For six years running, I have seen postings for the Rock, Ribs and Ridges festival, held at the Sussex County Fairgrounds, come and go without being able to attend. It always seemed to be that the responsibilities of the suburban father and homeowner reared its head at the last minute and prevented me from going, even when some of my favorite bands were slated to be there. Well, not this year! Thanks to my generous wife, I was freed up to go the Sunday afternoon of last weekend to catch two of the last bands, The Outlaws and Blues Traveler. And to try out some great barbeque. R, R, and R (terrible abbreviation, I’ll never use it again) is somewhat unique in its design. Not only does it attract some great bands to play (see the artist lineup on the website), accommodate overnight camping, and have some of the greatest scenery around, but invites pitmasters from around the state and other areas to compete against one another for ribs, sauces, and other dishes. All the while selling to the masses that come see the show, and whom are invited to vote for a “People’s Choice” as well. From New Jersey, we had Big Papa Smoke’em, Butch’s Smack Your Lips BBQ, and Texas Smoke BBQ. Out-of-staters included Pigtails Barbeque and Skin and Bones. Sure, there were other things to eat, but why bother?
As I walked through the gates, one of the first “ribbers” that I came across was Big Papa Smoke’em. Lately, Mario “Big Papa” Chape has been serving up his barbeque at Marie’s Chicken Joint in Chatham with owner and chef, Carl Ruiz. Mario and Carl have been working together to expand the menu at the restaurant and offer authentic barbeque to the locals of Morris County. Friends and neighbors of mine that have been going and eating the smokey treats have said that they were terrific. As luck would have it though, every time I had gone by, the barbeque had not been on the smoker that day, or what I was in the mood for had been 86’d for the day. Regardless, I would still drive slowly through the back lot, catching long glimpses of the huge smoker, cold and untended, as the meat was usually on by 3 am and off for the lunch crowd. Any of my kids that I had in the back seat soon grew used to these little detours. So when I saw Big Papa’s trailer and tent at the festival, I went on over in the hopes of finally meeting him and saving myself from an early 3 am wake up call. But I had no need to worry that Mario wouldn’t be there, as it is difficult to find a chef that is more aware of how one’s name and product are so closely integrated with one another.
Mario started his barbeque cooking journey after falling in love with brisket during a trip to Houston seven years ago. After returning home, he immediately combed Craigslist for a smoker and found a custom-made, insulated heavy-duty steel jobber for a song. Using his culinary training, he began right away to experiment with the best ways to bring out the flavor of meat in the low and slow way. For a year, Mario worked under Ari White of Wandering Que, known for his New York kosher barbeque and voted Brisket King of NYC in 2016, slinging over 200 lbs of brisket daily. Can you imagine what the brisket must taste like from a Jewish pitmaster? Oh, man! But Mario still felt the call to bring his own translation of barbeque back to Jersey. Because there are so many variables involved with cooking great barbeque, Mario went about compartmentalizing and perfecting each part of the process in order to help bring out the myriad of flavors and textures of the meat. Preferring to cook mainly with red oak, Mario loves how the native wood burns hotter and gives his smoke rings a bright red color. (I am finding a lot more people appreciating the white and red oak as fuel) As we were talking, one customer came up and said that he was picking the brisket to eat by each vendor’s smoke rings. Mario had just showed me the perfect Rembrandt-like smoke ring on his brisket, and after seeing what I just saw, the man pulled out his wallet. Knowing that moisture loss is one of the greatest of pitmaster enemies, Mario works to preserve and augment the meat’s natural juices as much as possible throughout the process, using sauces throughout to help replenish the lost moisture. Before serving, he rubs the cooked brisket and butts to help release the flavor and juices from the fats back into the meat.
Mario represents well the new and upcoming face of New Jersey barbeque. An appreciation of the efforts, his own and those of others, that have helped him to be successful, a great pride in his state, and a drive to put out the best barbeque possible will help promote the growing force of New Jersey barbeque. Unfortunately, because of township ordinances, Big Papa will no longer be in my backyard, but you can follow his whereabouts in the Bergen County area on his Facebook page. He is always willing to pull you up a cooler, share a few beers, and talk barbeque until the next customer pulls him away. Chomp on his brisket, pork, and baked beans while you are there. They are outstanding! And if I know Carl, he won’t be able to be long without quality barbeque at his place.
When I wasn’t eating, I was up seeing the bands. The Outlaws invited the Artimus Pyle Band to come up and finish their set with a rockin’ Ghost Riders in the Sky. Jersey’s own, Blues Traveler, closed the show with a very personal set, made up of classics and songs from their new album, Blow up the Moon. It was the first time I have ever seen them play live, such a shame for someone who has all of their albums, but this venue, so close and intimate, was the perfect way to see them. John Popper still rocks out on the harp! Although it was my first time going to the Rock and Ribs (Sorry, Ridges), I will not miss any more. The intimacy that this venue brings to some great quality acts, the coolness of the variety of fans (yeah, great for people watchers), great food and drink is definitely a great way to start every summer.
P.S. On the way home, I had to turn around for the Double S Smoke House that just opened up in Augusta two months ago and which wasn’t on my Jersey Joints list. Welcome to the community, and good luck. I’ll stop up soon.