How Northeast Barbecue Teams Fared at the World’s Largest BBQ Competition

The competition chicken from the Top Gun Barbecue team at the American Royal was a work of art.

The competition chicken from the Top Gun Barbecue team at the American Royal was a work of art.

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Last weekend, more than 470 barbecue teams from around the country traveled to Kansas City for the American Royal World Series of Barbecue, the largest barbecue competition in the world.

While the Northeastern U.S. has a growing and often underrated barbecue scene, only a handful of competition teams from the region made the long drive to attend the event. Four teams from New York state, one team from New Jersey, and two teams from Massachusetts were there representing the Northeast. They competed well among all the legends in the barbecue community that were there.

To get a sense of the scope of the American Royal 2019, here was the general rundown. Friday night kicked off the event with tens of thousands of people attending parties. On Saturday, the American Royal put on public-facing events for barbecue fans including live demonstrations, family activities, and the Invitational Competition for 135 teams from around the U.S. On Sunday, the event was focused solely on the Open Competition, in which about 470 teams competed.

The Top Gun Barbecue competition team from Staten Island finish their turn in for chicken.

The Top Gun Barbecue competition team from Staten Island finish their turn in for chicken.

During the Open Competition, teams prepped and turned in boxes of brisket, pork, pork ribs, chicken, sausage, turkey, dessert, potato, baked beans, and vegetable, which were judged by more than Kansas City Barbeque Society 600 judges. The categories of brisket, pork, pork ribs, and chicken are the most important and you must turn in those four if you want a chance of being named Grand Champion of the event.

The seven teams from the Northeast all competed in the Open, with Top Gun Barbecue from Staten Island being the only team from New York City. Other teams from New York State included Big Guns BBQ from Pleasant Valley, Good Smoke BBQ from Rochester, and Miller's Backyard BBQ from Mechanicville. Pig Riggin BBQ from South Jersey was the only Jersey team. The two teams from Massachusetts were Smokin' Hoggz BBQ from Abington and Insane Swine BBQ from Worcester.

Sean Keever of Big Guns BBQ team won 4th place in pork in the Open.

Sean Keever of Big Guns BBQ team won 4th place in pork in the Open.

The biggest call for a Northeastern team was for Big Guns BBQ, which won 4th place overall in pork in the Open competition. Big Guns BBQ has competed at the American Royal Open Competition for the past 9 years and this was the highest call they've ever had.

“It was a tough, tough competition and anytime you can stand up there in front of all those teams, that feels really great,” Sean Keever, team lead for Big Guns BBQ and a long time BBQ competitor, said.

A few other highlights for Northeastern teams included:

  • Smokin Hoggz BBQ placed 16th overall in the Invitational, 6th in pork in the Invitational, and 9th in pork ribs in the Invitational.

  • Top Gun Barbecue placed 15th in pork ribs in the Invitational.

  • Miller's Backyard BBQ placed 23rd overall in the Invitational and 7th in chicken in the Invitational.

  • Good Smoke BBQ placed 21st overall in sausage in the Open.

(You can see the full results of the Open here and the Invitational here. If you want to read more about the biggest overall winners at the Royal, check out this week's edition of The Smoke Sheet.)

Daniel Jacobellis, team lead from Top Gun Barbecue, has cooked at the American Royal three times to date and was mostly satisfied with how his team fared this year. He said he thought his cook was better on Sunday than on Saturday, but the scores didn't pan out. The team ranked 45 out of 130 teams at the Invitational and 113 out of 468 teams at the Open.

“We're a pretty young team and I don't feel like I saw many competitors my age,” Jacobellis, who is 27, said. “I feel like I learn a lot every time I do a big-time barbecue event like this. Coming out of it, initially I was a little disappointed. But as the days go, I was more satisfied with how we fared. I learned to not go in with lofty expectations and focus on treating it like any other cook.”

The pork ribs from the Top Gun Barbecue team won 15th overall at the Invitational.

The pork ribs from the Top Gun Barbecue team won 15th overall at the Invitational.

