Steve Wlodarczyk, Pros & Joes BBQ Winner, Shares Tips for Prize-Winning BBQ Chicken

On Memorial weekend, Results Radio sponsored its sixth annual Pros and Joes BBQ Grilldown in downtown Redding. There, professional cooks (Pros) and lay cooks (Joes) competed to see who could barbecue or smoke the best ribs, tri-tip and chicken. Over the next few weeks we’ll talk with some of the winning Joes, and learn some tips.

We start this series with Melinda Wlodarczyk (pronounced wood-ar-sik – which many people shortened to “Woody”), whose last name you might recognize from the family-owned Woody’s Brewing Company in Redding.

Woody’s sponsored the team “Okie Dokie Steve – Southern Style BBQ” — which went on to win first place in the chicken category for the Joes side of the Pros and Joes BBQ Grilldown.

Melinda’s brother-in-law, Steve Wlodarczyk of Rohnert Park, was the Woody-family’s designated barbecuer who didn’t just bring home first place for his chicken, but he also placed 4th for tri-tip and 5th for ribs. Melinda is speaking for Steve today because he’s on vacation.

Q: First, thank you, Melinda, for standing in for Steve today. I don’t think I’ve ever done a third-party Q&A, but I’ll give it a whirl. I guess we can start by asking you to tell us a bit about Steve. Who is this prize-winning barbecuer?

Steve was born in Holland, Michigan, but moved to Rohnert Park, California, in 1968 when his father took a job promotion. Steve earned a college football scholarship at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. He ended up staying in Oklahoma, marrying, and raising his family there. About 20 years ago Steve took up the hobby of barbecuing and using smokers.

Q: The name of your Woody’s-sponsored winning team with Steve at the helm was “Okie Dokie Steve – Southern Style BBQ”. I get the second part, but how about the “Okie Dokie Steve” part?

The “Okie” in “Okie Dokie Steve” came from Oklahoma. For the competition, my husband Scott (via Woody’s) sponsored Steve, and Scott also managed and directed Steve’s competition. Their brother Pat (Woody’s award-winning brewer) assisted Steve in the prep and cooking process.

The Wlodarczyk brothers, from left, Scott, Pat and Steve, and the bros’ Pros and Joes awards.

Q: So although the three Wlodarczyk brothers were participants, Steve was the official grill competitor. How about if we get right to the cooking part of this discussion, since that’s what this is all about, for my own selfish reasons. I know my way around a kitchen, and am an above-average cook, but barbecue totally intimidates me, so I really want to learn some barbecuing secrets. Let’s start with the basics, like Steve’s barbecue style. How does he describe it?

He calls his style “Southern BBQ”.  In Oklahoma, barbecue favorites are ribs, pork shoulder for pulled pork, and briskets.  Most of the barbecue in Oklahoma is dry, and the emphasis is on the rub, not the sauce.  Most Oklahoma folks also like their barbecue this way, with sauce on the side.  Tri-tips are nearly unheard of in Oklahoma, so this was a new adventure for Steve in the Pros and Joes contest, which was his very first competition.

Q: It’s amazing that this was Steve’s first competition, and yet he won first place in chicken. What do you think made him a winner?

Steve uses low heat and slow cooking to produce the most tender and tasty meat.  In addition, during his 20 years of experimenting with barbecuing and cooking, he developed his own rub, using 14 ingredients, which he’s given us permission to share.

Q: We appreciate that, and look forward to the recipe. Thank you. Now, if we could talk about barbecue equipment for a moment, I couldn’t help but notice that Steve’s smoker didn’t exactly look like a simple home-barbecuer’s smoker. That thing is a smoking monster! It looked far more pro than regular Joe to me.

Steve Wlodarczyk’s 12-foot smoker helped him make prize-winning chicken, tri-tip and ribs.

Over the years in Oklahoma, Steve’s excellent results using a smoker to make ribs, briskets and pulled pork were noticed by many, especially the years he served as principal at Madill High School.  To his surprise, Ron Clampet, an FFA Ag/Mechanics teacher at Madill High School, included Steve as one person in the community who he felt was deserving of receiving one of several class projects in which his students would build 12-foot-long offset, reverse-flow stick (wood) burning smokers.

Making these smokers gave students a chance to practice their metal-works skills in welding, cutting, torching, etc.  The smoker was awarded to Steve at cost, plus a donation to the FFA program.

Q: Wow, what an honor that must have been for him. So now Steve truly has a one-of-a-kind smoker. Eventually, Steve must have found his way to California, and he brought his smoker with him?

Yes. two-and-a-half years ago, when Steve’s father was diagnosed with cancer, Steve chose to leave Oklahoma to assist the family in Rohnert Park with his father’s care. He arrived towing his 12-foot smoker! After his father’s passing, Steve chose to stay in his hometown. Being part of our family, he arrived weekend after weekend as Woody’s was being designed and remodeled, helping with anything we asked, and feeding us his Southern BBQ.

