Throughout this week, we're sharing DFW.com contributor Malcolm Mayhew's profiles of five people who are making their mark in North Texas barbecue. Our final installment introduces us to Leroy Wilson, who keeps it simple in his small east Fort Worth joint, Wilson's Bar-B-Q. Our previous installments profiled Justin Fourton of Pecan Lodge in Dallas; the family who runs Hickory Stick BBQ in Everman; the woman behind the sign at Mama E's in Fort Worth, and Bryan McLarty, a Southlake man who takes his smoking skills around the region in competition barbecue events. And don't miss Malcolm's quick snapshots of some other favorite North Texas BBQ restaurants.
Welcome to the sixth annual Camp Craig BBQ Cook-off, a barbecue competition in the parking lot of the Bass Pro Shops in Grapevine. Pay $10 to sample all the brisket, sausage and ribs you want, then vote for your favorites. You determine who goes home a winner -- an American Idol slathered in sauce.
Here you'll find Bryan McLarty of Southlake, decked out in a big straw hat and rock star sunglasses. Between his two smokers he moves, firing up brisket and ribs and pork, his team of four behind him, slicing and dicing the meat into tiny plastic ramekins, which are quickly scarfed up by the voters.
Tongs crossed, his team and family by his side, McLarty waits to hear if he won.
"People liked the ribs," he says. "I can tell from the big smiles on their faces."
This is the life of competitive barbecuers, those who travel from state to state, town to town, competition to competition, in hopes of winning acclaim, trophies and, ultimately, business for their cooking. They are the mobile version of restaurant barbecuers -- pits on wheels. The more competitions they win, the higher their profile, the more catering jobs will come along.
It's not easy, McLarty says. The drama you see on competitive barbecue reality shows like BBQ Pitmasters is not all fabricated drama.
"We face so many challenges," he says. "First off, the weather, specifically the wind. That's a huge factor in barbecuing. And then where are you going to cook -- is it a big field? Do they have power and water? And everything you have with you is everything you have. If you leave something at home -- sugar, salt -- and the competition has begun, you're done. If you spill your brine and don't have any more, you're done. When those things happen, you've wasted that weekend."
The vast majority of competitive barbecuers, McLarty says, are like him: They do this on the side, on weekends, in their spare time. They don't face the same financial risks as those who own or run restaurants; many have day jobs and stick to those plan A's. It's a hobby, a way to flex their cooking muscles without devoting their lives to it.
McLarty, 48, certainly has dreams of cooking full time. But boy, he's got a great job as a network engineer for AT&T and a family to support.
"I have a lot of admiration for people who run restaurants," he says. "I would love to have my own place. But I think if I owned a restaurant, it would be such a grind. I'd hate to lose the passion for it."
That passion, McLarty says, came from his pop. "I started learning how to barbecue when I was about 10 years old. My dad was always barbecuing and I was always by his side."
As he got older, he began smoking meat at family gatherings and neighborhood cookouts. Those around him said his stuff was great, encouraging him to cook beyond Cowboys watching parties and family reunions.
Under his moniker Big Fish BBQ and backed by a sponsor, Moore's Marinade, he has, for the past six years, made a name for himself in competition barbecue circles. Just this year, he's won a first place and three second place trophies in local and regional competitions. His specialty is ribs, made with his own rub, which you can order off his website, www.bigfishbbq.com.
"I'd say I do ribs best, St. Louis spare ribs," he says. "My rub is a little different than most -- a little bit sweet, a little bit of heat and a little bit of salt. Get a good rub and get your tenderness and juiciness, and you've got a winning rib."
He certainly does today. At the Camp Craig BBQ Cook-off, a charity event, his ribs won first place; he was also named overall grand champion.
"There's really not a better feeling when something you create is recognized as being the best," he says. "Competitive barbecuing is stressful, but I feel very relaxed when I'm doing this. ... For me, this is therapeutic. I guess that's why they call barbecue comfort food."