In his grandma’s suburban backyard in Seguin, TX, Ty Machado stands next to a grill and whips a Zippo from his pocket like a gunslinger. He weaves it through his fingers and strikes the flint, but it doesn’t light. His face curls in embarrassment, then a timer beeps. He flips a fat ribeye. Grates heated to 650 degrees brand the steak with grill lines so straight they could be used to graph his math homework.
At just 16 years old, Machado is a barbecue phenom. After appearing on the Food Network’s Kids BBQ Championship at age 13, Machado began competing seriously in 2016 and traveled 22 weekends that year, consistently beating men three times his age who devote every ounce of their free time and disposable income to competition barbecue. He misses a lot of school, but he’s learned to bring his teachers barbecue as penance.
I first met Machado at the Memphis World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in 2017 through grand champion Brad Orrison of The Shed, who was showing Machado how to remove the money muscle from a pork shoulder. A year later in 2018, Machado returned to Memphis, considered the Superbowl of BBQ, and took home first place in the exotic category by cooking bacon-wrapped lamb lollipops. Even for a pitmaster with a lifetime of experience that would be a career highlight, but Machado’s patience with competitive barbecue has already worn thin.
Smoking a piece of meat can take all day, whereas grilling a perfect steak only requires seven minutes, so he’s taken his talents from the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) to the Steak Cookoff Association (SCA). Maybe it’s the millennial attention span, or Machado just prefers ribeyes. Either way the transition from culinary marathoner to charcoal sprinter has been seamless. His record this season qualified him for the World Food Championships this weekend in Orange Beach, Alabama, but does he have what it takes to be the best in the world? I’m not a certified judge, but I can confirm that Machado’s backyard ribeye measures up.
Competitive cooking isn’t necessarily a road map to fame, for most people it’s more like an expensive hobby -- but the stakes are different when you’re the youngest person in the room. But what does this mean for Machado? Could this be the beginning of a bright culinary career? Or is he just a kid who’s good at cooking and working on his Zippo tricks?