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.
More sights from the festival: