Hail to Hawaii’s king of barbecue.
Matt King, an Air Force master sergeant stationed at Ford Island, Oahu, took grand champion honors Friday at the Hilo Bay BBQ Cook-off, which took place at the county’s mauka soccer field on the Hilo Bayfront.
King will represent Hawaii as state champion at the 2014 Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue, Oct. 25, in Lynchburg, Tenn.
“I’m excited,” he said while clutching his championship trophy. “The biggest thrill is being able to represent the state of Hawaii at the Jack Daniel’s. … I hope to do Hawaii proud. I’m not a native son but I love it here. It’s great. The people are great.”
King, married father of two and 16-year Air Force veteran who’s served in Afghanistan and Korea, calls his barbecue team “Old Man Joe’s.”
“That’s my grandpa,” he explained.
The 38-year-old Benton, Ark., native tied with John Penner of the Hawi team 1-2-BAR-B-QUE with 29 points overall, but placed third in the brisket category, the tie-breaker that put him over the top. Penner took the title reserve grand champion.
Penner actually won three categories: pork, chicken and chili.
Along with the in-the-money finish in brisket, King took second place in the pork category and third in chicken, and garnered enough points with Top-10 finishes in other categories.
King said his best category is “probably brisket.”
“The real secret is you gotta hit three things,” he explained. “You gotta have moisture; you gotta have tenderness. And you need a good bark. That bark’s gonna give you the flavor. It’s hard to do.
“You gotta render the fat at the same time that the meat’s done.”
The wood he uses for brisket is “a little hickory, a little mesquite and a little bit of cherry” and “fruit woods for ribs and chicken, and pork, as well.”
As far as the rub, the mix of spices which helps give the meat flavor and the bark, which is the outer crust, King said he likes to keep it simple.
“Fewer ingredients are better,” he said. “When I started out, I tried to do all this crazy stuff.”
Barbecue is more than a hobby; it’s almost a religion. And it’s not a cheap mistress, either, as King noted.
“My wife, she’s been cool,” he said. “Because it costs about two-grand to come out here and ship all my stuff, but she’s all for it,” he said. “I shipped two little smokers and all that stuff.”
The cook-off, which moved from the makai side of Kamehameha Avenue to the mauka side this year because of ongoing roadwork, appeared not to have the attendance it’s drawn in years past, nor were there as many teams entered — 13 this year as opposed to 18 in 2013.
“It’s up to y’all if you want this event to grow or if you want it to go away,” Judy Keeney, the International Bar-B-Que Cookers Association-certified head judge told the cookers during the awards ceremony. “Y’all know others who cook barbecue. Bring them with you; get them to enter.”
Several cookers noted both Thursday during set-up and Friday at the event that this year, for the first time, the state Department of Health required each team to be part of an organization with a certified kitchen or have a restaurant or organization with a certified kitchen to sign off on a permit.
State health inspectors made their rounds at the contest site Thursday afternoon.
“For a lot of the backyard folks, it’s just impossible,” said Suzanne Benoit, of Rob Engelhard’s Mau Kai team from Kona.
Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune- herald.com.