Playing with Fire

- by

Local pitmasters dish on champion barbecue and their passion for the perfect bite

Savannah dentist Mike Groover has always liked cooking on his Big Green Egg. When he volunteered to man the grills at his children’s school fundraiser one afternoon, he never imagined it would spark an infatuation that would take his cooking to a whole new level. 

But there’s something magical about that combination of smoke, meat and fire, and soon Groover and a few friends ­— Nick Grayson, Patrick O’Neil and Ryan Sewell — were shopping for a Lang stick burner, a 1,500-pound metal smoker commonly found on the barbecue circuit. In a blink, the Downtime Crew was born.       

Downtime Crew. Photo by Parker Stewart

It’s a familiar story for local architect Frank Neagle and his Yes, Dear barbecue teammates, Scott Swenson and Chad Warner. These three college friends also started competing with no formal cooking experience, and their first win at an early competition kindled what they now refer to affectionately as the “barbecue curse.”  

“We had no idea what we were doing, but we practiced and after one win, we were hooked,” says Warner. “Ten years later, we still joke about how we knew that trophy was gonna cost us.”  

Yes, Dear. Photo by Parker Stewart

Since then, the world of barbecue has changed quite a bit. Yes, Dear is now a regular contender on the professional circuit, and competitive barbecue’s popularity has skyrocketed nationwide. (There are over 180 teams registered by the Georgia Barbecue Association.) Venues can vary from parking lots to prominent festivals, with serious competitors looking for events judged by the Kansas City Barbecue Society. Today competitions can garner celebrity participants, national television coverage and prize money in the five- and six-digit range. 

Still, Downtime Crew and Yes, Dear both agree:  It’s not the prizes, but that perfect recipe of contest and camaraderie that keeps them coming back for more. From Friday set-up to the all sacred “turn-in time,” it’s a 24-hour delicate dance of preparation, cook time and art that for many teams quickly becomes much more than a hobby. 

Photo by Parker Stewart

“Afterwards, everyone’s socializing and having a great time,” says Neagle. “But you only get one bite to impress the judges, and first you have to do whatever you can to make it count.” 

For Yes, Dear, that includes equipment upgrades. Like many teams, their first competitions were cooked using a “UDS” or Ugly Drum smoker, a crude grill fashioned out of 55-gallon oil drum. After purchasing a 16-foot cargo trailer and Lang stick burner, the team used their design backgrounds to do a full customization. The result included a full kitchen prep area, bunk beds and a roll-out function for the smoker, which was roughly the size of a couch. 

Photo by Parker Stewart

But like any good architect will tell you, design can always be improved. Yes, Dear eventually went bigger, settling on a 26-foot trailer with a precision gravity-fed charcoal grill and full bathroom and shower facilities.

It’s quite a step up for a group of guys who got their name from wedding gag gifts. “Those first competitions, we wore the only shirts we had that matched,” says Swenson.  “These old beat-up t-shirts that read ‘Yes, Dear’ left over from our bachelor parties.”  

Photo by Parker Stewart

Still, even for the most experienced pitmasters, the road to perfect barbecue is never-ending. The definition of what constitutes good barbecue is itself cause for argument. 

Tastes can vary from state to state. In the U.S., Carolinians barbecue pork and Texans barbecue beef — vinegar-based sauces were, and still are, the norm in the Carolinas and Georgia, but head west, and sweeter tomato-based sauces prevail.

Photo by Parker Stewart

The type of smoke is also important. Most teams use a combination of cherry, hickory, apple and pecan wood, with cooking temperatures remaining low and slow across the board. 

“You want to look for strands of marbling in the meat,” says Downtime Crew’s Groover. “Good barbecue is cooked by thermometer and ‘feel’ — not time.”  

Photo by Parker Stewart

Some crews swear by layering their seasonings. Other have homemade sauces, injections or marinades. Through trial and error, Yes, Dear has perfected and professionally bottled three sauces of their own. They were still testing out their most popular flavor, Competition Sauce, when it helped them win the 2017 Georgia Barbecue Championship. All three sauces are now available locally at the Wilmington Island Ace Hardware.

The barbecue trend is hot — and it shows no signs of cooling down. And why should it? At the end of the day, your plate’s always full, your stomach’s happy and that elusive perfect bite is just one more competition away.