Kings of the ’Q
“Come over for a barbecue!”
John Bergen grills his signature hot Buffalo wings to perfection in his “Big Green Egg.”
Photo by Nina Pomeroy
It’s an invitation we’ve all received, and extended, hundreds of times. In this region of the country, many of us assume that such an invite will include hot dogs and hamburgers, not realizing that the word “barbecue” has nothing at all to do with these popular backyard favorites.
Barbecue, also commonly written as barbeque, bar-b-q, or just BBQ, is often used as an umbrella term for all outdoor cooking. However, there is a distinct difference between barbecuing and the more common grilling. Barbecuing is an indirect method of cooking at low temperatures over long periods of time, whereas grilling is typically done over direct, higher heats for shorter durations.
Brisket, ribs, pork shoulder—these larger cuts of meat require hours of “low and slow” cooking to achieve juicy perfection, and are the stars of barbecue. Chicken breasts, burgers, vegetables—these are better suited to the grill, where all it takes is a few minutes and a few flips before they’re on the table.
We tend to think of barbecue and grilling as all-American activities, but in Argentina it’s a way of life. In 2004, ready for “semi-retirement,” native Wiltonian G.M. O’Connell stepped down from his post as CEO of Modem Media, and moved to Argentina. “We went down for two years,” he explains, “but then we bought property and it turned into seven!”
He quickly became enamored with asado: the tradition of hosting elaborate, day-long parties where meat is grilled in a special outdoor fireplace called a parrilla. “They are a fixture in every Argentinian home, and it’s what you do on the weekends,” he says. When O’Connell returned to Wilton in 2011, he hired a local mason to re-create a parrilla in his backyard, using plans and parts he brought back from South America.
The next step was seeking out local butchers who carry similar cuts of meat to the ones he found in Argentina. “Since there are no sauces or rubs,” he says, “the key is finding really good meat.” O’Connell typically fires up the grill a few times per month and prepares flanken-style ribs—beef short ribs—strip steaks, and chorizo sausages, in addition to other Argentinean specialties. “The asador, or grillmaster, even gets applause when it’s good!” he says.
Matt Ellenthal, a Wilton marketing professional, became intrigued by barbecue while living in Memphis. “It was my first exposure to this cultural phenomenon,” he says. He loved learning about what he described as the “religious approach” people took to developing their cooking methods, recipes, and sauces. Despite not being a meat eater, he developed a taste for smoked chicken, and began experimenting with a turkey fryer and other “bizarre backyard cooking methods”—a charcoal-filled 55-gallon drum on legs.
After moving to Wilton ten years ago, he bought a wood pellet smoker and never turned back. “I really got into smoking lots of things: beef brisket, pork shoulder, duck, turkey, chicken, and salmon,” he explains. “I’m a bit of an anomaly because I don’t eat meat, but I’m happy to bring 25 pounds of smoked brisket to a Fourth of July party.”
When it comes to barbecuing, John Bergen does not mess around. After researching smokers for almost a year, he decided on the Big Green Egg, a ceramic outdoor cooker that not only smokes meat, but also can be used as a grill and/or outdoor oven. “I love it because you can cook at various temperatures, and there is a wider range of things you can do,” he explains. His first attempt on the smoker was a Texas-style brisket, simply flavored with salt and pepper. “The first time I did it, it was just tremendous,” he says.
Also “tremendous” are his hot wings, which have gained something of a cult following among his Wilton friends. His method of grilling the wings over direct heat before saucing and re-grilling ensures juicy meat and crispy skin. “They are simple, but just so good!”
Gregg Leonard and Scott Goodwin met in 2002 while working at Ryan Partnership Wilton and soon realized they shared a love of all things barbecue. Before long, they teamed up and began competing in the Backyard Chef Competition at the annual Westport Blues Views & BBQ Festival. The first year the “Psycho Grillers” entered, they were named First Place Overall Grand Champions. In six years of competition since, they have placed five times, including last year’s first place Chef’s Choice win for their pecan-smoked bacon and lobster mac & cheese.
“I’ve always loved to cook, so gravitating to outdoor cooking via grilling and then barbecuing was a natural progression,” Leonard says. “I also tend to like process-oriented activities, as it gives you a chance to tweak the different variables like charcoal type, wood type, rubs, sauces, temperatures,” he continues. “You are constantly refining and, hopefully, improving your technique.”
All these guys deserve the moniker, “kings of the ’cue.”