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Pit masters lock tongs for first foray on global steak circuit

Monday 2 October 2023 | Written by Joanne Holden | Published in Features, Food


Pit masters lock tongs for first foray on global steak circuit
Troy Bilbrough, from Christchurch, took part in the Cook Islands’ first Steak Cook-off Association (SCA) competition on Saturday. 23093050 PHOTO: JOANNE HOLDEN

The Cook Islands has joined an international steak-cooking circuit as interest in competitive barbecuing experiences a “massive growth curve”.

Fifteen adults and seven children locked tongs in the open and junior categories, respectively, of a Steak Cook-off Association (SCA) competition at the Rarotonga Sailing Club on Saturday – the first time the Cook Islands has hosted an event as part of the United States-based group.

“The points that we gained go towards the competition circuit in New Zealand,” event organiser Thomas McDonald, of Uncle Tom’s BBQ Shop in Avarua, said.

“Interest in barbecue has definitely grown in the Cook Islands.

“It’s one of those things that brings families together. Food is quite popular here in the Cook Islands, obviously. We’re quite passionate about the food we eat and how it’s prepared.

“It’s a good fit for our culture.”

The event was 18 months in the making, the idea sparked when McDonald’s barbecue team met SCA New Zealand representative Carl Grainger at the Tai Tokerau Low and Slow competition in March 2022.

A few months later, Grainger visited Rarotonga when McDonald hosted a master class “just teaching a few locals how to do the steaks, competition-style”.

“That led on to us getting things together to create the event that we had on the weekend.”

While the majority of competitors on Saturday were Cook Islanders, Kiwi pit master Troy Bilbrough said he joined the event to “help grow the barbecue community here”.

Bilbrough won the New Zealand championship for steak last year, his advice for competitors being to “start with good meat and cook it until it’s tender”.

Bilbrough, who first visited Rarotonga 15 years ago and considered it “a great place”, owned the Beers by Bacon Brothers barbecue restaurant in Christchurch.

“I cook on charcoal at my restaurant. It’s clean burn.”

McDonald said the title of “top local” was claimed by Sam Napa, a newcomer to barbecue.

“[He] wasn’t too confident coming in, but thought he’d give it a crack,” he said.

“He’s already planning the next competition, what he can improve and going from there. That’s what the competition is all about, just putting your heart on a plate and seeing what you can do to improve.”

The categories of the competition were steak, catch-of-the-day ancillary, and coconut ancillary.

McDonald was “really rapt” the competition attracted strong numbers, especially in the “kids cue”.

“Having spoken to the parents and the kids that were involved, they’re very keen to grow and develop that, which is awesome.”

Planning for next year’s SCA competition had already begun, the goal being to “create an event that’s going to be bigger and better”, McDonald said.

“This year was a great way to see how the SCA competition would work over here, how we could increase it, what sort of logistical issues we’d have with running the competition.

“It was nice and manageable numbers this year, and it gives us an opportunity to see what we need to change or improve on.”

McDonald said competitive barbecue was “going through a massive growth curve” worldwide, including in the Cook Islands.

“It’s certainly, through the Raro Fire and Food Facebook page, created a bit of a network so people can swap ideas,” he said.

“The competition’s obviously given great opportunities to develop different flavour profiles and methods and things like that, and really just gives people a forum to develop their own skills.”