Barbecue done right

Los Angeles Barbecue Festival
Barbecue the way it was meant to be eaten: happy eaters at last year’s Los Angeles Barbecue Festival.
(Dan Silberstein)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Butch Lupinetti is in love -- with life, with rock and roll, with his wife. But most of all he’s in love with meat. The professional pitmaster who’s been cooking North Carolina-style barbecue for 60 of his 68 years spends seven months a year traveling the barbecue competition circuit. Based in Pemberton, New Jersey where he owned and ran Butch’s Blues & Barbecue for 32 years, he’s won over 500 barbecue awards including Cleveland’s Great American Rib Cook-Off (14 awards), the Cedar Rapids Invitational BBQ Round-Up (24 awards) and Reno’s Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-off, a competition so tough and so prestigious Lupinetti spent 15 years on the barbecue circuit before he was invited to enter.

This weekend, he brings his trade secrets to the 2nd annual Los Angeles Barbecue Festival, held near the Santa Monica Pier. Challengers better be ready for a heavyweight bout.

Lupinetti happily cooks ribs, chicken and brisket, treating them with the tenderness a mother cat might show a newborn kitten. But the true object of his ardor is pork shoulder. “Ribs are good,” he says, “but the shoulder, it seems, is just made for barbecue. All through the south -- North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas -- when you ask for barbecue, it’s not ribs you get, it’s pork shoulder. Those other meats may be barbecued, but they’re not barbecue.”

Pork shoulder is a hard meat to handle. It demands long, slow cooking at very low temperatures and constant attention. Handle it right and the smoky meat should be tender enough to melt in your mouth. Treat it wrong, and it quickly turns dry and tasteless. Fortunately, Lupinetti doesn’t seem to have that problem. When Food Network’s Bobby Flay challenged him to one of his “throwdowns,” Lupinetti cooked up a pork shoulder that bested Flay’s barbecued chicken. “We sent [Bobby] back to New York with his tail tucked between his legs,” Lupinetti says. (He now counts Flay among his good friends.)

This weekend, Lupinetti will bring his pulled pork to the Barbecue Festival. Hosted by Drink, Eat, Play, which also staged the recent Cupcake Challenge, the two-day festival will feature a dozen local restaurants (including Baby Blues, Gus’s, Mr. Cecil’s, Robin’s Woodfire) and out-of-state operations (including Southside Market & BBQ from Elgin, Texas; L.C.'s Barbecue from Kansas City, Missouri; and Memphis Championship Barbecue) serving a variety of regional barbecue styles and meats in a non-competitive setting.

“We didn’t want to do a competition, because all the participants are cooking different things,” says organizer Dan Silberstein. “It would be like comparing apples and oranges to compare pulled pork with smoked chicken with ribs.” Silberstein has learned from the snafus at last year’s inaugural event and doubled the amount of food, seats, tables and beer.

You know Lupinetti will be there singing the gospel of pork: Cook it low, cook it slow and serve no swine before its time.

Los Angeles Barbecue Festival
Where: Santa Monica Beach next to the Santa Monica Pier; Ocean Ave. & Colorado Ave., Santa Monica
When: 1-6 p.m., Sat.-Sun. (Pre-purchased tickets get you into the festival at 12 p.m.)
Price: $10, general; $50, VIP. Food costs $10 per vendor.
Contact: (310) 709-3969,