Sunny day for Sonny’s boy
Nicole Tatum handed out succulent ribs made by The Saucy Pig, while her better half Ken Salce labored in their bright green food truck to prepare their entries in hopes of winning a state championship.
A driver for US Foods, Salce (for whom the team is named, given the confusion that might result if it were named “The Salce Pig”) began the food truck business about two months ago, which they now operate near a market just off I-95 outside St. Augustine, his home town.
He had learned the fine points of cooking as a child from his Italian-born mom, who emigrated here and then ran a culinary institute for many years, sharing with her son the fine points of making everything from the perfect sauce to homemade pasta.
Salce has loved to do fundraisers and cooking with St. Augustine’s iconic datil peppers, tiny buds that he blends with beans, cole slaw, macaroni and cheese, you name it, for the perfect sometimes hot, sometimes sweet, flavor.
He loves competing and can point to several top finishes, and even a grand champion, trophy, as can so many of last weekend’s 35 contestants in the third annual Butts and Clucks Cook-Off on the Bay, a Florida BBQ Association sanctioned event that this year, for the first time, was designated as the state championship.
That belt went to Bull Rush BBQ, out of Orlando, manned by Bryan Mroczka and his dad Robert.
That title was not won by a long shot by any stretch, as Mroczka works as head pitmaster for the team’s sponsor, Sonny’s BBQ, a more than five decade old restaurant chain that features 113 restaurants across the Southeast.
An enormous man, even larger than when he was an All-Star offensive lineman for Bentley University, when Mroczka stands next to his array of trophies that Bull Rush has earned over the years, he is small by comparison.
Bull Rush took the grand championship, and $3,200, by topping both the brisket and rib categories, and finishing sixth in chicken.
But they still had to edge out last year’s Florida BBQ Association point winner, Pig Chicka Cow Cow, which won $2,100 for reserve champ, as that team had finished second in chicken and ribs, and sixth in pork.
Winning $1,050 for third place was last year’s Butts & Clucks winner, Backyard Bro’s, which had been seventh in ribs, tied for fourth in pork, and fifth in brisket.
In fourth place, and pocketing $500, was the Boog-A-Lou Smoke Crew, out of Wakulla County. Boog-A-Lou was second in pork, tied for ninth in chicken and was ninth in ribs.
With about $15,000 in prize money handed out, the top 10 places in chicken, ribs, pork and brisket took home cash ranging from $50 to $500. John’s Real South BBQ won the chicken category, and Hold Your Horses topped pork.
Other top finishers included Swamp Crackers third and Spankin’ Butts BBQ fourth in chicken; Nice Racks third in ribs; Vandals BBQ third in pork; Smoke It Up BBQ fourth in brisket; and Jack’s Old South fourth in ribs and third in brisket.
Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce director John Solomon, who in three years has grown the event into one of the most popular and well-regarded in the Southeast, was blessed with a sunny day, and enthusiastic volunteers, as he oversaw not only the main competition, but a cluster of others that have been added.
The BBQ sauce competition, sponsored by Sweet Smoke Q and judged by Florida Barbecue Association judges,, was won by Uncle Kenny’s, out of Clermont, which pocketed $200. That team took both the chicken sauce competition, finishing ahead of runner-up Nice Racks BBQ and third-place Girly-Q, as well as the pork category, ahead of runner-up The Food Truck from SGI and third place Uncle Buck’s.
Uncle Kenny’s is the team led by Kenny Nadeau, who had traveled up to the county after Hurricane Michael in 2018 to cook for those affected by the storm.
New this year was a mystery box competition, in which nine entrants had to come up, on short notice, what to do with a whole mullet, a dozen shucked oysters, and dozen shrimp.
Judged by three locals, Chefs Danny Itzkovitz and Brett Gormley and Brewmaster Clayton Mathis, the winner, and a $200 prize, was Big Beard BBQ from Tallahassee, which came up with mullet cake over fried oysters and grilled shrimp with okra dust.
Runner-up was Smoke It Up, and in third place, tied were was Smokin’ Crazy, from Apalachicola, and Double Deuce Smoke Crew, out of Panama City.
Solomon paid close attention to how the local teams had fared, and said he was pleased, given their newness and the level of competition. Up the Creek’s Dan Harper and Ronnie Maxwell, competing only in ribs, was 17 out of 33 teams, which Pogy Road’s Richard Wade and Joel Norred were 19th overall, with mid-range finishes in chicken, ribs and pork, and a 12th in brisket. Smokin’ Crazy, a newly opened BBQ restaurant, also competed.
In the deviled egg Clucks competition, judged by enthusiastic, non-professional cookers and eaters, the runaway winner was Becky’s Bay Egg, by Becky Bone, from Tallahassee, with an impressive 79 out of 80 possible points.
Runner-up was Three Million Dollar eggs, made by Joe Griffin, from Orange Beach, Alabama, and in third place was Susan Schmidt, from Apalachicola’s Chowder House, with her preparation of fried deviled eggs with fried jalapenos.
In the People’s Choice awards, sponsored by Ben E. Keith Foods, and Compart Farms, 70 ticketbuyers decided who fared best among 23 teams. Uncle Kenny’s BBQ won that trophy, with second place a tie between 4 Smokin’ Queens, and Spankin’ Butts, and third place a tie between Big Beard BBQ and Uncle Bucks, with Uncle Kenny in fifth.
“It went wonderfully, better than expected,” said Solomon of the weekend, and his sentiments were shared by participants, who raved about the hospitality and the atmosphere of Apalachicola, overlooking the bay.
While Butts and Clucks won’t have the honor of hosting the state championship next, Solomon is thinking about adding a new wrinkle.
“We’re thinking about a kids’ competition,” he said.