Monk: On a perfect spring day in a perfect setting, the first annual Carolina BBQ Festival capped off Barbecue Month in style at the Boileryard at Camp North End in Charlotte in late May.
My hopes were high, as I had previously written, and I was heartened to see that first the VIP then the General Admission tickets sold out in the weeks ahead of the festival. As someone who can now be considered a longtime Charlottean (having lived here for 17+ years), sometimes you can never tell whether Charlotte is going to show up for a brand new festival but Lewis Donald and team can build off a sold out festival going into next year’s edition.
Of course, the big selling point for the festival was the barbecue talent rubbing elbows together, and on that front it did not disappoint.
The biggest lines on the day were for former Charlottean Bryan Furman’s whole hog served with his signature bourbon peach sauce that pulled from his current Georgia roots. Tay Nelson of Bobby’s BBQ in Fountain Inn, SC handled the sides of slaw and an almost dessert-like sweet potato side dish that seemed to be a fan favorite.
Elliot Moss built a behemoth cinder block pit on the Boileryard grounds and smoked his eastern NC (though more accurately SC Pee Dee-style) whole hogs overnight. Matt Register of Southern Smoke brought the elevated sides of a BBQ saltine cracker casserole with a tomato salad and cornbread.
Not to be outdone, Nathan Monk, the 3rd generation pitmaster of Lexington Barbecue, brought a bunch of Lexington-style pork shoulders and red slaw smoked the night before in the storied Lexington Barbecue pits while Brandon Shepherd of Shepherd’s Barbecue in Emerald Isle handled the sides of Mexican street corn and baked beans.
For those fortunate enough to snag a VIP ticket, Jon G’s brought the heat with their beef rib croissant and jalapeno cheddar grits with a burnt end garnish while Sweet Lew’s provided a pickled ramp sausage and cheesy potatoes and a side of his version of hash and rice.
Oysters were provided by North Sea Oyster Co and Crystal Coast Oysters. Oysters plus a couple of mimosas or bloody marys made for a very filling experience for VIP customers, for sure.
Before I go any further, I should pause to give props to all of the pitmasters who came from all over NC and the southeast, many of which were running off of a lack of sleep due to running their restaurants or handling catering gigs. Not to mention the hogs provided by Ronald Simmons and Master Blend Family Farms.
On the entertainment front, several local bands kept the crowd entertained. Carolina Gator Gumbo started off the afternoon with their cajun creole music before giving way to Justin Fedor & the Denim Denim. Fedor, who also spends time in Charlotte psych-rock band Ancient Cities, channels his country-rock troubadour in this band of his. Finally, Emanuel Wynter capped off the afternoon with his unique blend of his violin skills with a talented band behind him switching easily between genres. In between sets, DJ That Guy Smitty kept the crowd’s heads bopping with his mix of funky and soulful tunes.
As successful as the debut festival was, next year I’d like to see a second wave of customers enter after the initial rush moves through because while there are lengthy lines for the first hour or two, there was not as much activity at the tents in hours 3 and 4 while there was still plenty of food. No doubt Lewis and team are working through that and more tweaks for next year’s festival.
Speaking of which, Lewis told me he has even bigger and better plans for next year’s edition, and I can’t wait until he unveils them to the public. The first Carolina BBQ Festival was certainly a great start to what hopefully becomes a Spring tradition in Charlotte. For me, it more than delivered on its promise to put Charlotte barbecue on the map.
This May at Camp North End in Charlotte, Lewis Donald of Sweet Lew’s BBQ will be having a celebration of pork barbecue (or, just “barbecue” for those of us from NC) and we’re all invited. In addition to a fun looking event, this year’s inaugural Carolina BBQ Festival also has a chance to help put Charlotte on the barbecue map. It will be the first barbecue festival in Charlotte for quite a few years, it will bring together some of the best pitmasters in the southeast, and it will also spotlight the still growing Charlotte barbecue scene.
