News Staff Writer
LAKE PLACID – Smoke swirled in a gust of wind and cleared from the back of Scottie Johnson’s RV — a small, yet functional cook shack and barbecue prep room on wheels.
He opened the door of a “Fast Eddy, FE-100” smoker and pulled out two foil containers, each holding a dozen chicken thighs that had been slow-cooking for more than four hours. A blast of heat filled the small space with aromas of apple wood and hickory.
“This is when your adrenaline really gets pumping,” Johnson said, clapping plastic glove covered hands together. “This is what it all comes down to … what we’ve been waiting for all weekend.”
The RV was parked inside the Olympic Speed Skating Oval, which was engulfed in the sweet smell of barbecue on Sunday, July 3, as nearly 30 teams competed for first place in the Kansas City Barbecue Society’s (KCBS) sanctioned completion.
“Gimme some space here,” Johnson yelled, gripping the pans of chicken. “This stuff is as hot as molten lava.”
His “sous-chef,” and sister, Lizanne, took a step back as her brother gently laid the steaming, mahogany colored chicken down on a clean white table. Johnson’s two daughters Zoe, 12 and Lexi, 8, buzzed around the RV, checking in on the action every so often.
A digital clock on the prep table read: 11:56 a.m.
“All right, four minutes, four minutes to go,” Johnson said, “are we looking good?”
Lizanne nodded, picked up a pair of scissors and began snipping off any imperfections on the chicken as Johnson stood by with a spray water bottle, carefully hitting each piece of chicken with a fine mist to help “give them a nice shine.”
“A huge part of this is the appearance,” Johnson said. “My philosophy is that if a judge takes a look and just can’t wait to take a bite … it’s really going to effect the outcome.”
Bottles and jugs of sauce were scattered around the converted RV next to spice rubs, containers of apple juice and plenty of paper towels. The small kitchen — separated from the main cabin of the RV by a thick metal door — had everything the team needed to produce quality, competition-style barbecue.
As the clock hit 11:58 a.m., Johnson placed six of the finest looking chicken thighs inside a Styrofoam container on a heaping bed of lettuce.
“I think we’re looking pretty good here,” he said. “I’ve done my part, now it’s just up to the judges.”
After a final look, he closed the box, kissed it three times and handed it to Lizanne who took off running out of the back of the RV toward the Lake Placid High School, where official KCBS judges waited.
With ribs, pork shoulder and beef brisket still to be turned in, the competition had only just begun, but aside from the gentle twang of a band playing in the background, the Oval was quiet.
“This kind of thing really isn’t all that glamorous,” Johnson said. “During the competition teams are all holed up behind closed doors and curtains, making sure everything is perfect. No one wants to share their secrets.”
Cooking for a cause
Two days earlier there was a little more activity. The Oval swarmed with people during the Midnight Grilling Bash on Friday evening that was set to the tune of C.J. Chenier and the Louisiana Red Hot Louisiana Band.
After taking a look in the smoker at a few racks of sizzling ribs, Johnson sat down outside of the RV just in front of his teams logo. Painted in large bubble letters it read: World Champion Cancer Sucks! BBQ Team.
“My wife, Corliss, passed away in 2003, from complications from cancer,” Johnson said, “...and I started a foundation in her name.”
According to Johnson, the Corliss Johnson Memorial Foundation seeks to increase awareness and raise funds in support of research, treatment and the elimination of cancer while providing support to organizations committed to enhancing the quality of life for those affected by cancer.
And a good way for Johnson to raise money — as winner of the prestigious Jack Daniel’s Invitational Barbecue Competition in 2006 — is to compete in barbecue competitions.
“If we can just help one person it’s all worth it,” Johnson said. “What’s amazing is that this non-profit has lasted so long ... it’s a real stepping stone to have a foundation that lasts.”
Johnson is a fierce competitor, focused entirely on winning, but he doesn’t do it all for the glory. To date the foundation has raised more than $150,000 and has initiated a fellowship at Northwestern University.
“We also have a lot of friends in the barbecue world who will give 5, 10, 20 percent of their winnings to the foundation,” Johnson said. “It’s pretty humbling — these guys are willing to give up something they’ve worked so hard toward.”
Most of all, Johnson said it’s a great way for his daughters to remember their mother.
“I think it helps them think about what she stood for, and how strong she was,” Johnson said. “I’m hoping that one day they’ll take over. Not so much the barbecuing, but the efforts of foundation.”
Johnson took a deep breath and sat down on a tall bar stool next to the RV. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead glistening against a tuft of blond hair in the style of a Mohawk.
“I think he looks pretty silly,” said his daughter Zoe, in passing. “But he’s my dad, so what can I do.”
Scottie said he would likely loose the Mohawk after the barbecue vacation when he heads back to his day job — managing the litigation department of a major law firm in Chicago, his home town.
“I don’t think the big guys at the law firm would appreciate the hairdo too much,” Johnson said. “But it’s kinda fun for the competition.”
The Cancer Sucks! Chicago team won first place overall for the Midnight Grilling Bash and came away with third place in the KCBS competition. Johnson said one of his strategies for the competition was to create a flavor that appealed to everyone.
“You need to give the pepper-heads a little heat, have a nice sweet flavor, with plenty of smokiness,” he said. “The idea is to give them a taste that will take them all over the rainbow.”
Scottie Johnson prepares a slab of ribs during the popular Buck a Rib event at the Lake Placid I Love BBQ Festival.
Photo/Richard Rosentreter/Lake Placid News