With a love for barbecue and a low-and-slow style of cooking, Texarkana native Aaron O' Rand has pursued his culinary dream with a business venture, C&A Pit and Grill, that's still cooking even in quarantine.
O' Rand and fellow pitmaster and business partner Chris Green have been so successful they found themselves competing in the Steak Cook-off Association's World Championship held in Fort Worth, Texas, two years ago. They landed there — and fared fairly well — after winning a steak cook-off at Bedford, Blues & BBQ, only their second competition.
Not bad for guys who met while working at a commercial barbecue restaurant in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and, the more they talked, realized they wanted to go out on their own.
Since they did, it's been a successful side business for them, and they aim to make it full-time someday. For now, they're taking catering orders as they can while the world turns more slowly because of the coronavirus.
Pursuing the dream was a way for both to eventually be their own boss. "He's (Chris) young and was starting a family, and in the restaurant business if you're working for someone else, you're really giving more sweat than you get equity," O' Rand said.
They knew they could make better food, something they both enjoyed, and, if in control, the business would allow them to see their families, he said.
"The main focus for us is being able to spend time with our family. Quality of life is a big deal," O' Rand said about the ideal he and Green share that inspired C&A Pit and Grill, adding, "Good barbecue is only found in Texas."
They're in a prime spot for barbecue and cook-offs, perfecting the artistry of it with ribs, brisket, steaks and more, and he's confident they have a great product.
"Whether or not it's quality of food or quality of customer care, we want to try to establish both really well," O' Rand said, adding about their method: "If you don't have time for barbecue, barbecue doesn't have time for you."
If you want to cook it right, take the time.
"The low-and-slow is the way to go when it comes to that," O' Rand said.
His family and Green's family would get together and experiment. They had "tried and true recipes" from his grandma and recipes for sides handed down.
"We just kind of worked on what we felt like would be really good for the public, and we just did little caterings here and there. We would just try to just get the food out there," O' Rand said.
They wanted their barbecue to sell itself. Connecting with Apartment Life events helped, getting them to a diverse demographic.
"We wanted it to be very natural and organic. As much as we could push the business, we wanted to, but at the same time working full-time jobs we wanted to transition from a hobby to the dream job," O' Rand said.
Eventually that Bedford barbecue cook-off gave them a chance to give it a go and try their best. The first year, 2017, they did well with a 7th place in the ribs category.
They made friends and then lost some after the medal ceremonies, O' Rand said. These young upstarts surprised people.
"That sparked really a big interest in competitions because it's a weekend long. You're camping, basically, cooking barbecue. There could be as many as 100 other contestants," O' Rand explained. It's a guaranteed fun time. "It's on my calendar for Labor Day for the rest of my life."
For the second year, 2018, they decided to try every competition that weekend at the Bedford, Blues & BBQ Festival. They had a partnership and sponsorship, so they were ready. O'Rand wasn't terribly confident with steaks, but that's where they found their greatest success.
"We won out of 91 teams," O' Rand said. They won with a steak that wasn't his favorite of the ones they cooked.
But they were given a slot in the SCA World Championships that year. They didn't have to travel far to compete, either. And while they weren't in the Top 40 of 180 teams there to move on at the World Championship, they landed around the Top 50.
"We were very competitive still, but we didn't make the cut," O' Rand said. It was their second time for a steak cook-off. They do their own seasoning, using their own style of equipment: a Weber grill. Seasoning amplifies what's already there, he said.
Keep it simple. Cook from scratch. Make everything good — "craveable," as pitmaster O' Rand put it. Put in the time.
"A lot of what we cook is five ingredients or less," O' Rand said, adding, "I want you to have a hard time picking what you want because it's all good."
The fire of cooking and competitions is still stoked, even with the coronavirus putting a damper on events like cook-offs, which have been canceled for this year. In March, it all came to a halt, and thankfully they still have full-time day jobs as the cooking continues on a lower-key level.
"Right now it's just for personal use. Right now we have a few caterings sort of postponed, a few that have booked for later this year that are just kind of pending," O' Rand said, noting they still aim to transition this to the dream job.
"We're going to get there. We've had some ups and downs like most things. It's just riding through it and getting to the other side of the problem," O' Rand said. "It still goes back to family that's really paramount, to tell you the truth."
Cooking and the food industry are part of his family, though, with family connections to The Lunch Box here in Texarkana. He remembers doing his homework at a table in the Texas-side restaurant.
C&A Pit and Grill is an extension of this family connection to good food, and while coronavirus circumstances have slowed the dream down, it's still alive.
"We've pulled back, but we've talked a lot about things we want to see in the future, some different variations of the basic stuff that we do," O' Rand said about their eye to what's ahead.
(On the Net: capitandgrill.com.)