For Benson’s Kevin Peterson, barbecuing became more than just a way to celebrate the good times in life with family and friends.
Nope, he’s taken it to a completely different level thanks to inspiration from his wife, inspiration that earned him state champ, a title he didn’t earn over night, but somewhere pretty close.
It all began at last year’s North Carolina State University Wolfpack Barbecue where he began his quick rise to culinary notoriety.
“It was my first one, my wife talked me into doing it,” he said laughing. “We go up there cooking on a little 5 foot in-line grill and an 8 by 10 tent. We took sixth place and won two taster’s choice awards.”
The contest was also where Mr. Peterson met Chris Fineran, someone he has long respected as a top barbecue competitor and the owner of a restaurant in Cherry Grove, S.C.
After the two men got acquainted, the flame was lit — pun intended — for Mr. Peterson to become a competitive barbecue chef.
They traveled to several events together, with Mr. Peterson working his way up the ladder, while learning how to better his product each week.
Last year’s travels took him to several places, each spot getting him a just little higher in the finishing order.
“He came down and got talking to me, then when we left there we cooked Kinston,” Mr. Peterson said. “I don’t know how many grills were there, but I think we were 20th. Then we cooked the General William C. Lee in Dunn and I think we were fifth there.”
His highest finish came a little bit later when he took home a second-place finish in a competition in Jacksonville, N.C.
“That was the last one we cooked for the year, then we started back up this year,” he said. “We cooked every event that was on the list that wasn’t a duplicate on the weekend. We cooked every event but one.”
His record of accomplishments improved dramatically as the second year of his run began. He claimed a top finish in Elizabethtown, tied for third in Lake Gaston and took third place outright at the Barbecue for Paws at Snow Hill.
Then came the big jump. The following week the “Showtime’s Legit Barbecue” captured state championships at the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival in Raleigh in the Culinary and Blind Taste categories and tied for first in the Crispy Skin competition.
“We cooked the state’s last year, but we’d only been doing it a few months and we didn’t know what we were doing,” he said.
He quickly made up for what he didn’t know by turning to Chris Fineran — who was named the 2016 Pitmaster of The Year by the North Carolina Pork Council — for some lessons on how to be a success. Whatever it was he was taught, he was a great student.
“We wound up exchanging numbers and I would go cook with him,” Mr. Peterson said. “He taught me the tricks of how to do it and what the judges wanted.”
The work didn’t stop there. He and his wife, Dana, worked on finding the correct sauce, something that goes along now with his spare time.
Just for the record, the sauce they created did win an eighth-place finish at the same state contest.
“The wife, she’s heard me talk about barbecue 24-7, from week to week to week,” he said. “We both have full-time jobs. We would go and cook as much as we could, learn from week to week what we were doing wrong. Take pictures, take notes and mess with the temperature on cooking times. It worked out for us winning the state championship.”
Mr. Peterson quantifies his cooking prowess when asked if what he cooks is good to not just the judges, but the patrons who show up at the contests.
“We won the blind taste,” he said. “So, that was a good thing there too.”
For anyone who might not be familiar with the way contests sanctioned by the North Carolina Pork Council Whole Hog Series are conducted, there’s multiple-member judges panels for each category — at the state Mr. Peterson said there were four such judges scrutinizing competitors’ products.
“Winning the state championship for the Whole Hog Series is big deal,” he said. “That’s kind of a big deal with the pork council.”
There’s an old adage that behind every good man there’s a woman and that’s true in Mr. Peterson’s case. But in competitive barbecue there’s another part you could ad to that adage — in front of every chef there’s a good grill.
Mr. Peterson’s first pig cooker came as a gift from his family for Christmas. He still has that sitting in his backyard. There’s also the large cooker he now totes on a trailer behind his truck to each event.
It now features a double-burner grill that is double-grated with stainless steel grates, an attached sink and all the space he needs for plying the avocation.
His competition set-up includes a 10-by-20 canopy that houses the grill he uses for competition and a side grill he uses for personal use during weekend events.
“When we go cook I’ll spend four or five hours when I get home cooking and washing utensils,” he said. “We’ve got a sink onboard, so it’s self-contained.”
During the course of a weekend, Mr. Peterson and crew will set up and then spend roughly the next nine hours cooking the hog that is provided by the contest sponsors.
“We get the pig and most of the time spend about an hour doing prep work getting ready to go onto the grill,” he said. “Then it’s all up to the pig on how you do. All the knowledge you put into it you’ve still got to have a good pig to have a good product at the end.”
When you ask him how he got started cooking in the first place, it once again goes back to his family roots.
He says it’s something they’ve always done. “My family’s always cooked pigs for family reunions,” he said. “And I’ve just always loved pork.”
With that in mind, Mrs. Peterson, being a North Carolina State graduate, encouraged him to enter the first contest before he even received the first pig cooker. When he did get the cooker, it was full speed ahead.
“Last year when I got the pig cooker I wound up doing that and just got hooked on it,” he said. “It went from there and I told her, ‘You created a monster.’ ”
Mr. Peterson plans to continue his championship avocation and see where it will take him. He’s not sure if it will be just a hobby or if it will grow.
“We do a little catering here and there,” he said. “But, we’ve got bragging rights with the guys. And what’s a better time than sitting around cooking a pig, talking and have a good time. It’s a fun deal.” Story courtesy The Daily Record