Welcome to Smoke Rings, a series about the Valley of the Sun's barbecue scene. The goal of this series is to pin down a "Phoenix-style" barbecue if there is one. Regardless of whether we have a style, a barbecue boom has taken the Valley this decade. Here, we outline the 'cue scene in ash and sauce and gnawed ribs. So bring your appetite, curiosity, and open mind as we chomp our way to answers.
“That’s what you get with that wagyu beef that has all that marbling in there and all that natural fat,” says the man in the front of the room, rocking a baseball hat and pointy bright red beard, to his audience of 32 students. “Start with quality meat in the beginning, and you know ... but like I’ve told people, I’ve messed up a $300 brisket as easy as I have a $50 one.”
That man is Sterling Smith, local sultan of smoke. “Smitty” hasn’t messed up many briskets this decade. His smoked meat has won accolades from the country’s biggest barbecue competitions. He enters 12 to 15 competitions a year, sells his own sauces and rubs, and represents barbecue products.
What he doesn't do is run a restaurant. Smith doesn't want one. The man is more than happy with his current barbecue hustle.
Smith strains his voice so his words can be heard clearly. His 32 amateur barbecuers have paid $99 each for his professional advice. They are snapped to attention, ready to sponge up wisdom on the day's next smoked meat. Behind Smith, outside on the sunbaked pavement, four smokers puff away. His words carry: to his seated class … to shelved aisles stacked with tongs and wood chips … to metallic grills and matte smokers … and to the lusterless orange corners of his temporary classroom, a BBQ Island store in north Scottsdale.
The beef on the cutting board before Smith is tri-tip. Wagyu tri-tip.
Wagyu beef comes from a prized Japanese cattle breed. It's known for its next-level intramuscular fat, the kind of fat that transmutes into flavor during cooking. Today, Smith's three wagyu tri-tips are from Snake River Farms in Idaho. They are long and round, vaguely burrito-shaped, glistening with meat juice, mahogany from the pecan smoke, and black in places where seared in the end to create crust.
“While those were resting, all this au jus just came out,” he says to his class. “We added butter to it as well. I like to take all that" — he grabs a silky slip of the tri-tip he has just sliced, mimes dipping it into the meat juices pooled in an aluminum tin — “all these pieces, all that au jus, suck up all that love, you know?”
Smith continues talking and slicing.
He invites his class to come up and try some wagyu. Thin folds of smoked meat sprawl in the tin, immersed in wagyu au jus and melted butter. “Tri-tip is an under-served cut of meat, but I love it,” Smith says, as his class crowds in, closer to the tin and paper plates. “When cooked properly, this will beat a steak any day.”
He's right. A study in flavor layering and radical softness, the smoked tri-tip would give the best meat in any Phoenix barbecue dish a hard run.
This is the third meat Sterling has shared with his class. He started with pork steak and lamb lollipops. Fourth and finally: racks of ribs, still in the smoker. Smith fired his smokers at 10 a.m., when class began. Meats went right in, and all but ribs were ready by 1 p.m. Smith had to cook high and fast to get the meat ready within his class's four-hour window. Most people smoke meat slow and low. But no biggie. High and fast is how Smith rolls as a barbecue cook.
Smith’s barbecue style is hybrid, consisting of many influences and tricks grafted together. His style has southern origins. He was born in Memphis, and raised in Mississippi, Florida, and Georgia.
After serving in the Navy and later moving to Arizona, Smith began a career as a banker. He worked for big-name banks. He worked for small-name banks. One of these banks was based in Kansas City. Every year in KC, this smaller bank threw an employee barbecue. The company event was held on the grounds used for the American Royal World Series of Barbecue, a holy grail of the competition circuit.
As smoke rose, meat dripped, and beer flowed, Smith became “infatuated” with barbecue.
“When I got home, I bought a $40 smoker from Home Depot, a bag of mesquite, some lighter fluid, and a pork butt on the way home,” he says. “It was the worst piece of meat I ever cooked in my life."
Smith learned from there. He started doing competitions. He qualified for the American Royal in 2014. On the same patch of earth as the company barbecue event held seven years earlier, in a field of 500-plus teams, his team, Loot N Booty BBQ, took second overall.
Today, Smith sells three rubs and three sauces under the Loot N Booty brand. His Gold Star Chicken Rub won, interestingly, best seafood rub at March’s National Barbecue and Grilling Association conference in Fort Worth, Texas. Smith makes a Kansas City-style competition sauce, a Southwestern-inflected sauce with sweetness and heat, and a rust-red honey mustard sauce.
He uses a different barbecue style when cooking in competition versus cooking at home. Home is more fun and whimsical, more a rogue product of southern roots, competition, and Arizona.
“We’re cooking to judges who expect a certain thing,” he says of the style he uses in competitions. “So if you’re cooking to somebody who expects something, you’re going to give them that." He says what judges seek is more of a Kansas City-style, everything sauced.
Outside of competitions, his other style emerges. “I guess that would be my style,” he says, “taking a traditional Kansas City style and incorporating Arizona into it with some of those bold Latin Southwestern flavors. But style-wise? I’m a pirate, man. Pirate style. I do what I want.”
Not having a restaurant lets Smith do whatever he wants. It lets him smoke lamb and wagyu. It lets him finish with dustings of coconut sugar. It lets him focus on his rubs, sauces, classes, and the brands he represents. It lets him travel the barbecue belt and "spread barbecue love and knowledge."
These days, Smith also teaches classes in other states. He even emcees barbecue events and appears in promotional content for Green Mountain Grills.
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Smith finishes his class with St. Louis-style ribs. He places a red lacquered rack on his cutting board. As he slides his knife between the bones, he dispenses advice won over years of competition, offhand gems like how to “set” sauce by putting sauced, finished meat back on for five minutes, or how ribs should be carved bone-side-up (“the bones tell me where to cut”). He fields questions. People slurp meat.
Finally, the class ends. Four smokers. Four meats. People full of knowledge and upscale barbecue head for the doors. And all that’s left is a barbecue maestro cleaning up, and bones, flecks of char, and brown slurry filming over in the bottom of an empty aluminum pan.
Barbecue Entity: Loot N Booty BBQ
Smoke Master: Sterling Smith
Competition Wood: Pecan
Smoker(s): Drum smokers, Green Mountain Grill pellet smokers
Style: Kansas City meets Arizona meets pirate.
Rub/Sauce/Class Info: Loot N Booty BBQ Website