Evan Wiederspohn smiles with family and friends during a watch party for the airing of an episode of the Food Network show “BBQ USA” featuring Wiederspohn and his father on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Evan Wiederspohn smiles with family and friends during a watch party for the airing of an episode of the Food Network show “BBQ USA” featuring Wiederspohn and his father on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Arlington BBQ whiz kid featured on Food Network’s ‘BBQ USA’

Evan Wiederspohn, 17, outsmoked his competition with a salmon-adobo macaron earlier this year in Puyallup.

ARLINGTON — Evan Wiederspohn already knew how the show was going to end.

But it didn’t stop the 17-year-old from feeling wired with anticipation on Monday night. He paced back and forth past the long tables in the back room of Hubb’s Pizza and Pasta in Arlington, texting friends with jittery thumbs and stopping only ever-so-briefly to chat with relatives.

The small TV on the wall played the end of a Bobby Flay cook-off competition on the Food Network. At 7 p.m., the newest episode of “BBQ USA” was slated to begin, and it would be Evan’s time to shine.

The show follows celebrity chef, restaurateur and 34-time “Iron Chef”-winner Michael Symon to the country’s biggest barbeque competitions, where the going can get pretty tough. On this edition of “BBQ USA,” filmed earlier this year at the Spring Fair in Puyallup, dozens of teams from around the Pacific Northwest were vying for a piece of the $25,000 prize.

Through the eyes of five teams local to the PNW, viewers watch cooks obsessively tweak recipes, brave inclement weather and agonize over types of wood for smoking and cuts of pork. By the end of the hourlong program, you’ll be biting your nails alongside Symon as he waits to hear his adopted teams called out among the winners.

In real time, the competition is a grueling test of endurance for the cooks, who we see rising before dawn to start the smoldering fires that’ll cook their choice cuts to perfection. Each team must present an original creation in the categories of pork, brisket, ribs and chicken to be judged by the all-knowing barbecue masters.

In true Northwest fashion, the Spring Fair BBQ Playoffs added a couple of extra spins on the traditional competition format: The teams would be selling their wares to fairgoers as well as cooking for the judges, adding an additional layer of scrutiny. And an extra category, dubbed “Anything Salmon,” would give the cooks a chance to show viewers nationwide how the PNW does barbecue.

Evan’s no stranger to a little friendly face-off between pitmasters, since he’s been cooking competitively since he was 10. He first tagged along to assist his dad, Brandon, when he competed in cookoffs, then at 13 graduated to cooking under his own name and winning his own titles.

“My first little backyard competition, I entered this little steak, barely anything exciting,” Evan said. “And it did well enough. Then the first time I placed at a big event — against 350 people in Fort Worth, I got sixth — that was it. There’s nothing like hearing a whole stadium cheer for you.”

Nor is the TV appearance his first brush with fame — at the tender age of 15, his original recipe for bacon-wrapped mac and cheese bites topped with burnt ends won a spot on the menu at Famous Dave’s, a national barbecue chain.

Surrounded by family and friends, Evan Wiederspohn reacts to seeing and hearing himself on the Food Network show “BBQ USA” during a watch party on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Surrounded by family and friends, Evan Wiederspohn reacts to seeing and hearing himself on the Food Network show “BBQ USA” during a watch party on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

After he won third place overall at last year’s Puyallup event, other regional teams dubbed Evan’s Gladiator BBQ “the one to watch out for,” according to their testimonials to the “BBQ USA” camera. He’d just barely been old enough to get his driver’s license at the time the episode was filmed, yet still struck fear into the hearts of his opponents.

But Evan remained steadfastly humble as the minutes ticked by to his national television debut. His parents had rented out the banquet room of the local pizza joint for a watch party of the new episode, and clusters of cousins and family friends buzzed around the room, occasionally stopping to pat Evan on the back and offer congratulations.

“It feels just … surreal, to be here at all,” Evan said. “It’s a dream come true, really. I’m just excited to see what they did with the show, because of course we know how it turned out in real life, but this is going to be new to all of us.”

As the show begins, the hubbub of the room dies down — only to spike back up into roars of laughter at the host’s grave mispronunciation of “Puyallup,” and then again at each brief shot of Evan under the tent. Evan sat between his parents, anxiously picking at his pizza when mom Nicole admonished him to eat something.

Onscreen, Evan’s definition of PNW-style barbecue introduces viewers to his style: “We love to see bright red sauce, bright and sweet,” he says to the camera.

His mom, Nicole, said she’s seen Evan’s style grow and change in the years he’s been competing. He’s deeply creative, always wanting to find something to set his cooking light-years apart from the rest. That’s sometimes resulted in spectacular failures and crushing disappointments, Nicole said, but the Northwest barbecue community is a close-knit one that’s always supported Evan in his endeavors — even when he’s outsmoking them (pun intended).

“He definitely goes overboard and pushes the boundaries,” Nicole said. “He’s had some major failures and also huge successes by pushing those boundaries and being 100% authentically himself.”

In one shot from the episode, Evan is seen tasting burnt ends from the two briskets he cooked up for the competition (cooks typically have a backup just in case one doesn’t turn out the way they want), and you can practically see the gears whizzing in his head as he calculates which one to go with. He ends up sending his brisket entry out with just slices, no burnt ends, because neither of them turned out just right.

“These things can be made or broken on tiny little things like that,” Evan said at the watch party. “And if I’m going to do something, I better do it exactly right.”

That intensive focus reappears in the episode’s final minutes as Evan puts the finishing touches on his entry into the much-anticipated salmon category: A macaron — yes, the little French sandwich cookies — filled with whipped, adobo-infused salmon cream cheese. He carefully dollops the filling on, painstakingly smoothing and rearranging each whorl of cheese till it looks just right.

Finally, when the judges called out Evan’s name as the winner of the salmon category, the energy in the room was electric as his friends and family cheered and whooped and screamed. Evan looked so gleeful watching the moment replayed on screen that you’d hardly realize he’s known the results for months.

He swept the salmon category with a perfect score of 200 points, beating out cooks likely with more years of experience barbecuing than Evan’s been alive.

On the TV, Evan grabs the mic for a brief second as he crosses the stage to claim his trophy.

“We just got first place!” he crows.

The win has only reaffirmed Evan’s lifelong passion for cooking, he said. He graduated in October from a homeschooling program, putting him a couple of years ahead of his peers. With the extra time, he’s holding jobs in several local kitchens and cooking weekly meals for low-income families with his church.

And with such an impressive track record of barbecue stardom already behind him, of course he’s looking toward the culinary sphere for his future. Evan dreams of starting off with his own food truck, or maybe one day making the move to Texas or Tennessee to smoke meats among the big stars.

“You know, I get so passionate over this whole cooking thing. It really does get me super, super excited,” Evan said. “So why wouldn’t I use this talent that I’ve worked so hard to use for the rest of my life?”

Riley Haun: 425-339-3192; riley.haun@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @RHaunID.

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