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Home-grown BBQ maestro

Tim Olson stands in front of his competitive cooking trailer recently at Spitfire Bar and Grill in West Fargo. Tyler Shoberg / West Fargo Pioneer1 / 2
Tim Olson's competition barbecue grill. Submitted photo2 / 2

Tim Olson's journey to culinary enlightenment began with the search for barbecue.

"Not sloppy Joes," he said. "Real barbecue."

At his home in south Fargo, that search was tough to come by. A native of Lisbon, N.D. and an NDSU alum, Olson yearned for the fall-off-the-bone deliciousness he'd become accustomed to after living for a spell in Texas and Oklahoma; the heart of barbecue country.

But he was having a heck of a time getting the same result in the northland. The only option was to cook it himself, but then he'd need to buy a proper barbecue grill.

Again, a "real barbecue" grill; not just a run-of-the-mill, mass produced unit from a big box store. He needed the genuine article, one that required the user to burn wood in an adjoining compartment, thus heating meat slowly and completely while giving it that trademark smoke ring just under the skin. So he did what any man faced with a tough-to-find item would do: he ordered it from the source.

"I had to get one shipped all the way from Texas," Olson said.

The wait was worth it, however, and he soon got to work experimenting in his backyard to replicate the mouth-watering pork and beef he'd remembered from the south.

In short order, his neighbors began to notice.

"That smell is tough to miss," he said.

Before Olson knew it, he was feeding all kinds of people from his own backyard. It was great for the suddenly-popular chef with no culinary background other than what he learned as a youngster in his mother's kitchen. Now, he got to try out new styles and techniques on all the willing subjects who were more than eager to act as Guinea pigs.

Then someone mentioned that Olson ought to sell his goods. That led to hawking his wares from a red trailer, as well as catering.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Year later, Olson is at the top of his game. Not only is he the owner and creator of Spitfire Bar and Grill in West Fargo, but he and his wife, Mary, have made a name for themselves on the competitive barbecue trail.

"It's like the NASCAR of grilling," Olson said.

Rise to recognition

Olson and his wife compete in the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) circuit of competitive cooking, which boasts more than 3,000 teams around the world. Team Spitfire has only been doing it for four years, but already has accumulated a number of honors.

One award Olson is most proud of is his sixth-place finish in 2009 at the 21st Annual Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational in Lynchburg, Tenn. Spitfire also took third place with their ribs - quite possibly the most identifiable of barbecued meats.

This year, Olson will get a chance to improve on his finish, however, as he was invited to compete at the 23rd running of the competition. Team Spitfire took first place at a barbecue competition in Iowa earlier this summer, thus garnering the invite to Lynchburg on Oct. 22.

There are a couple more competitions to warm up with before then. Olson said he and his wife planned to hit up a brand new competition in Worthington, Minn., last weekend, before heading to Omaha this weekend.

Then, the granddaddy of them all takes place Sept. 29-Oct. 2. The American Royal Barbecue Open is in Kansas City, Mo., and garners nearly 500 teams for the four-day barbecue fest. Known as the World Series of Barbecue, at 31 years it's one of the oldest events on the KCBS circuit.

Getting comfortable with competing did not happen overnight, however. Olson admitted there were some growing pains to the process.

"It definitely is a learning experience," he said.

For starters, just figuring out how to manage your time is tough to grasp for greenhorns. Barbecue competitors must present four dishes - chicken, ribs, pork shoulder and beef brisket - at 30-minute intervals with only five minutes of leeway.

"If you're a minute late, you don't make the cut," Olson said.

Luckily, Olson said his wife helps keep him on schedule, and is responsible for bringing each box of food to the judges' table.

But working with your wife isn't always easy.

"Sometimes we disagree on what tastes good, and she usually just says, 'well it's up to you,'" Olson said.

When it works out, Team Spitfire is happy. If a spice experiment goes awry, however, "it can be a long, quiet drive home," Olson said.

Experimenting with his barbecue is a double-edged sword for Olson: he relishes the thought of creating something outstanding, but there always is the off chance the outcome will be less than desirable.

"People always say, 'You did so good last week, why are you trying something new?'" Olson said. "But I have to."

He's never satisfied with a success, and chances are if it worked out once, Olson will be changing it up for the next competition anyway. That's the part Olson like the most about his passion, and something customers to Spitfire get to benefit from.

"The same rubs and spices I use are what we have at the restaurant," he said.

And that's something Olson hopes everyone can sink their teeth into.