Oklahoma’s King of the Smoker
Travis Takes the Title: An Inside Look at Who Makes the World’s Best Barbecue
On a balmy afternoon in December of 2014, Travis Clark drove a shiny white pickup truck underneath rows of towering palm trees, hauling the trailer that housed his smoker. He had just participated in King of the Smoker, an invitational barbecue competition in Palm Springs, California that is arguably the most prestigious of its kind, worldwide. The twenty-four best pitmasters meet and compete in a head-to-head charity event that attracts barbecue loving celebrities like Bill Murray, who showed up that year.
Travis didn’t win. Even though he was honored to have been invited, he couldn’t help but feel empty, wanting more. It was his last competition of the year, and it wasn’t enough. “Were you happy with your year?” his wife, Kimberly, asked.
Travis shrugged, “Uh, eh, yeah.” He stared at the road and paused, thinking about the nineteen contests he’d appeared in that year, finishing with a rank of seventh overall in the world. “I want more,” he said. “What?” she quizzed. “How much more?” “I don’t think you really want to know.” “No, tell me!” Kimberly pleaded.
“I want to cook thirty-five or forty contests, and I want to win ten of them, and I want to win team of the year,” Travis blurted.
For many couples, that level of obsession could break apart a marriage. But Kimberly backed Travis on his passion, and they went all in. In 2015, Clark Crew BBQ cooked in thirty-nine competitions and won thirteen of them. And as planned, they won Team of the Year.
“Not many people call that. It’s like calling it like Babe Ruth, saying you’re going after something,” Travis explains. “That’s a hard thing to do when you’re cooking against the talent that we do.”
In fact, Clark Crew BBQ has been one of the highest ranked teams in the world for the past four years. They participate in the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the largest competitive barbecue organization in the world.
KCBS holds sanctioned events where cooks smoke what are referred to as the four main meats: chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket. Official judges score the food based on appearance, taste, and tenderness. KCBS contests can be incredibly fierce. The top teams consider it a sport, and there’s enough sweat and technique to back that up. Entire contests can come down to just a half-point difference in scoring, or just a few seconds on the clock, as Travis has found out the hard way.
“At the Jack Daniel’s World Championship in 2016, one of the most prestigious contests in the country, we were a little rushed on getting the chicken in. We missed turn in by three seconds. My average chicken score would have won the contest. That's a heartbreaker. But my good friend won and he deserved it."
Every single event is consequential to Travis. He speaks about competing with the intensity and confidence of a professional athlete. “There’s guys that come to these things to drink beer and have a good time. I go to have a good time and see my friends, but I want nothing more than to win every single weekend.”
"We're one of the most consistent teams in the country every week. That’s because I do the same thing every time. I’m a master of that feel,” Travis says in a tone that is more matter-of-fact than boastful. “That’s what’s hard to teach somebody. I can reach right in that pit and feel that meat and know when it’s right. I can give them my recipes, and I can give them everything I know. That’s the arrogance of me, to know I can give them everything I have and I can still beat ‘em. If I didn't think I was one of the best, I'd just quit doing it."
Travis isn’t afraid to pass on his knowledge. He teaches classes that replicate every part of the the contest experience—trimming the meat, injecting it with marinade, seasoning, cooking, and even putting it in a box for the officials to judge. His classes often sell out, with people traveling from around the world to learn. His most recent seminar included a couple from the Netherlands who had come all the way to Yukon to learn from Oklahoma’s very own world champion barbecue master.
"If we lose on the weekend, a lot of the time, it's someone who's taken our class." Travis laments.
As serious as Travis takes the sport of barbecuing, he’s adamant about keeping it enjoyable. Last November, he took an entire month off from competing for the first time since he began. “It was the best thing I ever did. I was so relaxed. I tuned up some of my recipes, jazzed them up a little, and right now I'm cooking better than I ever have, in my opinion."
Even though it’s his life’s passion, and he’s worked tirelessly to pursue it, traveling more than forty thousand miles a year, competitive cooking is just a hobby. It’s how Travis unwinds from his day job as an electrician, and he usually gets more sleep at a contest than he does at home.
“This is just barbecue. It’s so easy. There’s nothing to get stressed about. It’s intense, trust me. I love it. I need that level of stress to keep me sane. That sounds crazy, but it’s what keeps me going.”