With only seven teams out of 470 from the Northeast, it's clear that Northeast could use more representation and more support in competition barbecue. Kevin J. Pearce, team lead of Pig Riggin BBQ from New Jersey, said he thinks that part of this comes from the Northeast's overlooked barbecue scene.

"The greater Northeast gave you bagels, pizza, Buffalo wings, Philly cheesesteaks, and more types of foods that are readily available across the country," Pearce said. "You don't think they barbecue? Oh, they barbecue."

Jacobellis thinks this attitude over being overlooked extends to barbecue competitions, which are important to establishing your team's credentials and confidence, as well. This year alone, multiple Kansas City Barbeque Society events in Northeast that had been on the schedule were canceled.

“There aren't that many competitions in the Northeast,” Jacobellis said. “We were down like 15 or 16 this year, and several were canceled. Then we have to drive and go further out to do other competitions.”

On the other hand, Keever disagreed with notion that the Northeast was underrepresented at the Royal, due to some big wins and calls that have happened over the years.

"We haven't broken through the very upper echelon as consistently as we would like, but we have done well," Keever said. "Good Smoke from New York, Local Smoke from New Jersey, Top Gun from New York all are getting good calls typically. ... It also takes a little bit out of you to travel out that far and compete. I think there's a bit of a home field advantage, for lack of a better term."

New York-based Chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois made "Kansas City Cheesesteaks" at the American Royal.

New York-based Chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois made "Kansas City Cheesesteaks" at the American Royal.

In addition to the competing Northeast teams, one New York City pitmaster was prominently showing off his skills to the public at the Royal. Jean-Paul Bourgeois, formerly of Blue Smoke, was on hand making  “Kansas City Cheesesteaks” (made with sliced pork!) for the Prairie Fresh party on Friday night. He also appeared on the public-facing main stage on Saturday and gave out samples of his food to the public when his demo finished.

As the dust settles on the American Royal 2019, the Northeast represented well despite not having many teams there. Keever of the Big Guns BBQ team said he will definitely be back next year to compete and see friends.

“It's homecoming weekend in Kansas City for barbecue,” Keever said. “Everyone from everywhere is there. You get to see all of your friends who are doing this, who you may only see one or two times a year. We all pick up where we left off.”

The next American Royal will take place September 16-20, 2020 in Kansas City, and I hope to see more Northeastern teams out there next year!

Sean Ludwig
Founder, NYC BBQ


The Real Deal BBQ has been named as one of the best food trucks in New Jersey.

The Real Deal BBQ has been named as one of the best food trucks in New Jersey.

  • While New Jersey might not get many accolades for barbecue, I’ve consistently found great 'cue there whenever I’ve had time to get out of NYC. (Check out my recent visit to Daddy Matty’s.) One place I now need to visit is The Real Deal BBQ in Clinton, which has been named as one of the top 40 best food trucks in the state by Pete Genovese of Genovese says their pulled pork sandwich and brisket are highly worth seeking out.

  • West Philadelphia has an intriguing new barbecue option with the launch of the Leo’s Backyard BBQ food truck. Pitmaster Leo Habbs grew up in West Philly and has been cooking barbecue since he was 10 years old. The menu includes brisket nachos, grilled cheese with pulled pork sandwiches, Angus burgers, quarter-pound dogs, and spicy sausages.

  • Hometown Bar-B-Que, one of the top barbecue joints in NYC, has officially opened its second location in Miami. The new location in Miami will offer a similar menu, but function differently from the counter-service-only Brooklyn location with table service and reservations during dinner hours.

  • Staten Island barbecue hotshot Juicy Lucy BBQ is now offering delivery for food orders and taking reservations for parties for more than 4, making it easier to plan your visit there.

  • Travel + Leisure recently spotlighted an OpenTable list of the 50 most kid-friendly restaurants in the United States. Several New York restaurants made the cut and Times Square BBQ joint Virgil’s Real Barbecue was surprisingly the only barbecue joint on the list.

  • Finally, if you want to watch football or baseball in the New York area and need a place to watch the games, Grub Street has you covered. Several BBQ joints made the list, with John Brown Smokehouse in Long Island City for watching Kansas City Chiefs and Royals games; Brother Jimmy’s in Murray Hill for watching Cleveland Browns and Indians games; and Hill Country Barbecue Market in Flatiron for watching Houston Texans, Houston Astros, and Texas Rangers games.


