Talkin’ Turkey: Sean Vodden Takes Home Top Prize
In a medium-sized conference room in Holland, Michigan on a snowy November day over four years ago, I sat on one side of the table staring back at literally decades of experience in the form of five businessmen and marketing experts. One of which I at least somewhat knew, the others I had no idea how they would react to this loud barbeque guy from “down south” and his crazy ideas and insistence on getting involved in the World Championship Barbeque Cooking Contest, better known as Memphis in May. I had one card to play, I was willing to sign on to anything they needed me to do as a consultant, the price tag was a full sponsorship and commitment to getting across that heralded stage and letting me put together a team and run it no questions asked so long as I got results.
Still, to this day, I don’t think they knew what they signed up for or what it would mean to the company. For that matter, I still have no idea why they agreed to the terms, but I am glad they did. As soon as the head nods and handshakes were traded the planning for what would become “Team Grilla” began.
Preparing Team Grilla for the Competition
I raced back to my hotel room and called up “the crew” and said simply one thing. “We’re back, clear off your schedule for May.” “The crew” consisted of the most talented and loyal people I knew. People I could trust with my future livelihood and the success of a company in the process of relaunching. The crew is made up of brave souls who can deal with my leadership style, who are not afraid of hard work but most important there isn’t a single person with an ego among them. Every one of them a champion in their own right and leaders in the industry. They come from all walks of life; chefs, authors, bloggers, lawyers, maintenance men, veterans and they all shared one common thread. All had been on a team at Memphis in May that had huge potential but failed to win due to team turmoil or succumbing to the seduction of the Memphis in May party life. All of these people just wanted to win and wanted to do whatever it took to get on that stage one time and they knew this was likely a one and done deal and treated it as such.
Fast forward four years a few faces on Team Grilla has changed, but not the key ingredients that have put us on stage every time we have gone to Memphis in May. The team stays committed to pushing Grilla Grills to the forefront in the barbeque world and winning without ego.
Preparing The Winning Dish
This year a new category was announced as an ancillary competition for Memphis in May. The National Turkey Federation partnered with Memphis in May and created the “Turkey Smoke” contest. With any new category, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the rules and requirements. I quickly asked Chef Sean Vodden to tackle the category. Sean is a great chef and competitor and puts 100% into everything he does. He and I worked closely to dial in my dishes for the World Food Championships last year. He was able to “chef up” my dishes pushing them to the next level. Sean and I spent a lot of time discussing the turkey category and various ideas. Sean’s natural instinct is to “chef up” all things he touches and while this is an asset, it can be a liability when it comes to Memphis in May judging. In just the same way Sean was able to help me for World Food I was able to dial in his ideas and flavor concepts into more what the judges would be looking for. Long and short, the judges want something relatable, tasty and in the vein of barbeque. After some more team discussions and us pitching ideas, Sean settled on making a Turkey Roulade.
The dish itself wasn’t complicated and consisted of a turkey breast that was pounded flat, stuffed with turkey sausage, cheese, various aromatics and then wrapped in turkey bacon and glazed with a sweet barbeque sauce for color. But that isn’t the whole flavor story at all.
Sean cooked the dish on my personal Grilla I call “The OG” over a mix of Hickory and Pecan pellets. My OG has over 2,000 hours of cook time on it and I unapologetically try to find the breaking point of this particular unit as it is my test unit for Grilla. It has never failed me, not once and has won about 15 trophies in its time.
Mastering The Art of Grilling with Grilla Grills
The other part of the story is the OG’s ability to quickly change temps which was key to the overall success of the dish. Being able to slow down the cook so the sauce took on more smoke after having run the cooker at 350 degrees initially to cook the turkey to perfect tenderness is the difference between 15th place and 1st place. Those 1 hundredths of a point are the difference at the world championship level and crucial to success and cannot be overlooked.
At Memphis in May every team has about $10,000 in expenses so everyone is a talented cook. For Team Grilla to have continued success at Memphis in May is incredible. For that success to continue to happen with products made specifically to make you a star in your backyard is exceptional. I am humbled and honored every day to be a part of this crazy thing called Grilla Grills and contributing in some small way to their overall success. I still can’t help but chuckle a little bit about that meeting over four years ago and wonder, did they have any idea what they were getting themselves into. I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know they have kept me around all this time, so for that, I am grateful.
Thanks for talkin’ turkey with me friends. Until next time.
Pitmaster Shane D