A pitmaster’s secret to grilling the perfect steak
Kevin Legge will be a judge at Langley RibFest this weekend
Kevin Legge will be a judge at this year’s Langley RibFest. | Submitted
Barbecuing an excellent steak shouldn’t be complicated—except in competition.
When he’s competing, Kevin Legge admits there is a lot more that goes into cooking a steak. But for backyard barbecues his advice is to keep it simple.
“I’m a big fan of salt, pepper, garlic.”
Kevin has competed against some of the top barbecue cooks in global competitions like the Jack Daniel’s World Championships, World Food Championships, and his favourite: the Tony Stone Low and Slow in the Netherlands.
“It’s a great group of people wherever you go, they’re all like family. Everybody helps each other out with equipment if they need it, and that kind of thing. So it’s a global family of people who love to cook meat in a parking lot and see who does the best job.”
This weekend, barbecue teams from across Canada will be competing for Kevin’s approval at the Langley RibFest. At least 40,000 visitors are expected to flood the grounds of Langley’s McLeod Athletic Park during the three-day festival, which Kevin helped start.
Kevin is not a pitmaster by trade, he’s a website designer. He was introduced to barbecue and steak at a cooking competition in Whistler about 18 years ago. The following year he returned to the event and met Langley business owner Angie Quaale, owner of Well Seasoned, A Gourmet Food Store.
“She is a pitmaster herself, and a very winning pitmaster. She went to the Jack Daniel’s World Championships and she also ran a local competition out of her store,” Kevin said.
Angie asked Kevin to step in as a judge after she had a last minute cancellation.
He was hooked. Kevin took a few courses and would spend the next seven years judging competitions. But it wasn’t until 2013 that Kevin actually cooked in a competition.
FVC: So where did you acquire your cooking skills? Was it just from your experience in judging?
Kevin: I’ve always loved food. I’ve always loved to watch my mom cook in the kitchen. My dad was a huge fan of grilled steak. He had the Weber barbecue back in the day. He had the propane too. But he had a Weber back then, so way way back. My parents both loved to cook and that instilled it upon me a bit.
I love to eat and I love to entertain people and so that has always been a sideline passion. In hindsight, it would have been great if I had gone to school for it, like became a chef or something. But I cook against some of the world’s best chefs all the time. And I don’t always lose. So it's fun to be me because I’m sort of a self-made chef.
As far as advancing my skills, I’ve taken classes with some of the best cooks. Some of the best barbecue cooks, some of the best steak cooks in the beginning. Now I teach some of those classes. But also classes at Well Seasoned just in general about cooking. I have a book called—it was a gift from Angie—the book is called, The Food Lab by a guy named Kenji. And it’s one of the best books on the planet for cooking. It’s just kind of really a self taught passion, and it comes from the desire to want to eat better and not having the money to eat in the best restaurants all the time.
FVC: Would you consider this a career or a hobby?
Kevin: This is a hobby, this is my passion. Lots of people say, ‘Oh, open a restaurant’ or ‘Here, I’ll partner with you, we’ll do the restaurant.’ The day I have to start worrying about my food costs, and my staff and all those other things, and not what I’m putting on my plate that is going to take all the fun out of it for me. So I’m passionate about it, it’s a hobby, it will always be a hobby.
So now what I do is teach some classes or I do some home events, but mostly what we do with that is give it away to charity. So recently, Lobsterfest for the Aldergrove Rotary, I gave away one of my steak class dinner parties. I gave away two to LAPS recently as well. And then I gave away two to the Langley Hospice Society. The first three sold for about $1,600 each. The last two sold for $13,200 and $13,100.
I partner with Bonetti butchers. They’ve supplied the meat. We’re partnered to supply the grill that we leave behind, and I come in and cook. And for that, these people have paid this kind of money. In the case where it’s $1,600, that’s value for money, but in the case where these people gave $13,000 they’re obviously, A) supporting charity very nicely and, B) don’t want to lose when they’re up in an auction. So that was really great. So we can say that this year, for five of these events that I’ve donated, we’ve raised $30,000 in charity.
FVC: So what do you look for in a cut of meat or if we need to be more specific, if we’re talking about steak?
Kevin: I look for a lot of things. First off I look for the butcher. If I can’t find a butcher in a place, I’m not buying my steak there. I want to talk to the butcher. I want to tell them what I’m looking for and what I need. And then I want him to probably cut that steak for me specially.
But if I’m walking up to a meat counter, it depends on the kind of steak I’m looking at. I’m very specific about each individual cut. But let’s say a ribeye: I'm looking for something called a spinalis muscle that's large. So the outside, what’s called the ribeye cap, I want that to be large on it and I want the eye to be small because that’s going to be a super great tasting tender steak.
If I’m looking at a New York steak or striploin, I’m looking for some marbling. Generally, I’m looking for some marbling. And the marbling isn’t the big fat on the outside, the marbling is the little fat on the inside of the meat where you see little dots. That’s the stuff you're looking for. I could care less—I mostly trim off the outside fat. I just eat marbled meat, which is my favourite.
When I’m looking for me, I’m looking for fresh, I’m looking for locally sourced, I’m looking for humanely dealt with. It’s not about getting the cheapest meat on the plate, it’s about getting the best quality.
FVC: How important are seasonings and marinades?