This Sunday, the Dining for Justice Pig Roast with Don Rodrigo Duarte will feature delicious Portuguese hog, sides, desserts, and more and raise money for a great cause. (Photo by    Miguel Rivas   )

This Sunday, the Dining for Justice Pig Roast with Don Rodrigo Duarte will feature delicious Portuguese hog, sides, desserts, and more and raise money for a great cause. (Photo by Miguel Rivas)

Here are the top BBQ (and related) food events coming soon to the New York metro and the Tri-State area:

  • September 20-21: The Greenwich Wine and Food Festival 2019 will take place September 20 and 21 in Greenwich, Connecticut, offering a grand tasting with more than 150 restaurants; a bartender showdown, lawn games, and live music from acts like Little Big Town. More info here.

  • September 20-22: The Oinktoberfest 2019 event in Clarence, New York (outside of Buffalo) is the longest continuously running barbecue competition and festival in New York State. It attracts many competition teams and also features music and food for families who want to hang out. Admission on Saturday and Sunday is $8/person. More info here.

  • September 21: The 15th Annual (And Final) Vendy Awards, a fundraiser for the Street Vendor Project, will take place on Governors Island. This will be the final Vendy Awards ever. During the event, 25 of NYC's best street vendors will go head-to-head and compete for the ultimate prize — The Vendy Cup. More info here.

  • September 22: The Dining For Justice Pig Roast at Anable Basin in Long Island City, Queens will feature an awesome roasted pig and more from Don Rodrigo Duarte, acclaimed butcher at Caseiro e Bom and New Jersey’s “King of Hams.” Side dishes will be provided by Chefs Consortium and Betty Bakery will be serving desserts. The event will be held at Anable Basin in Long Island City, Queens. Profits from this event go directly to Immigrant Families Together, a network of Americans committed to the unification of families separated by the zero tolerance policy at the U.S./Mexico border. Buy tickets here.

  • September 22: If you want to get Oktoberfest started early, you should check out First Annual Grand Street Oktoberfest, held at the Hester Street Fair on the Lower East Side. The event will feature fun food choices from Randall’s Barbecue, Diller, La Flaca, Kossar’s, Doughnut Plant, and more. Each vendor will be selling a beer of their choice, with Randall’s offering Hofbrau and Radeberger. Admission is free. More info here.

  • October 3: There isn’t anything quite like bacon and beer, so you won’t want to miss the 2019 Jersey City Bacon and Beer Classic. Overlook the Manhattan skyline while indulging in more than 60 beers/ciders and more than 25 bacon-inspired dishes prepared by local chefs, including Jase’s BBQ, Queens Bully, Sands Jerk Hut, and Miss Holly’s Smokehouse. Buy tickets here.

  • October 5-6: The Infatuation’s food festival, EEEEEATSCON, is returning to Forest Hills Stadium in Queens – and this year, it’s two days. On October 5th and 6th, they’ll be bringing together top-rated NYC restaurants like Crown Shy, Tokyo Record Bar, Di An Di, and Mama’s Too. There will also be non-NYC food vendors like Hattie B’s Hot Chicken from Nashville, Sanguich De Miami, and Bite into Maine. More info here.

  • October 12: The New York City Wine and Food Festival’s ultimate BBQ event returns on Saturday, October 12, and this year it’s called Titans of BBQ. It will be hosted by Italian butcher Dario Cecchini, meat master Pat LaFrieda, and Food Network host Michael Symon. More than 20 chefs and pitmasters from NYC and around the country will be there serving up incredible bites. The ticket prices are steep but the food and drinks will be top-notch. More info here.

  • October 16: If you like rye whiskey, farm beers, spirits, breads, and pastrami, then you won’t want to miss Pastrami on Rye, Food Karma’s featured event of NY Rye Week. Food Karma is celebrating the 3rd annual Rye Week with this fun all-inclusive food and drink event in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Buy tickets here.


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Sean LudwigNYC BBQ Weekly