CUMBERLAND – On a night out at Wes’ Rib House nine years ago, Christopher Clegg of Cumberland got his first taste of authentic ‘que.
Clegg was so impressed with the restaurant’s fall-off-the-bone moist baby back ribs and tender wood-smoked chicken, he went out and bought a smoker at an end-of-season sale with big ideas of replicating the kind of rib house-quality barbecue he had experienced dining out.
“My wife, Joan, and I found a $250 Weber Smokey Mountain on sale for $99 at a local hardware store. We thought, ‘why not,’” Clegg says. “We didn’t know what we were doing, but we got a few books, tried a few things, and soon found that we could make better ‘que than the local restaurants. Sure, we live in New England, and maybe the bar wasn’t that high, but it opened our eyes to what BBQ could be.”
Clegg’s first few attempts at making barbecue were so successful, he packed up his smoker in 2006 and drove down to Narragansett to cook a barbecue meal for Paul Zonfrillo, a longtime friend and fellow 1983 graduate of Bishop Hendricken High School.
“We kept begging our friends Ann and Paul to try our ‘que, but it never seemed to happen,” Clegg says. “Finally, we packed up the smoker, headed to the beach, and brought the barbecue to them. They were hooked. Paul soon bought his own Smokey Mountain, and after a few months, he suggested we enter a local contest. It was the start of our own amazing barbecue journey.”
Today, Clegg and Zonfrillo are big names in the world of competitive barbecue.
As founding members of ZBQ, a Rhode Island-based barbecue competition team, they travel throughout the Northeast competing in BBQ contests from Maine to New York.
Not only have they won a boatload of trophies for their award-winning barbecue, they’ve earned a reputation as two of the most talented pitmasters on the East Coast.
But developing their chops as pitmasters was slow going at first.
“What we found was that cooking truly good barbecues is a lot harder than it looks,” says Clegg, a 14-year resident of Cumberland who works in the information technology industry. “We were impressed with our food, but there was a lot better barbecue out there competing.”
There are approximately 50 teams, including six or seven from Rhode Island, that do the East Coast barbecue circuit and compete in Kansas City Barbecue Society and Sam’s Club barbecue events.
In the very first contest they entered in 2006, ZBQ finished in the bottom 30 percent, but soon they started seeing better results.
“For the first few years we were getting good results, but it wasn’t until 2008 that we started getting serious,” says Clegg.
That year Clegg and Zonfrillo bought a bigger and better smoker and an RV to haul their equipment. They also went to BBQ school to perfect their techniques.
It all paid off when ZBQ won first place for its brisket in 2008. It was the team’s first top 10 finish in a Kansas City Barbecue Society event.
The following year, ZBQ competed in eight contests. But 2010 was the team’s breakout year, when they earned several awards and top ten finishes.
In 2011, ZBQ won the grand championship in New London, Connecticut, the first team from Rhode Island to do so.
Last year, ZBQ won entry into the American Royal Invitational, Sam’s Club National BBQ Championship, and the Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational.
So far this year, Clegg, Zonfrillo and their spouses have competed in 14 events, including a first-place showing Sept. 28-29 at the Best BBQ Chef competition in New London.
And they’re kicking some serious pork butt.
So far this year, ZBQ ranks fourth out of 50 New England teams, and nationally, the team is ranked 100 out of 3,000 teams across the country.
This weekend, the team is competing in the Atlantic City Championship in Atlantic City, N.J., the start of the October barbecue playoff season.
On Oct 18-19, Team ZBQ will compete in the Sam’s Club National BBQ Tour Finals in Bentonville, Ark.
Then it’s off to the Super Bowl of barbecue competitions — the Jack
Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue Oct. 25 in Lynchburg, Tenn.
The competition, lovingly referred to as “The Jack,” features a who’s who in the BBQ world. To qualify for entry, teams must win a state championship with at least 25 teams or a competition of 50 teams, or win one of the premiere barbecue competitions that qualify a team for an automatic berth.
Beyond that, it’s the USA BBQ Championship in Laughlin, Nev., Nov. 1-2, followed by the World Food Championships in Las Vegas Nov. 7-9.
Clegg and Zonfrillo, who use their work vacation days to travel between competitions, say the secret to their award-winning barbecue is no secret at all.
“It’s all about the process, managing your cooking and doing things the same every time,” Clegg says. “It’s a lot harder than it looks. People think its just cooking meat, so how hard can it be? But it’s so much more than that. In a judging competition its ‘one-bite’ barbecue so you have to make a good impression. The mouth-feel has to be right and there has to be multiple layers of flavor. As for the ingredients, you don’t want to be too hot, or too mild or too spicy.”
“You also have to be able to adapt to your environment because every event is different,” he says. “There might be rain or floods, or it could be blistering heat. It’s all part of the challenge.”
Does Clegg have any words of advice for budding young pitmasters looking to make a name for themselves in the world of competitive barbecuing?
“I would advise newcomers to check out the New England Barbecue Society, which has a wealth of information and resources,” he says. “It’s also a good idea to go to a contest, talk to the teams and see what they’re doing.”
As for Clegg and Zonfrillo, they’re just happy to be involved in a hobby they love.
“Competition barbecue is a hobby for us, based on our love of cooking and the great friends we have made on the competition circuit,” he says.