Leonard Rideau dumped charcoal briquettes into a grill. Next to him, another grill billowed chalk-white smoke into the air. Soon, he would add the meat, seasoned in the Cajun style his father — a Louisiana native — taught him.
Rideau, a San Jose resident who named his barbeque Papa Bud’s after his father, is just one of 60 professional teams that competed in the Silicon Valley Barbeque Championship Friday and Saturday at Central Park, 909 Kiely Blvd. in Santa Clara. Approximately 30 more teams competed in the backyard competition.
The Santa Clara Rotary Club organized the fifth-annual Silicon Valley Barbeque Championship, and the proceeds from it go to fund its various charitable endeavors.
And while Rideau was there to compete, it isn’t what barbecuing is all about to him.
“Everybody says their barbeque is the best,” Rideau said. “[My father] taught me how … for me it is about sharing something that I put time into. It meant something to him to do that, and it means something to me.”
The competition was split into four categories: pork ribs, pulled pork, chicken thighs and brisket. First through fifth place in each professional category took home cash prizes ranging from $200 to $1,200. Rhythm ‘n Que, out of Phoenix, Ariz., took the $4,000 grand prize. The reserve police officers took home the backyard-champion trophy.
The park was packed for the 2-day event, which is the second-largest barbecue competition on the west coast. Carnival-style children’s rides illuminated the evening sky as kids hurdled toward the parents waiting at the foot of a 2-story plastic slide.
Andrew Ratermann, president of the Rotary board, said the barbecue championship is one of the philanthropic organization’s biggest fundraisers. The event has grown considerably since its inception five years ago, he said, with attendance reaching roughly 20,000 this year.
“One of the things we look for when we do fundraiser is something that gives back as an event and as a fundraiser… This one, in part, is a good family event,” Ratermann said. “It is an activity; in the same token, we also raise a lot of money.”
Deeper into the park, the smell of smoke infused with myriad smells — charcoal, hickory, honey and an amalgamation of spices — sat heavy in the air. Crimson flags declared which booths offered samples and the lines to those booths ran like latticework across the park’s grass.
Patrons purchased sample tokens for $3 apiece from various booths. Patrons then used those tokens to purchase items from the aforementioned booths with the red flags. Dozens of other grill meisters accepted cash.
Steve Zamora, 64, of Santa Clara, and Tim Boyd, 47, of Los Gatos, stood on the periphery of one of the lines, drinking beer to wash down their latest sample of brisket. Zamora said he usually attends the competitions because his neighbor competes; although the neighbor opted not to compete this year. Boyd invited him, so Zamora decided to come out for the food, beer and entertainment.
Boyd said the event’s family friendly vibe surprised him.
Part of the appeal, Zamora said, is the sense of community the competition provides. Part of the fun is tasting all the different foods and talking to others about what they like.
“The indication of a good barbecue is a long line,” he said.
Near where the men stood, some people played a game of corn hole. A giant, inflatable green egg and armadillo — promotional floats — stared at each other from across lawn like rival kaiju in an old monster movie.
Past a few tents, booths and lines of people, a sprawling stage played host to tribute band Long Train Runnin’ as they belted out classic Doobie Brothers tunes. Bales of hay acted as chairs to all those in the audience.
New this year was the craft beer tent and the barbecue bistro, where sponsors paid a minimum of $100 to receive what Ratermann called “VIP treatment,” getting tableside service and all their food and beer for free.
Chris Cascella, 28, of San Jose, and Tricia Gordon, 25, of Santa Clara, said they had no idea the competition was being held. They were just hungry and stumbled across it while browsing Yelp.
“They should really get the word out more because this is a great event,” Cascella said. “There is an atmosphere, some culture. I don’t have to just be gluttonous.”
Just behind Cascella and Gordon, Frank Alvarez seared chicken on a grill. Alvarez, 33, of Morgan Hill, runs 3 Brothers BBQ, soon to be called Blue Collar BBQ. Alvarez’s family is from the south and he said that inspired him to “get back to the roots of barbecue.”
As he turns his attention to the wood burning barbecue pit, another man behind him began dredging the chicken in a mayonnaise-based white barbecue sauce. As counterintuitive as it might seem, Alvarez said the white sauce is classic Alabama-style barbecue.
While his business is just getting off the ground, just like Rideau, Alvarez said barbecuing is more about sharing something he is passionate about than competing.
“I like the crackling of the wood … you got meat, you got grease. Good barbecue takes a lot of love and effort,” he said. “I put that much time and effort into it and get something special out of it … I am part of that pit. It represents me.”