LAKE PLACID - "Oh no, what did I get myself into?"
That's what I was thinking as Mark Kenney started to drag packages of raw meat out of his trailer and do things to it.
I'm a recovering vegetarian. I largely avoided meat for about 15 years of my life. I'm just getting back into eating it over the last year or so, and I can't cook it. If I cook it, I think too much about the fact that a slab of meat is actually a part of a dead animal, and then I can't eat it.
I Love BBQ Festival competitor Mark Kenney slices some meat during the event.
So, it was a weird decision when I agreed to watch a dude cook meat all day as he competed in Lake Placid's annual I Love BBQ and Music Festival.
Kenney was competing on the Fourth of July the first day of the three-day-long ILBBQF in the High Peaks Ford Grilling Bash, one of several barbecue competitions held throughout the festival. For that competition, he had an afternoon to cook a NY strip steak, chicken, pizza and a "fatty," which could be a wide range of things but is basically sausage without any casing, usually stuffed.
When I arrived around 1:30 p.m., he was setting up his tent and his three grills: one charcoal and two pellet smokers. I noticed that the tent and camping chair still had tags on them, and he explained to me that he comes from southern Herkimer County, where he had been dealing with severe flooding all week. He had lost some of his gear in the floods, so he had to pick up some things on the way.
He works for his county's highway department during the day and is a firefighter at night, so he said he would fix the roads during the day and have to shut them down at night due to flooding.
A former military man, Kenney wore a black apron that said "Grill Sergeant" on it, with a cut-off black T-shirt under that, denim shorts and work boots with gray socks sticking out the top. He stood at least 6 feet tall and had to bend slightly as he stood under the new tent.
Kenney calls his barbecue team NY Phat Daddy, and he competes in two or three barbecue competitions a year. He usually has at least his daughter BBQing with him, but she had to work that weekend, so he was alone. His daughter spends her birthday each year with him at a barbecue competition, even though her friends try to get her to stay home so they can throw her a party, and he said this year for her 21st won't be any different.
As Kenney was setting up, Leslie and Don Lovely, two Kansas City Barbecue Society representatives from Plymouth, Mass., came around and checked his equipment. They made sure he had all the necessary sanitary supplies and that his ingredients were raw.
Then he pulled out the meat. He started with two packages of chicken breasts and one of chicken legs. He pulled out the breasts and started slicing off the fat at the edges of the jiggling flesh.
"Pork fat's good," Kenney said. "Chicken fat? Not good."
He trimmed the breasts so each was about the same size, placing them one next to the other so that he could compare each. As he talks about the bone getting in the way of making the breasts the perfect size, I try to distance myself from the piece of meat.
Once each was trimmed sufficiently, Kenney stabbed each piece repeatedly with a large serving fork. That lets the sauce really seep into to meat, he said. Then he placed each piece in a gallon-sized plastic bag and dumped in a healthy dose of his sauce.
He keeps the sauce in a jar in his cooler until he's ready for it. It's a mixture of vinegar, ranch dressing and a few secret ingredients. The recipe has evolved over the years.
"We weren't doing good at the beginning," Kenney said.
Kenney got started competing in barbecue competitions when a neighbor who enjoyed cooking like he did mentioned the idea to him one night. He had heard of the Lake Placid festival, in its early days in 2005, and they came up to check it out.
"The first one, we didn't compete," Kenney said. "We just came to look."
Later that year, they tried competing for the first time in New Paltz in the Hudson Valley Ribfest, "and I've been hooked on it ever since," he said.
His neighbor eventually stopped competing. He didn't like the competition, and he always thought his own food was the best, Kenney said. But Kenney hung in there, and he's made changes to his methods over the years until he has started winning.
"I've just been changing and changing and changing," Kenney said.
Last year, he took first place in the grilled chicken category, and he's taken that title at a few other competitions as well. He took second place with his steak last year in Lake Placid.
"It's all about flavoring the meat, but you don't want to take the flavor of the meat away," Kenney said. The secret is complementing it in a way that enhances the natural flavor.
He put the chicken away to marinate, then pulled out two packages of strip steaks. He rubbed each with salt, pepper and other seasonings, then stabbed those to work the seasoning in, tenderize the meat and allow the sauce to seep in. This sauce is a mix of soy sauce, honey, olive oil, wine vinegar, pepper and garlic, among other things. He pours the sauce into plastic bags with the steaks in them, and puts them away to marinate.
After letting those sit for about an hour-and-a-half, Kenney headed up the hill to the high school, where the Lovelys explained the rules of the competition to the about seven or eight teams competing. Each category of food has regulations for garnishes. For the steak, the only garnish allowed is green leaf lettuce or flat and curly parsley. In the chicken category, there can be any range of garnishes, but they can't be stuffed or wrapped into the chicken, and they have to be edible. The fatty category is wide open, and with the pizza, there is no garnish allowed, only toppings on the pizza.
They gave each team a marked serving dish for each meal, and the teams headed out to get started.
Kenney took his chicken pieces out of the bags and placed them in an aluminum serving tray. He put them in the smoker and left them for about two hours. About half-way through, he put more sauce on them, then let them cook more.
At 6 p.m., about a half-hour before he has to hand in his steak, he pulled the steak out of the bags and put each on the grill. He cooked then for about three minutes on each side, trying to get nice, clear sear marks on each side.
"You want to make it look pretty," he said.
Then he took the steak and started slicing it up. For the competition, he needed to provide enough food for six judges to have a taste, but he cooked much more than was necessary for that. He likes to give the judges plenty of extras, plus he gets hungry.
"I like to eat, too, so you'll notice I cook a little more of everything," Kenney said.
He also noted that presentation is a big part of the competition, so he could enter the two best-looking steaks.
He sliced them up and placed them on an arrangement of lettuce in the white Styrofoam tray he was given by the judged. Then he brought the steak up the hill to the judges, where the Lovelys are arranged with a table blocking competitors from coming in. They take the entry, and the cooks head back down to their tents.
Then Kenney did the same thing with his chicken. He arranged a bed of lettuce in a similar Styrofoam tray, put slices of chicken along the bottom, and arranges six breasts of chicken along the top, then turns that dish in.
The six judges inside the school taste each dish and score each, but the way the food is scored is supposed to be secret, they explained.
Once he turned in the best steak and chicken, the rest was for us to eat. He sliced up one of the extra steaks and told me to try a piece. I've probably only had one piece of a friend's steak since I started eating meat again, so I was apprehensive, but I figured it was part of the story so I had to try it. I took a piece and bit in.
It was beyond delicious. It was juicy and tender, and the seemed to do exactly what Kenney was aiming for: enhancing and complementing the natural flavor of the steak rather than covering it up.
I ate piece after piece, and I was too full by the time the other dishes were done to eat anything more than a bit of the chicken.
In the end, Kenney took second place with his bacon-wrapped fatties and third place in the pizza competition. Somehow, he didn't place with either his steak or his chicken, but his recipes sure won in my book.
Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or jcollier@adirondackdaily