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3-Course Interview: Jeff Struckhoff & James Cruse 

The barbecue pitmasters talk about what it takes to compete in Hogs for the Cause

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The Aporkalypse Now team was named High on the Hog Grand Champion and won the Best Ribs and Best Whole Hog awards at 2015's Hogs for the Cause, a barbecue and pig roast festival that raises funds to support families dealing with pediatric brain cancer. Team captain Jeff "Chickenfoot the Goat Slayer" Struckhoff, an attorney at team-sponsoring law firm Galloway Johnson, and pitmaster James Cruse spoke to Gambit about smoking a hog and competing at the event.

What makes a winning team?

Cruse: Communication is huge with us. Throughout the year we focus on the charity aspect and developing the team. I travel the country competing. We pass recipes back and forth through email. You need to go in there on top of your game, prepared.

  A lot of guys will Google, "How long does it take to cook a hog?" and that doesn't work. You've got ambient temperature, the size of the hog, moisture content, marbling, thermal mass and fat content. All that plays into it. The hog will tell you when it's done.

Struckhoff: At the competition, timing is everything. For the whole hog, if you are turning it in to the judges at 2:30, you don't want it done at 8 a.m. The same goes for public food. At the event, we have parallel tracks: We have competition food that has to be executed at a certain time, and we also have to have a steady flow of public food coming out.

  There are a lot of great chefs that participate in this, and while they make great smoked meat in their restaurant every day, they are not exactly making barbecue competition meat that has a very different flavor profile.

Is there a flavor profile to target in a New Orleans barbecue competition?

C: You have to have sweet, salty, spicy and savory. New Orleans doesn't really have a signature barbecue, but you've got to go with something that is balanced with a little extra flair.

How is the competition different from home barbecuing?

C: There are three aspects to the competition: fundraising, front-end sales and the competition side. Competition barbecue is a whole other animal. You have to differentiate what you like to eat and what you turn in at a competition.

  At competition, your main focus is one bite, so you can go over the top with that one bite. For us, it starts with the quality of meat that we buy and ingredients we make ourselves. For the whole hog, there are three mandatory categories — loin, ham and shoulder — and then it's up to you to turn in the fourth — or fifth and sixth — meat. The fourth is a game-time decision. Whatever cooked nice on the hog — you might even get pig lips this year.

  Sleep is overrated. That is what Sunday is for. Throughout the night, you have to make sure to have at least one other person on hand to rotate (the hog), to flip it. It might weigh 80, 100 pounds; physically I can lift it, but at 3 o'clock in the morning, it is hot — that hog is at 200 degrees.

S: When you are in City Park at 6 o'clock in the morning and there are 90 smokers going and a haze rising through the trees, it is pretty spectacular. It just puts you in a good mood for the whole day. Everyone is out there to have a good time and raise money.

  We put a lot of thought into our public food. Most people are like us — foodies — and want to try as many things as possible when they go to a festival. For this year, look for us to put a barbecue twist on a theme park favorite.

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