It’s been almost 8 years since Charlotte hosted a true barbecue festival. Part barbecue-competition, part street festival, the Q City Championship ran for a few years in uptown Charlotte during the fall and was initially sanctioned by the Memphis Barbecue Network before switching over to the short-lived NC BBQ Association for its last iteration in 2014. It closed off the streets of uptown Charlotte for competition teams to waft smoke all over uptown but since you couldn’t taste the teams’ barbecue it didn’t feel dissimilar to the annual Taste of Charlotte or Speed Street festivals.
The Carolina BBQ Festival, on the other hand, looks to be a whole different animal. First off, its focus is strictly on pork instead of the multiple proteins needed for a competition turn-in box. Patrons will be able to enjoy beer, wine, and cocktails with a background of funk, soul, and bluegrass but the focus of the festival will be celebrating the different styles of barbecue throughout the Carolinas – East, South, and West (or Piedmont or Lexington-style).
Not to mention the proceeds from the festival will go to three charities: the Piedmont Culinary Guild, Operation BBQ Relief, and World Central Kitchen.
Charlotte-raised Bryan Furman of B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue and Tay Nelson of Bobby’s BBQ will represent the Palmetto state, smoking a whole hog and dressing it with a mustard-based sauce. Bryan Furman is looking for his next opportunity in Atlanta after the unfortunate burning down of his second restaurant some years ago but has been recently doing pop-ups in the Atlanta area. Tay Nelson has found success in Fountain Inn, SC (just outside of Greenville) after he famously opened up Bobby’s BBQ after doing extensive research on YouTube.
Nathan Monk, third generation owner of Lexington Barbecue, and Elliot Moss of Buxton Hall Barbecue in Asheville will represent the West, cooking Piedmont or Lexington-style shoulders. Loyal readers know this blog’s thoughts on Lexington Barbecue, and it will be fascinating to see Moss’ influence on Lexington-style barbecue where his focus has primarily been Pee Dee-style whole hog and brisket at his restaurant in Asheville.
Matthew Register of the fantastic Southern Smoke and Brandon Shepard of Shepard Barbecue in Emerald Isle will handle the eastern NC vinegar-pepper duties. I was a big fan of Southern Smoke when I visited in Summer 2020 and hope to be able to catch up with Matthew again while he’s in town. I haven’t yet had the chance to try Shepard Barbecue but between this and the Pinehurst Barbecue Festival, he’s got a busy summer coming up.
And Ronald Simmons of Master Blend Family Farms in Kenansville, NC will be providing all hogs and pork for the festival. He himself has been getting into barbecue after being a recipient of the Kingsford “Preserve the Pit” Fellowship in 2021.
Charlotte may not have experienced the same barbecue boom that Raleigh did (even if the ended up being to a lesser degree than expected due to the pandemic), but in Sweet Lew’s BBQ and Jon G’s Barbecue we have two places to be proud of when it comes to #cltbbq. Lewis and Garren and Kelly Kirkman won’t be cooking for the main festival; instead they are cooking for a VIP brunch the morning of the festival. While they’ve each gotten great media coverage up to this point, this event will surely open them up to new and different circles of influence in the southeastern food and barbecue scene.
Then there’s the fact of Charlotte hosting such an event in the first place. While anyone who pays attention to barbecue may not bat an eye at such a celebration of barbecue, it reminds me of something more along the lines of an event at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival or any number of similar events in Texas like the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival. These type of events don’t seem to happen in Charlotte. Not to get ahead of myself, but let’s hope this festival becomes a mainstay of the Charlotte food scene for years to come.
The inaugural Carolina BBQ Festival has a chance to put Charlotte barbecue on the map through its first-of-its-kind festival for Charlotte, its collection of talented pitmasters from the southeast, and its spotlight of the current Charlotte barbecue scene. The slogan of the festival is ‘Divided By Sauce, United By Coals’ and in that spirit I hope Charlotte shows out in unity for what is sure to be a fantastic afternoon of barbecue. I hope to see you there.
The Carolina Barbecue Festival takes place Sunday, May 21st from 12-4 at Camp North End in Charlotte. More information and tickets available on their website.
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