Story by Dave Choo
Photos by Dana Edmunds
Crash and Lisa DeJournett owe all their success—and their suffering—to kalbi.
“We wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for kalbi,” says Crash, describing his awkward introduction to the world of competitive barbecuing. “When people on the Mainland bite into a good piece of kalbi, they go crazy. They can’t get enough.”
Seven years ago Crash and a buddy entered a barbecue competition in Arizona, even though the only outdoor cooking the two did at the time was in their backyards. The competition, which was sanctioned by one of the national barbecuing organizations, required contestants to submit four dishes: half of a chicken, ribs, pulled pork and sliced brisket. But there was a fifth, “ancillary” category, a sort of catchall in which contestants offered an item of their choosing. Crash, who grew up on O‘ahu, went with the Korean-style short ribs marinated in a garlicky soy sauce and sugar mixture, an Island favorite. Good thing, too: “We tanked that day, finishing dead last in all four of the main categories,” says Crash, who at 6’3” and three hundred pounds earned his nickname when he fell on—and flattened—a coffee table during a party. “However, out of twenty-seven entrées, our kalbi finished in second place. We got to walk,” that is, to go onstage to collect the award, “and that was it. I was hooked.”
Two years later Lisa started competetive barbecuing as well, and she and Crash named their team the VRM Pit Crew (VRM being the initals of their three children’s names). Nowadays the husband-and-wife grill masters are working at a level most backyard meat-slingers can only dream of. They compete about nine times a year, primarily in Arizona. And while they have yet to win a grand championship, the DeJournetts have been category winners many times, including once when their ribs beat out those by the top barbecue teams in the country. And their kalbi is a perennial winner.
I’ve come to the DeJournetts’ Kailua home to get an, um, crash course in barbecuing. I’m hoping to learn the nuts and bolts, in part because last summer the web site AmazonLocal.com released a curious poll. In an effort to “settle America’s barbecue debate once and for all” (apparently, there is one), more than a thousand people were asked to name the best barbecue destinations in the country. Most of the results were unsurprising: The carnivore capital of America, Texas, took first with 43 percent. Next came Memphis (24 percent), North Carolina (15 percent) and Kansas City, Missouri (13 percent). But the surprise was number five: Hawai‘i, with 5 percent, beating out such barbecue Babylons like St. Louis, as well as up-and-comer California.
Barbecue is widely considered one of the most American of foods, so how could faraway Hawai‘i, with its distinctly Asian-influenced cuisine, reach the grilling inner sanctum? Do Mainlanders know more about teriyaki beef, hulihuli chicken and kalua pig than we locals assume? Or maybe people interpreted the poll question as asking, “What’s the best location in which to barbecue?” But if that were the case, why wouldn’t other sunny, beachy, meat-loving places like Florida and South Carolina have beat us? I didn’t know the answer to these questions, so I sought out a couple of Hawai‘i’s grilling glitterati, hoping to find out.