Jack Waiboer doesn't think the state has the reputation in competitive barbecue that it should, and he's on a mission to do something about it.
"We want to make South Carolina barbecue relevant," says Waiboer of North Charleston.
After all, he says, the tradition of American barbecue was born on our shores.
"When the Spanish came, they noticed the Indians cooking over open fire. On subsequent voyages, they brought pigs. Whole hog barbecue is indigenous to South Carolina," Waiboer maintains.
Waiboer, 52, believes his passion for the art of smoking meat over a fire began as a young Boy Scout learning the skills of campfire cooking.
Decades later, Waiboer is talking about, cooking and eating barbecue whenever he's not at work as a sporting goods manager at the Oakbrook Walmart.
Waiboer's zeal for barbecue happens on many levels. He and his wife, Mary, founded the
Carolina Pit Masters Barbecue Cooking School in 2007. They are charter members of the South Carolina Barbeque Association and the Southern Barbecue Network. He has a barbecue grill video podcast, grateTV.com, with WEZL radio personality Bill West that is getting 3,500 views weekly.
Most importantly, Waiboer is hooked on barbecue cook-offs and trying to win them. He's been a member of Mike's Catering cooking team of Dorchester for three years. Previous teams he was with as chief cook claimed three state championships.
This past weekend, Mike's Catering participated in the National Barbecue Festival in Waycross, Ga., which draws teams from across the country. Mike's finished seventh overall in the Best of the Best invitational contest and 12th in the festival's open contest.
To Waiboer, it's all about making barbecue better -- for all competitors in the state.
In past years, "South Carolina cooks were going to the outside contests and getting blasted," Waiboer says. "What I found is that people didn't understand what the character of good barbecue is."
He and other barbecue devotees within the state decided education was key. Their efforts focus on training more and better barbecue judges, and teaching those who compete to cook to higher standards. Now, "the quality of barbecue is coming up in South Carolina," says Waiboer. "We're skyrocketing."
Waiboer himself is a brisket and ribs specialist. Cooking for quality in either category presents a small window of opportunity, he says.
With ribs, it's knowing how and when the heat affects the connective tissue and fat. If the cooking is going too fast, the connective tissue will seize up, so it's critical to understand and control the cooking vessel's convection. Brisket's leanness is a challenge because the beef also can seize up and turn "tough as shoe leather." It's all about learning to feel for the right texture, Waiboer says.
Waiboer has spent the better part of his working life in the restaurant and food business. He grew up in the Lancaster, Pa., area and earned a political science degree from Penn State in 1982. But he found cooking more interesting, and that he was good at it.
He followed his parents to Charleston after college. He, his father and his brother operated the The Philadelphia Steak Co. on King Street for about six years in the 1980s.
Waiboer also had a long stint managing the Olive Garden in North Charleston. And, he was a meat cutter for Piggly Wiggly before being hired by Walmart 14 years ago. There he ran the meat department and then produce before work took a physical toll and he switched to sporting goods.
But food, especially barbecue, is never out of his sight.
Tryon, N.C., gave Waiboer his first taste of competition barbecue in the mid-1990s.
Looking for something to do on the weekend, Waiboer and his wife decided to check out a barbecue contest. "I'm walking around this place and there's all this equipment and food being cooked," Waiboer says, and he's thinking it's really cool. "I kinda got the bug right there."
Later, a cooking team invited Waiboer to participate in a contest at Marion Square. "Now I'm actually in one, and whoa, I'm loving this," he says.
One contest led to another, trophies here and there along the way, and falling in love with the art and the culture, he says.
"I've been in the restaurant business a long time, and there is nothing else that provided that creativity and rush of success than competitive barbecue. At crunch time, everything has to come together. ... We're having a good time, but we're all business, and cooking at a high level."
On the circuits
Though the tradition of barbecue is old, it is affected by trends like anything else, says Waiboer. On the contest circuits, teams have been developing techniques that use hot and fast cooking temperatures and times, and have been doing well with the judges.
The move away from "low and slow" concerns Waiboer and his colleagues. They wonder if the art of barbecuing, and mastering the cooking vessel, is disappearing. They are holding fast to preserving the old ways.
Waiboer's focus of late is working to promote whole hog cooking as the premier contest category and as an art. He calls it the "Mac Daddy" of the categories. "The entire animal presents all of the challenges with fat content, density and moisture," he says.
Waiboer has no desire to have a barbecue restaurant but intends to stay fully engaged in all other aspects. He hopes he can use his expertise to make a living at some point, through teaching and training, consulting, book writing, perhaps product endorsements. He would like a shot at TV, and wants to learn more about heritage breeds.
"I want to be known as the No. 1 barbecue man in the world," he says matter-of-factly. "I have to find a niche in there somewhere."