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Pitmaster Tuffy Stone keeping his eyes on the prize at this year’s National Capital Barbecue Battle, even through sauce-splattered glasses (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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Tuffy leads a class at his monthly cooking school. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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The nook holds just a few trophies, ribbons and plaques — wife Leslie estimates the team has won roughly 500 total. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
There’s a treasure trove in Lakeside to which Tuffy Stone will only sheepishly lay claim.
In a crowded nook around a quiet corner — as if intentionally hidden — tiny, glimmering pigs, cows, chickens, stars and angels perch atop dozens of multi-tiered trophies, one or two standing 4 feet tall. It is, quite literally, an embarrassment of riches for a man so modest: more than a decade’s worth of awards earned on the competitive barbecue circuit.
The first thing to know about barbecue is that cooking it is a sport in its own right.
With more than 20,000 members in the Kansas City Barbeque Society — the world’s largest barbecue-focused organization — and more than 500 annual events each drawing dozens of teams, the widely adored culinary art is more popular now than ever. And it requires more than a bottle of Sweet Baby Ray’s off your grocer’s shelf.
Pitmasters pour tens of thousands of dollars into their smokers, rigs and RVs, and, unless they’re sponsored, often provide their own meat. It takes entry fees that can cost hundreds at a time. It takes rising before the sun to start a fire, stoking it for hours and timing brisket, pork, chicken and ribs to be perfectly tender/crisp/seasoned/moist by the time each hits its own shell — fancy nomenclature for a Styrofoam to-go container and a bed of garnish, which, yes, will be a factor in the score for presentation. Competitors adhere to a strict set of rules: If you’re one minute past your turn-in window, you are disqualified. If your ribs are fall-off-the-bone overcooked, kiss that $2,000 cash prize goodbye. The skin on that chicken thigh pulls on one judge’s solitary bite? You probably won’t even get a ribbon. Fortunes and reputations rise and fall with those single bites that determine your place and must encompass flavor, texture, sauce and succulence in one mouthful. This ain’t your backyard barbecue.
Richmond’s own Tuffy Stone is the Jimmy Stewart of the circuit, an everyman who’s equal parts boyish charm, wiry bent and wry wit, with one of the most distinctive voices to call out cook times. With a Southern twang thick as the honey in his sauce, it’s rare that you’ll hear the full “-ing” hanging off the edge of a word, and for those words to take the form of bragging is more uncommon still.
Tuffy Stone, 53, was born “George” and nicknamed at 2 by his mama in an effort to keep her husband’s and son’s names straight. He is Southern hospitality personified, an aw-shucks in human form. In the barbecue world, he’s known as The Professor: The man can talk, and he’ll teach you a thing or two. He’s a man who’s given his competitor meat though it full well hurt his own chances at winning. He’s humble as can be while running through the rows of framed ribbons and plaques on the wall of his North Side cooking school, especially the two large robes and play-gaudy crowns that denote his 2013 and 2014 wins at the American Royal World Series of Barbecue, or those mustachioed statues, Jaspers — coveted awards from the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue competition. Teams can compete without ever holding one. Tuffy has seven, and will compete in this year’s Jack on Oct. 22 and the American Royal beginning Oct. 26.
“The hardest trophy to get in this whole room is this little clear plastic one in between the two robes, and that was back in 2007,” he says, fondly. “We were team of the year, so that embodies the whole year in review — and I’ve got my grandfather screamin’ in my ear right now ’cause I’m not a braggish person.”
If there’s any crack to be found in Tuffy Stone’s unending stream of pleasantness, it’s hardly a detriment. It is, after all, what nets him all those awards: Tuffy is competition barbecue’s perfectionist.
“Tuffy was always precision; everything’s clean. He’s laser-focused on where he wants to go and what he wants to get. He’s all about hitting the steps and his marks, and that’s how you become Grand Champion: that consistency.” So says Marlando “Big Moe” Cason, whose rig is two down from Tuffy’s at the Giant National Capital Barbecue Battle one sweltering late-June day in Washington, D.C. The ground’s so hot that a meat thermometer registers the asphalt at 135 degrees. Over the course of the weekend, the soles of my shoes warp and melt. In a crowd of 103,000 guests and competitors, odds are good that mine weren’t the only casualties.
“Once you know something is working for you and you stay regimented on that, it eventually is going to pay off for you.” Cason should know. He’s competed against Tuffy for more than five years and even judged alongside him on “BBQ Pitmasters,” the reality show that made “Tuffy” and “Moe” first-name-basis celebrities. “I mean, Tuffy doesn’t cook a lot of contests, but whenever he does, he knocks it out of the park. Some guys have got to cook 30 or 40 just to win a couple of them, and he can go out and do only three or four in a year and G.C. ’em or be right there at second or third. That’s a man that understands his ’cue and where he needs to be.”
At Tuffy’s rig, George Stone Sr. takes a load off in a lawn chair. This half of the father-son Cool Smoke team woke up to start the fire at 2 a.m. Now’s the point in the competition where he rests after his graveyard shift.
