World Barbecue Contest Sizzles: Global Pitmasters Share Cultural Culinary Connections


As attendees of the esteemed World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest step into the bustling arena in Memphis, Tennessee, the mouthwatering aroma of wood fire is their first greeting. An olfactory promise of delicious, smoked edibles conjured up by some of the world’s best pitmasters, where smoke isn’t a mere after-effect, but a secret ingredient as fundamental as salt.

Admittedly dubbed the Super Bowl of Swine, these annual competitors elevate their craft far beyond regular backyard barbecue. They morph this humble cooking style into an open-air gourmet experience. Both the wisdom of generations and the essence of a community knitted together by food become integral elements in their cuisine.

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Shot into the spotlight as a jewel in the Memphis in May International Festival, the competition serves not only as a cooking contest, but as an international gastronomic platform for cultural connection and exchange. Food culture, augmented by both our digital age and in-person interactions, has amplified the popularity of this event, turning it into a display of culinary prowess for global pitmasters.

Sociedad Mexicana de Parrilleros, a notable Mexican company, has sponsored a team in Memphis for a decade. They battle the heat against mostly American competitors, simultaneously absorbing the novel techniques that they’re introduced to.

“There has been an amalgamation of traditions and regions, and due to our interconnected world, many techniques are jumping borders,” observed Juan Garza, a member of the Mexican team.

With an impressive turnout of 129 teams, participants from New Zealand, Norway, Canada, Mexico, and Brazil cooked up a storm, each infusing their distinct culinary heritages amidst Memphis’s vibrant food scene. There’s also been participation from Argentina, Canada, and Puerto Rico in previous years.

Devised by Garza’s team was an eclectic menu of pork shoulder, beef brisket, and tacos, all generously bathed in home-made salsas and sauces. Their repeated appearances on this stage, sometimes crowned with coveted pig-shaped gold trophies, have amplified their sales back home in Mexico.

Bruno Panhoca, a virtuoso pitmaster from São Paulo, originally connected with Brent Little of Memphis over Instagram while he was showcasing the preparation of Memphis-style ribs to his Brazilian audience. Little was intrigued by Panhoca’s barbecue skills and extended an invitation to him and fellow Brazilian pitmaster, Adriano Pedro, to join his legendary Pig Diamonds team.

Panhoca lauds the Memphis-style barbecuing as a particular technique that layers diverse flavors through dry rubs and sauces, all while preserving the pure taste of the meat. The Pig Diamonds pride themselves on their versatility, excelling in categories like beef, chicken, wings, seafood and sauces. Previous entries included coxinha, a popular Brazilian chicken dish, and more recently, a wagyu brisket beef wellington.

Indeed, immigrants have been instrumental in shaping and diversifying American barbecue traditions. A noteworthy instance is the creation of Memphis ribs by Charlie Vergos, a son of Greek immigrants. He introduced dry-rubbed ribs seasoned with paprika and other spices in his fabled Rendezvous restaurant which started a cooking revolution.

Kenneth Richardson, head chef of Memphis’s local team, When the Smoke Clears, believes the sublime Memphis barbecue owes its flair to the Greek spices, and cooking techniques from Louisiana and other regions along the Mississippi River.

Despite the cutthroat competition, where the difference between teams often hovers around mere point fractions, there’s a heartwarming mutual exchange of barbecue knowledge and techniques among the competitors. This camaraderie creates bonds between teams, some of which are run by powerhouse restaurateurs and others by passionate hobbyists.

Garza summarizes the team’s philosophy and ethos in the Mexican mantra, “El Fuego Nos Une,” or, “The fire unites us.” This is sound advice for all grill enthusiasts planning a Memorial Day party. It hammers home the spirit of grilling: it’s not just about the food but also the treasured times shared with loved ones around the grill. This, Garza asserts, is why they do what they do.