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Award-Winning Barbecue



Questions by JAKE STUMP

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If you’re musing over what do with an English degree, you could take a page from Luke Darnell’s recipe book and become a world barbecue champion. Poetry, prose and pulled pork have more in common than you think. Darnell, BA ’99, English, is the head hoss of competitive barbecue team Old Virginia Smoke, the 2016 world barbecue champions, as designated by the World Food Championships. Old Virginia Smoke has racked up several other championships across the country for its mastery of meats — ribs, brisket, chicken and pork, to be lusciously exact. The origins of Darnell’s ascension into this palatable pastime ignited in a Morgantown backyard where his father would roast hogs in the ground. Darnell credits both parents with being good cooks but his own skill behind the grill did not fully kindle until he moved to the Washington, D.C., area. It was there, with the prodding of family and friends, where he found his calling as a barbecue pitmaster.

So you have an English degree from WVU, and now you’re a world barbecue champion. Are those worlds connected in any sort of galaxy?

Of course. The devil is in the details. When you’re writing or reading, you have to pay attention to details. Those little details can make or break a good story. The same applies to barbecue. You have to be meticulous across the board with everything — from where you buy your meat, the equipment you’re using, the prep work, the temperature you’re cooking with. Any missteps and you’re done. Practice and consistency are also key. When I started cooking competitively, I had to practice making ribs over and over until they weren’t bad anymore. I started with spare ribs and I spent time working and perfecting them. We’ll still practice cooking in the wintertime even when it’s not barbecue season.

How does one get into competitive barbecuing in the first place? 

After I graduated from WVU, I moved near Washington, D.C. [Darnell lives in Bristow, Va.] Me and a group of friends would watch football every weekend, and I had an electric smoker. They loved the pulled pork I’d make. That evolved into buying bigger and better equipment. It kept evolving, and then one day my wife, Kim, had a coworker who asked if I wanted to join their competitive barbecue team.  

Tell me about your team Old Virginia Smoke. 

I spend most weekends cooking and though it’s hard work, we have a lot of fun out there. It’s me, my wife (whom he calls the “Lil’ General”) and our friend Leigh Anne. We do about 30 competitions a year all over the country. Meeting people and making friends has been the best part. And winning isn’t bad, either.  

What processes go into making good barbecue? 

The main thing is not to overpower the meat. Let the meat speak for itself. It should be kissed with spice, salt, sweet and smoke. Not too much of one thing. But just enough of everything. 

And you have a day job, too? 

I work for the Food Marketing Institute. I’m the director of member relations and advocacy for the eastern region. I interface with grocery makers and offer them the services we provide (food safety tests, public affairs, education, research).  

Follow Darnell and his team on their website.