Q: No wonder your Woody’s team selected Steve as the head cook. I’m curious, as confident as he must be with his barbecuing skills by now, did the first-place win for chicken – not to mention placing in tri-tip and ribs – come as a surprise to Steve?

Absolutely. Interestingly enough, Steve rarely smokes or barbecues chicken, yet he still won first place! It came as a total surprise to him to win first. Even more surprising was to even place in the tri-tip category, since he’s totally new to tri-tip.

Q: That is pretty amazing, but let’s not focus on that fact too much, since the other contestants might find this information an extremely bitter pill to swallow. On the other hand, stories like Steve’s are an inspiration for the rest of us home cooks, too. Either way, maybe we should return to the topic of chicken, shall we? What was Steve’s secret to making his award-winning chicken?

First, Steve spatchcocked – yes, spatchcocked – the chickens to ensure faster, more even cooking.

He chose three whole, very fresh chickens purchased the night before competition, which Steve “spatchcocked”. (See a BBC video at the bottom of this article that demonstrates a spatchcocking demonstration.) Then he pulled the skin back from the thighs and scraped off fat from under the skin. He sprayed the skin with oil, to help make it crisp, then applied his rub all over the chicken.

He smoked the chicken using oak, but also cherry wood, since fruit woods are his favorites for cooking chicken. The chicken was smoked skin-side-up for two hours, inside his 12-foot, off-set, reverse-flow-smoker.  At two hours, he removed the chickens, cut them into parts and trimmed the thighs uniformly.  After than he took the chicken to a Weber charcoal kettle and cooked it to the proper temperature, and to the desired skin crispness. He basted it with a sauce that included some Sweet Baby Ray’s Sweet and Spicy Sauce, and the rest of the sauce ingredients were his own additions, like brown sugar, some heat, and various spices.

Steve Wlodarczyk, sponsored by Woody’s Brewery, holds his prize-winning chicken.

Q: Wow. I’m beginning to understand why my barbecued chicken is so mediocre. Steve’s process is pretty detailed. That part about scraping the fat from beneath the thigh skin makes sense, but that had never occurred to me. Any other barbecuing or smoking tips, not just for chicken, but for other meats?

Yes, Steve says the main tip for ribs is to use a good rub.  I mentioned earlier that during his 20 years of smoking, he’s created his own signature rub made with 14 ingredients. Oh, and Steve says if you want the ribs to fall of the bone, just cook until that happens. Of course, in a competition, when being timed, this is a bit more difficult. His favorite wood to cook ribs with is hickory, a wood he also uses to smoke pork shoulders.

Q: Interesting tip about how to get the meat to fall off the bone. I’ll remember that. What about tips for brisket?

For briskets, Steve exposes them to smoke only 4 to 5 hours since they are very porous. Exposing them to smoke too long can cause a bitter taste. He finds that choosing a mild wood — like pecan — tastes best with brisket.  Especially important is to keep the wood burning as coals, not with fresh wood, in order to reduce the chance of bitterness.  Then, he finishes them wrapped in foil, and of course, the time in the foil depends upon the size of the brisket. The briskets are the most tricky as he must watch carefully so as to keep the flat end tender, and not overdone.

Q: I know steaks weren’t part of the contest, but as long as we have you here, any tips for steaks? And along the same lines, what is the biggest mistake people make with barbecuing?

For grilling steaks, Steve enjoys using mesquite, which is the Texan’s favorite wood to use on anything.  But mesquite also has the biggest smoke flavor, which is exactly what can mess up what would be a good BBQ, as some people don’t care for a BIG mesquite flavor.

Q: I’m taking notes. Easy on the mesquite. Got it. Now, what about brines? Thumbs up or down?

Steve only brines chicken or turkey when he plans to smoke them. However, for the competition, as per the rules, brines were not allowed. But with turkey – outside of this conversation about the contest – he brines it overnight. With chicken he’ll brine it for an hour or two, using salt, sugar and any dry herbs or spices he feels like using at the time.

Q: Good to know. OK, one last question: Now that Steve’s won this contest, do you think he’ll take his 12-foot smoker on the road?

Steve may enter more competitions, but he will not be taking his show on the road!  He is presently a teacher of special education P.E. in Sonoma.

Busy guy, for sure. And he shared so much information with us through you. I learned so much here today. Please thank Steve for us, and thank you, Melinda.

(Readers, here’s Steve’s list of rub ingredients, though it’s a guide. The quantities are up to you. Happy barbecuing!)

Steve’s Fantastic Fourteen Rub

(Here’s the rub, but it’s more a list than a recipe. No quantities are given. Steve just throws it together as he sees fit. We can do the same.)

Brown sugar
Turbinado sugar
Onion powder
Garlic powder
Sweet Hungarian paprika
Black pepper
Mustard powder
Poultry seasoning
Ground ginger
Chili powder
Lawry’s salt
Celery salt 

How to spatchcock a chicken: “spatchcocked”.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate. Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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