Behind the Scenes With a Competitive Barbecue Junkie

Michael Fay is hooked on the trophy life.

Michael Fay (center) with his team at the 2017 National Capital Barbecue Battle. Photographs courtesy of Doug Halo.

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In competitive barbecue, boring is better. Star-anise-chipotle-and-rhubarb glaze might push the culinary envelope, but it’s probably not going to bring in a win.

“There’s kind of a standard flavor profile that the judges expect, so your objective is to hit that target every single time,” says Springfield pit master Michael Fay. His team, Aporkalypse Now, has won DC’s National Capital Barbecue Battle the last three years in a row. “The joke is we’re trying to make the world’s best average barbecue.”

Fay owns a graphic-arts advertising agency but spends most of his free time participating in barbecue competitions. For a Saturday contest, preparations start the previous Monday. Brisket, pork butt, and chicken are shipped in from boutique purveyors that specialize in supplying competitive barbecuers. (Grocery-store meats aren’t consistent enough.) Between ingredients and entry fees, each competition costs Fay roughly $900.

On the Wednesday before the big day, he spends a couple of hours making sauces and meat injections, weighing his spices down to the gram. If his barbecue isn’t scoring as high as he’d like after three competitions, he’ll take cues from the winners and adjust the sugar or acid.

Thursdays are for loading his 26-foot box trailer—tricked out with a custom kitchen—so he can arrive by noon Friday. Before the teams start doing anything, inspectors make sure none have pre-seasoned their meats. While some competitors start their barbecue the night before, Aporkalypse Now works “hot and fast”—cooking for three and a half hours at more than 300 degrees—which means the team doesn’t actually start cooking until 6 am on game day.

“There’s no real voodoo trade secrets,” Fay says. “It’s really just a matter of executing the same food over and over again.”

Fay, working on his brisket.

This article appeared in the May 2018 issue of Washingtonian.

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.