Kevin: When you’re at a competition they are very important because you need to elevate the level of the taste of that food to someplace where the judges are going to take note of it. In a steak competition you can be up against 450 steak cooks in Texas and at the Kansas City Royal, I think it’s 400 or 300 barbecue teams. So when you’re seasoning and when you’re marinating, when you’re injecting, when you’re brining—whatever process you’re using to bring more flavor to that meat, it’s got to make it stand out.
But you can’t destroy it, it’s still got to be a piece of meat and still gotta taste great. So what I’m looking for is seasonings that really pop, fresh seasonings and I’m looking for marinades that enhance the meat without changing it.
FVC: Do you have examples or even a quick recipe you can share with readers?
Kevin: It’s kind of specific to whichever piece of meat you’re gonna do. But let’s say some tips for making an excellent ribeye steak in your backyard is to get yourself a thermal probe. Some kind of probe that you can probe the meat and check the temperature to make sure you know what the temperature is because you cannot guess by feel, you need to have an actual thermometer. So get yourself one of those.
Get yourself a nice grill that heats up to a good temperature. You’re looking for about 450 to 550 degrees at the grill. Allow that steak to come out of the fridge and rest to room temperature. So that you do not have to work so hard to get the center up to where you want it to be, which is anywhere from 125 to 135 depending on medium rare to medium. And beyond that, there’s scales you can look at and I can tell you, but that’s basically the range I cook in.
Use some kind of high smoke point oil on the grill grates or the grate to make sure that it doesn't stick. If you can use charcoal, use charcoal because it's better flavor than gas. And flip the steak. Your average steak should be about an inch or a little less probably… Because the thicker the steak is the better chance you can hit a nice middle well cooked centre.
So in any event, you flip it. So you start off and say if you’re cooking a steak for 12 minutes, roughly. That’s how long you know it takes to cook roughly. You’re going to start and on one side then after three minutes, or two and a half to three minutes, you’re going to flip it. Then after two and a half to three minutes you’re gonna flip it again back, and then two and a half, three minutes you’re gonna flip it again back, and that’s to even out the cooking so you don’t just cook one side all the way then the other side.
[Before putting it on the grill] when it has come to room temperature you’re going to season it with some of your favourite seasonings about anywhere from a half an hour to an hour before you throw it on. And once you flip it, once you’ve gotten to that last flip, start temping it, or if you’re concerned about it, start temping it before that… after you finish cooking steak, it’s really important to rest it out for about five to 10 minutes.
On a home steak you can season it before, once you’ve sliced it, taste it, and if it needs a little bit something extra. I would recommend using something like a maldon steak sea salt that will melt nicely into it, or some more of your favourite steak seasoning.
If I’m doing a competition steak, yeah, I’ll do many things. I could possibly inject it. I will marinate it, or I will dry brine it in salt to tenderize it. And then during the cooking process I might lift it up into a pan of butter and rest that last turn into that pan of butter and let it come to temperature that way. There may be some more seasoning in that pan of butter. Yeah, there’s a few things I’ll do extra in a competition steak to make it stand out.
But in a competition steak, you serve one steak in a box and you don’t cut it so I don’t know how perfectly cooked or not it is. I’m hoping that I cooked it the right way. I’m hoping that
I flavoured it the right way, and I want the appearance to be beautiful of course, and I don’t want it to be runny or drippy or anything like that.
So there’s a lot that goes into comp steak. a home steak not as much. Flavour it how you like it and always taste it. Cut a piece off and taste it and make sure that it’s seasoned the way you like it and if it needs a little more hit of seasoning do so. I’m a big fan of salt, pepper, garlic.
I also like things like even Hy's steak seasoning or some of these other ones, traditional Lawry’s and stuff, they can be okay too. Of course I use some high-end seasonings out of Texas and I use Prairie Smoke and Spice. Canadian Rob Reinhardt makes Prairie Smoke and Spice Steak Shake, it’s called and that steak shake is amazing.
When I season a competition steak, there's two layers. There’s this very fine white pepper, salt, garlic layer, something called white lightning and it might have a little MSG in it. And then there’s another layer that goes on top of that, it’s like a Texas Pit Grit seasoning, and then when it comes off, it gets some more seasoning. There’s a lot of seasoning going on on a comp steak; but be gentler with your home steak because you’re not trying to impress judges who have had their taste buds already burned out.
It will be a few months before Kevin will return to cooking. Right now his attention is focused on Langley Ribfest.
The four rotary clubs of Langley joined forces in 2018 to help bring Kevin’s vision to life. Since its inception the event has drawn in thousands of visitors. This year Kevin estimates more than 40,000 people to take in the three-day festival, which begins Friday.
“There’s nothing like it. So I’m not surprised how it eventually took off.”
The rotary clubs connected with organizers of the Port Moody RibFest when launching the first Langley-based festival.
“We got them to give us a lot of help in our first year because they knew how to do it,” Kevin said.
The family friendly event is free admission and the park is licensed for adults to enjoy alcoholic beverages purchased on site. Visitors are also welcome to bring their own food and non-alcoholic drinks too.
Kevin will be heading the judging team critiquing the six barbecue crews competing at Langley RibFest.
Competitors will travelling from across Canada to compete in Langley. Find all the details for this year’s RibFest here.