Tuffy, meanwhile, is working with precision. As cook time nears completion, he dusts chicken thighs with the meticulousness of a Marine Corps engineer, which he was, and paints each slice of brisket with a thin coat of au jus — a keen attention to moisture spurred by years as a French-trained chef. As he slices, tweaks and gently prods the meat with his fingers, he becomes absorbed. The thin frame of his glasses slips slowly down the bridge of his narrow nose. Sweat beads his forehead, then his cheeks, then his neck in the 98-degree afternoon. He occasionally snaps, a quick flash of exasperation directed at his father; his team of surrounding hands; or his wife, Leslie. There’s barbecue sauce on his lenses. There’s urgency and impatience in his voice: “The shell needs to be angled. Where’s my brush? There are too many people around. Who put this tray over here?”
Tuffy and Leslie demo in the cooking school. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
He becomes agitated in his quest for perfection. His lips purse. The clock is ticking. But Tuffy’s extreme focus on detail and the mental composure needed to pull it off will, in turn, pay off: That day, Cool Smoke takes America’s Best BBQ Sauce Contest, the National Pork BBQ Championship and fifth in the Smithfield Rib Contest. And even when he snaps, he apologizes for it later. It’s not in his nature to do otherwise.
This perfectionism and determination propels Tuffy beyond the circuit, too: a cookbook deal with St. Martin’s Press, two new TV opportunities currently in discussion, invitations to teach barbecue abroad. Each is a link in a chain: Another win elevates his placement in the circuit; an elevated placement brings new business ventures; new ventures bring about TV shows and national sponsorships that trickle down to name recognition, which means more guests at his restaurants. Tuffy Stone would humbly tell you he’s just trying to make a living, because the circuit alone doesn’t pay the bills. The truth of it is, he can’t stop moving, and part of him likes it that way.
“The funny thing is, he’s like One Direction to all of these middle-aged men. He’s the Harry Styles of barbecue.” —Robert Jacob Lerma, photographer
As he works, every third passerby stops to ask for his autograph. He somehow makes time for them all between his precisely timed spritzing of pineapple juice and building the boxes: his artistic and strategic assembly of the final barbecue-atop-garnish within a shell. Sometimes fans appear asking for a photo, other times to shake his hand and pick up a bottle of Tuffy’s signature sauce from Q Barbeque, his fast-casual chain with four locations in Midlothian, Glen Allen and Short Pump. All of these — in addition to the cooking school and adjacent catering operation, A Sharper Palate — he co-owns with Leslie, his supportive better half, his strategic right hand and, often, his stern voice of reason. She’s the conductor who keeps the Tuffy train running.
“The funny thing is, he’s like One Direction to all of these middle-aged men,” laughs Robert Jacob Lerma, a traveling photographer well-versed in Tuffy and the circuit. “He’s the Harry Styles of barbecue.”
“It’s kind of unexpected,” 16-year-old Sam says from inside the RV. Tuffy and Leslie’s only child almost always tags along to the competition in D.C. “All these random people come up and, like, talk to him and try to get pictures with him. I didn’t know that barbecue people got that much recognition. But it’s cool, though.” Sam’s been helping his family’s barbecue business since he was around 7 or 8 — so long that he doesn’t even remember a time when his dad wasn’t cooking it. But even a legendary back-to-back Grand Champion has to start somewhere.
Tuffy and his son at a competition in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
Tuffy doesn’t remember the first time he tried barbecue, but he does remember his grandmother’s sourdough starter. Florence Stone taught her Lynchburg-raised grandson how to fish, how to make bread and, though he’d probably blush to hear it, how to light up a room. “She had the ability to make everybody in a room feel special,” he remembers. “She was one of the most important people of my life.” When she died unexpectedly of a stroke while making watermelon pickles in the heat of July 2000, on the first day of a three-day process, all Tuffy could do was to pick up her recipe card and continue where she left off, his back to a kitchen full of people while quietly finishing her project. It would be almost 16 years until he made that recipe again.
In the mid-’80s, he made her sourdough starter three times a week in a small apartment on Monument Avenue as he dipped his toes into cooking. “I always liked the fact that I was makin’ somethin’ that started at her house,” he says, smiling.
He’d just moved to Richmond after four highly successful years in the Marine Corps, where he’d studied engineering, graduated with honors and turned down a $30,000 reenlistment bonus to move closer to his family. While studying political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, he turned to restaurant gigs to pay the bills. Tuffy worked at the Commonwealth Club, but even more importantly, as a salad bar host at Strawberry Street Café, where he met Leslie. Eventually he realized cooking was something beyond a domestic skill, and something he enjoyed, so he compiled a list of the city’s best chefs at the time. Right at the top was Alain Vincey, the French chef of La Maisonette. Donning a tie, Tuffy entered the impeccably clean kitchen, where he found Jacques Cousteau’s former cook in his chef’s jacket and toque. The sous chef was fileting a whole fish, Vincey was turning potatoes and they had stock simmering on a French flattop; it was unlike any kitchen Tuffy had seen.
