecue during the "Kings of Q" BBQ cookoff and Festival in Ayden on May 21, 2016. (Joe Pellegrino/The Daily Reflector)


Kim Grizzard

Friday, May 19, 2017

If you grill it, they will come.

That’s what folks in Ayden discovered last year with the launch of the Kings of Q BBQ Cook-off and Festival. Despite rain, 30 cooking teams and about 8,000 barbecue lovers found their way to this town of 5,000 people for the inaugural competition.

This year’s contest, which kicks off today in downtown Ayden, is expected to draw 36 teams from three states to compete in four categories: pork shoulder, pork ribs, beef brisket and chicken.

Teams with names like Rubbin-N-Grubbin, Rusty’s Flying Pig BBQ and The Smokehouse Mafia will compete for their share of a $10,000 prize purse in the Kansas City Barbeque Society-sanctioned event.

“You’ll see anything from a guy with a tailgate pop-up tent and a grill underneath it to an RV with a pull-behind trailer,” event organizer Stephen E. Smith said. “Most of them are caterers or have a restaurant, but then you’ve got teams like our local team. Some of them do it just for a hobby.”

There will be a chance for people to watch cooking teams in action from 4-10 p.m. today or 8-11 a.m. on Saturday when the festival’s “BBQ Village” will be open for self-guided tours.

“These guys welcome you in,” Smith said. “They like talking about what they’re doing. They like talking about their equipment. If they’ve got a restaurant, of course, they like talking about that.”

The tour includes local teams like Ayden’s own Holy Smoke BBQ-NC, along with last year’s cookoff reserve champion, Old Virginia Smoke, which is ranked eighth in KCBS standings.

What the tours do not include are tastes of competition food. According to KCBS rules and state health regulations, official competition food cannot be sold.

“Unfortunately, it stinks sometimes when you come to a barbecue festival that you can’t eat the barbecue that you’re smelling and seeing,” said Jerry Stephenson of Redneck Scientific, grand champion of last year’s Kings of Q Cookoff.

The good news is that as winner of last year’s event, Redneck Scientific has been invited to join local favorites Bum’s Barbecue and Skylight Inn as a vendor for this year’s festival.

“The food that we will be vending will be competition-style barbecue,” Stephenson said. “We’re cooking it the same way. We’re just not putting it in the box where it looks like it’s picture perfect. But it’s coming off the same smokers; we’re using the same charcoal, the same rubs and my competition sauce.”

The other chance to try out the cooking teams’ talents will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Ayden Christian Church, 462 Second St.,where barbecue fans can be a part of the People’s Choice voting. For this optional part of the festival, teams prepare pork provided by the church, which sells $10 worth of samples to allow festival goers to taste and then vote for their favorites.

Stephenson, an East Carolina University graduate, said his sauce includes the vinegar that eastern North Carolina barbecue is known for, but that is not its signature ingredient. He also substitutes cayenne pepper for black pepper and serves the barbecue in chunks, rather than finely chopped meat.

“It’s different; I can just tell you that,” he said. “It’s a different sauce, not what we grew up on here in eastern North Carolina.”

Whatever the ingredients are, it seems to be a recipe for success. Stephenson and his cooking team — which includes his sister, Roxeanne Manley and her husband, Sean, along with Stephenson’s wife, Liz, and daughters, Elle and Fiona — has won 18 grand championships and five reserve championships in the last five years. Last year, the team finished fourth in the nation in KCBS competition. Earlier this year, Stephenson opened a barbecue restaurant, The Redneck BBQ Lab, in his native Johnston County.

Returning competitor Rich Green also is a restaurant owner. He and his wife, Kim, operate Little Creek Bar-B-Cue Co. in Bangor, Pa., where Rich also is an iron worker.

Cooking competitors since 2005, the couple placed first in ribs at last year’s Kings of Q. The two will travel nine hours to Ayden, where they will spend their wedding anniversary weekend at the competition.

Rich Green said it’s worth the drive just to eat the kind of barbecue that has put Ayden on the culinary map. He and his wife took a detour to Pitt County two years ago while traveling to Florida for vacation. They wanted to have lunch at the Skylight Inn, a restaurant they had seen on television.

“I sort of fell in love with that place,” Rich said. “... I could probably eat there every day. As a matter of fact, I’m going to eat there Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night, probably Sunday morning when we leave. It was the Skylight Inn that got us basically down into that town.”

Cookoff competitor Billy Merrill of Ayden has had a chance to compete on television’s “BBQ Pitmasters” alongside Sam Jones, whose father, Pete, started the Skylight Inn. Merrill feels some pressure that comes from being a hometown competitor at this weekend’s festival.

“Some people in town know that I cook competitively,” he said. “It’s not something that I publicize.”

Merrill, who started cooking competitively in 2012, was part of the grand championship team in his first cooking contest. His Holy Smoke BBQ-NC team placed fifth in ribs and 14th overall at last year’s Kings of Q.

A surveyor for the City of Greenville and also a certified barbecue judge, Merrill said competitions are mostly for fun.

“The barbecue community is a family,” he said. “I go up there and cheer on my competitors.”

He is proud that a competition in his hometown could generate interest from three dozen teams when similar, more established contests are being held the same weekend in neighboring states.

“A lot of teams right now are cooking almost every weekend,” he said. “How do you get those teams to come here to Ayden?”

For Stephenson, whose Redneck Scientific team has placed in the top 10 in various cooking categories more than 300 times, there’s nowhere else he’d rather be.

“I know the town of Ayden,” he said. “We used to go up there and eat at Pete Jones’ barbecue all the time and Bum’s Restaurant.

“I think the thing about Ayden (is) it’s a lot of North Carolina there, the history of barbecue,” he said. “I feel like we’re blessed to be a part of this. I’m starting to look forward to it each and every year on my calendar.”


The second annual Kings of Q Cook-Off and Festival begins at 4 p.m. today and 8 a.m. Saturday with rides, vendors and crafts along West Avenue and Second Street. Featured performers include Juniper Jones, today, and Kasey Tyndall, Saturday, 7-11 p.m. on West Avenue Stage. The Kings of Q awards ceremony will be held at 5 p.m. Saturday. For more information, visit aydenbbq.org.