Hank Vaiden, right, is pictured outside his Hank’s #1 BBQ restaurant in Columbus, with his 10-year-old son, Houston. At left is Ian Pugh, a member of Vaiden’s Cotton Patch Cooking Crew, an award-winning barbecue cooking team. On the grill, Boston butt, sausage, pork chops, pork steaks, ribs, chicken and burgers smoke “low and slow.” Photo by: Kelly Tippett/Dispatch Staff
May 23, 2012 10:00:05 AM
Memorial Day traditionally serves as the starting pistol for a summer of outdoor smoking and grilling. How better to usher in that mouthwatering season than with a little insight from a master cook?
Hank Vaiden, who owns Hank's #1 BBQ Restaurant and Catering in Columbus, is a veteran of the barbecue wars waged throughout the Memphis Barbecue Network, Kansas City Barbeque Society, Florida BBQ Association and other sanctioned events.
"Competition barbecue, in the last 15 years especially, has gotten so competitive," said Vaiden, deftly applying sauce to succulent pork chops, sausage, ribs, chicken, Boston butt and burgers slowly smoking in his Jack's Old South contest cooker. "You can make a living at it -- but you'd better be damn good."
And he is.
Since forming the Cotton Patch Cooking Crew in 2002, Vaiden has been fortunate enough to walk the awards stage at numerous barbecue contests he and team members Ian Pugh and Richard Perrigin enter. His son, 10-year-old Houston, is learning the craft and sometimes travels with the team when school permits.
"When we go to a contest and get a call or a win, that's a great moment," Vaiden said. "One of the biggest moments is finaling at the world championship. Just to walk that stage is a huge honor, but to be in the top three is amazing with the level of competition there."
Worth listening to
Vaiden's original sauce, Hank's #1 Championship BBQ Sauce, is sold in area groceries including Sunflower and Food Giant. And his own line of Cotton Patch cookers, from backyard to competition models, will soon be ready to market.
The Cotton Patch Cooking Crew even has a major TV debut coming up, in a show called "BBQ Pitmasters," to air May 28 on the Discovery Channel's new "Destination America" (formerly "Planet Green").
Hank Vaiden, in other words, knows what he's talking about.
"My cooking philosophy is very simple: Don't try to make it hard, and don't cook something you wouldn't eat yourself," stated the Hamilton resident, whose earliest culinary training came from his mom, an "amazing cook" renowned for her desserts. He later cooked with several barbecue teams before forming his own.
"I've learned techniques and gotten pointers from some of the best barbecue cooks in the world," he said, mentioning Pat Burke of Tower Rock BBQ, Larry Turman of Magnolia Smokers and Myron Mixon of Jack's Old South team.
"Some people think contest cooking is a big party, but if you're gonna be competitive, you're not gonna party," Vaiden observed. "I'm a firm believer in you never stop learning," he added. "I always learn something at a competition, or even just at the house or store, playing with recipes or trying different woods. When you get to the point you think your stuff is unbeatable, you will get beat!"
Maximize your season
At the top of Vaiden's check list for successfully turning out tender, flavorful smoked meats is to start with quality meat. (Know the difference between smoking and grilling: Grilling is cooking food over direct heat. Smoking is cooking food indirectly, in the presence of a fire -- a much slower process than grilling. All Vaiden's meat is smoked, "low and slow.")
"A big mistake is trying to cook too hot," he said, noting he uses a combination of cherry and peach wood, which has been seasoned about three months. His charcoal choice is natural lump charcoal, which "fires quick and burns hot."
"You have to know how your smoker cooks," he continued. "We use indirect water cookers, cooking with heat, smoke and steam. We flavorize, moisturize and tenderize in an all-in-one process with a combination of fruit woods."
There are varying methods of preparation -- brining, marinating, injecting, curing.
"All that's personal preference," the master cook stated. "I prefer to inject with very strong concentrations of flavor and then rub."
Injecting allows the flavor to be distributed deep and throughout the meat, he explained.
"This works really well, especially with larger cuts of meat such as shoulders, butts, brisket or whole hogs. Injecting and rubbing gives you layers of flavor."
Cooking times are critical.
"That goes hand in hand with knowing your cooker," remarked Vaiden, who cooks ribs six and one half hours, shoulders and brisket 14 hours and butts for eight hours. A whole hog gets 22 hours of cook time and two hours of rest, for a total of 24 hours.
More layers of flavor might be added toward the end of the cook time by applying glaze or sauce.
"They're two different animals," Vaiden explained, pointing out that a glaze is very high in sugar content, making it become thick and tacky throughout the cook, whereas a sauce usually doesn't thicken up as much.
"From beginning to end it's all a process, but it all has to happen a certain way and a certain time," he summed up.
Whether turning out perfectly-smoked and flavored meat for contest judges, or for his valued customers at the restaurant, Vaiden considers every cook a competition to produce the best.
"One of the biggest high points for me in all this," he said, "is that I'm blessed to be fortunate enough to work doing something I truly love."
Enjoy a few of Hank Vaiden's favorite recipes -- including his wife Carol's championship coleslaw -- during your summer season of good eating.
1 medium head of cabbage, grated or shredded
1 1/2 cups of Blue Plate mayo
1 small can dried tomatoes with chili peppers, drained
3 ounces dill pickle juice
PEACH AND THAI
1 pork loin
1 jar of peach preserves
1 Thai pepper
1 bottle of Hanks Sweet Championship BBQ Rub
1 bottle of Hanks regular Championship BBQ Sauce
DELICIOUS GRILLED CHICKEN WINGS
2 pounds chicken wings (washed well and drained)
Creamy Italian dressing
1 pack Oreos
2 (3.75 ounce) packs of vanilla instant pudding mix
3 1/2 cups of milk
1 (12 ounce) container Cool Whip
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese
1/2 stick of butter
1 cup powdered sugar
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.