Alain told him he’d call. Tuffy knew he wouldn’t. “So I went home, thought about it all that night, came back the next morning and knocked on the door of his kitchen and I told him I would work for free on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 8 to noon and do whatever — wash dishes, rinse lettuce — I didn’t think he’d say no, and he didn’t.”
“Most people who come to barbecue don’t come to it like Tuffy. None that I know of. Not like a French chef,” says one anonymous master judge, a designation that means he has more than 50 contests under his belt. His take? Tuffy’s background as a French-trained chef is the secret to the pit boss’s success. “I think that’s what makes him a winner; he can discriminate. When I watch him on ‘Pitmasters,’ it makes me wish I could taste the way Tuffy tastes, because as a judge I need to do that, but it’s training I’ll never have.”
Eventually Tuffy would become both a sous chef and a partner at La Maisonette, then move on to Millie’s Diner and in 1993, launch A Sharper Palate with Leslie, where they would hire Vincey himself. But the management role Tuffy assumed at his own catering company — one of the largest such operations in the region — was far removed from the time he loved in the kitchen, and he needed a way to reignite that fire. And so, in March of 2004, he bought his first pit. He made a rub. He purchased a pork butt. He butchered his first attempt at barbecue.
“Barbecue is as difficult as most cuisines out there, and I never expected that,” he says. “That was a surprise for me.” Charred, dry and tough, his first piece of meat was a disappointment, but it accomplished Tuffy’s goal: It fanned a new passion. It wasn’t until his brother-in-law suggested entering competitions that Tuffy considered time on the circuit, and while the instigator dropped out early on, Tuffy toughed it out, and so did his father.
“I learned how to make all these hard-to-pronounce foods that were expensive to buy, and as I got into barbecue, I realized that it doesn’t discriminate: You don’t have to be rich to have it, you don’t have to be poor to have it. No one’s intimidated by it, no one’s afraid to pronounce it.”
JAMES BEARD, MEET GRANDMA
The kitchen of the James Beard House is the culinary promised land of Greenwich Village, and arguably the food mecca of New York City. Inarguably, an invitation to cook there is one of the most prestigious opportunities a chef can receive, especially for one who cut his teeth in a French restaurant.
Frank (left) and Tuffy prep for dinner at the James Beard House. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
On a warm mid-August night, Leslie is saucing an aïoli onto fried oysters as guests, photographers, and James Beard Foundation board members and staff all push through the open kitchen’s crammed walkway. Richmond chef, frequent collaborator and family friend J. Frank is skewering ruby-pink rib-eye. In the corner, Danielle Goodreau of Tuffy, Leslie and chef-restaurateur Ed Vasaio’s recently shuttered Rancho T is tweezing microgreens with great concentration. In the center of the 600-square-foot space is Tuffy Stone himself, consulting a clipboard. A verbal rundown starts slow and gathers speed until it’s rapid-fire: “Those crab cakes are gettin’ fired at 7:40. The carrots are draining. Pickled vegetables are draining, pork belly’s cut, mustard seeds are strained, briskets have not been cut, greens are hot, corn puddin’s hot, pineapple hot dish has not been heated, compote is mixed.” The guests are devouring Tuffy’s hors d’oeuvres, clearing a plate of pork-stuffed corn muffins in fewer than two minutes. Hell, some plates don’t make it out of the kitchen.
Five courses in the Beard House’s sold-out dining enclave later, and all 78 guests are clapping furiously as the humble chef lets his staff and the quality of his ingredients take the credit for the meal’s success. “I brought a little of my grandmother into that menu,” he tells me later. “The dessert, the pineapple hot dish, was hers. And then I riffed and did a compote, but we ended up doing the watermelon pickles and then doing them with pineapple. The last time I made my grandmother’s watermelon pickles was, uh …” he trails off. “My grandmother was a real great lady.” Though the night of the Beard dinner was the only time he’d made that recipe since his grandmother’s passing, he continues to use her cutting board every day. Pots and pans that belonged to his mother, another influence since passed, find a spot in every cooking class and barbecue competition when it comes time to make sauce. The two barrels of his rig, Big Red, carry their names: Charlotte and Florence.
“I realized that [barbecue] doesn’t discriminate: You don’t have to be rich to have it, you don’t have to be poor to have it. No one’s intimidated by it, no one’s afraid to pronounce it.” —Tuffy Stone
“Sometimes we have people in our lives and then they’re gone, and we remember them for a long time, but we get busy and maybe don’t think of those folks quite like we should.” Tuffy says, softly. “I don’t use my pots every day, but when we get to that moment where we get to use something, or touch something or be by something from them, for me for that moment is like, ‘Hey, Mom. Hey, Grandmother. I miss ya.’” His eyes glance upward beyond the roof of his trailer.
There’s a saying Tuffy repeats in his cooking school, during his competitions and, really, at any point someone wants to know his secret, as if there were just one. Should you ask, the Marine veteran, French-trained chef, family man, sentimentalist, reality-TV star, restaurateur, caterer and eventual author will probably tell you in a sweet, Southern drawl, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” Hear it enough and you’ll realize it’s more than a humble way to accept a compliment; it’s a reminder — from Tuffy, to Tuffy — to always stay moving. As if he could ever stop.