It was a different kind of secondhand smoke that led Josh Kearns to the backyard barbecue lifestyle.
As the GM of Dusty's Bar in Creekside, over the years Kearns has had a front-row seat as teams have cycled through Whistler to compete in the Canadian National BBQ Championships.
That close proximity to some of North America's finest grill masters has evidently (dry) rubbed off on him. (Sorry.)
"I never owned a smoker until I got more involved in this event, and after years of doing it I now own a couple smokers in my backyard," Kearns said. "Now I look forward to my weekends off where I pull out the smoker and cook cuts of meat."
It's that mix of seasoned competitors and weekend warriors that makes this annual three-day celebration of meat so distinct. A highlight of the Pacific Northwest circuit, the event brings out a who's who of the competitive barbecue scene, with entries to the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue in Tennessee up for grabs.
"For Whistler, there is no other event quite like this one," said Kearns. "People can come and actually have the opportunity to taste authentic, American-style barbecue cooked by people from all over the States and Canada. It's an experience in itself."
But the three-day festival, scheduled for Aug. 4 to 6, is also an opportunity for the less experienced barbecuer to test their skills behind the grill through a variety of different competitions, including the Backyard Barbecue Championship and the King of the Grill.
"Learning how to cook pork shoulder overnight for 18 hours is a little trickier than going into your backyard," Kearns mused. "So (the burger championship) allows people who've never done the big competition to come in and cook burgers — a lot of people know how to cook really good burgers — and at King of the Grill, you can do anything you want, anything you can cook on an outdoor grill, be it charcoal, propane or in a smoker, that you think is so good that it can actually win a competition."
Whistler's own Smokin Hot Box will be cooking competitively for the first time at the championships, and Suzanne Adamson sees it as the perfect way to introduce the public to her boyfriend Michel Malo's slow-smoked ribs and burgers.
"To see our name out there and be a part of the whole local scene is what we're after," she said.
Originally from Germany, Malo has spent countless hours beefing up on the tricks of the barbecue trade so, come judgement day, the Smokin Hot Box will be serving up mouth-watering, championship-level ribs.
"We've done a lot of research on what the judges are looking for in competition ribs. We've been doing a lot of testing at home and trying to get that balance of spicy, sweet and fruity notes," she said.
Also on tap this year is Saturday's You Be the Judge BBQ Sauce Contest, which for the second year will ask competitors to whip up their very own marinade made with Bulleit brand Bourbon, with the winners decided by the sticky-fingered public.
Getting attendees in on the action is all part of organizers' long-stated goal of educating the meat-loving masses on the flavours and techniques of down-home Southern cooking.
"Back in 2000 (when the event started), American barbecue was pretty new to the region," recalled Kearns. "So the idea behind getting the crowd involved is educating them, showing the diversity of barbecue and how different the flavours can be. Yes, it's always pork ribs, pork shoulders, brisket and chicken, but the flavour profiles are so unique."
The weekend kicks off Friday with Whole Lotta Ribs, an all-you-can-eat rib dinner followed by the live musical stylings of local rock dudes Whole Lotta Led. On Saturday, the meat-stravaganza continues with the Bottomless BBQ Buffet, featuring Dusty's smoked brisket and ribs, Kansas City-style smoked chicken, pulled pork, and all the fixings, capped off by local band Those Guys at 10 p.m. Sunday features more competitive action, family entertainment from noon to 3 p.m., and the final awards ceremony at 4:30 p.m. For the full schedule of events, visit www.whistlerblackcomb.com.