Spreading the word, one barbecue pit at a time

Many a cook would say love is the most important ingredient.

For Jeff Petkevicius, it’s love of God.

The Ponchatoula man has incorporated spreading the Lord’s message into his competitive barbecuing, from his team’s name, Give It to God, to the cooks’ church service he conducts at contests around the country.

Saturday, Petkevicius will put his culinary skills to the test on Destination America’s “BBQ Pitmasters.”

“It’s pretty obvious what I’m all about. I’m a Christian out there,” Petkevicius, who has 76 barbecue contests under his belt thus far, said.

Donning his “Give It to God” T-shirt, he’ll compete in 32 to 35 competitions this year.

Petkevicius said a production company from “BBQ Pitmasters” found him on Facebook and contacted him, encouraging him to submit an audition video.

“When they called me on Jan. 8, I thought it was a joke,” he said, of learning he was chosen for the show’s fifth season wild-card episode. Most of this season’s “Pitmaster” contests have been regionally focused in states including Texas, Georgia and the Carolinas, but Saturday’s episode will have Petkevicius cooking against Howard Daley Jr., of New York, and John Coon, of Alabama. The segment was shot over three days in January in Tampa, Fla.

The first day is preparation, the second is the actual competition, and the third is devoted to interviews, the cook said.

It’s on competition morning that Petkevicius preaches from 6:45 a.m. to 7 a.m.

“When I started doing those (the non-denominal services) a couple of years ago, you know, two or three guys would show up, and as it went along, like this last weekend, I was in Ashland, Miss. There were 23 teams. There were close to 30 people at the cooks’ church, and part of that reason,” Petkevicius said, laughing, “is I’ve got a good streak going. The grand champion and reserve champion, one or the other or both are usually in attendance at the church service. So now, everybody shows up.”

The contestants are all vying for a spot in the season’s finale cook-off, where the winner gets $50,000 and bragging rights.

“The competitions are so close between first place, second place, third place, it’s like thousandths of a point, so you’re just trying to get that little bit of an edge, so everybody has their own techniques,” he said. “I got all kinds of secrets. I’ve got technique secrets, I’ve got rub secrets, I’ve got termperature secrets ... it’s how you finish it up and what you’re putting on it, the sequence that you put things on it, you know, what you do with that product right before it goes in the box. Lots of fun little things there.

“They say, and I’ve come to believe this, too, that competitions are won and lost in the last 10 minutes.”

Each of the categories ­— chicken, pork and beef — is quite different, with its own particular challenges, Petkevicius explained.

Time is where unsuccessful barbecuers miss the mark, he said.

“They don’t give it the time, they rush it, and that’s one of the secrets. You really have to become an expert in and come to appreciate the time, because if you rush it, you’re going to rush the flavor and the flavor is not going to take hold and in our world it’s all about layers of flavor.

“And when the judges take a bite, that one bite really has to have a lot of things happening in it, and the only way you get that is through time, whether that’s letting it marinate for a certain amount of time or on the pit for a certain amount of time, or letting it rest for a certain amount of time.”

And then, Petkevicius just gives it to God.