Operation BBQ Relief cooks up special event with local first responders



Clark County first responders (and inspiring chefs) among special guests at ilani BBQ Fest

RIDGEFIELD — Famous chefs from all over the country showed up in Clark County over the weekend at the inaugural ilani BBQ Fest, and thousands of food lovers endured the heat in order to learn from the best, and get a taste of the best.

Then there were some not-so-famous, but very important local standouts who showcased their skills on the grill — all in the name of friendly competition to bring awareness to a charity that has served close to 10 million meals. 

Jason Cuthbert, who grew up in Vancouver and works for the Washington State Patrol, checks up on the progress of the pork tenderloin he and his teammates were cooking up Sunday at the ilani BBQ Fest as part of the Operation BBQ Rescue competition. Photo by Paul Valencia
Jason Cuthbert, who grew up in Vancouver and works for the Washington State Patrol, checks up on the progress of the pork tenderloin he and his teammates were cooking up Sunday at the ilani BBQ Fest as part of the Operation BBQ Rescue competition. Photo by Paul Valencia

Operation BBQ Relief set up their tents, and grills, at ilani, and teams representing local law enforcement and the medical community got expert education from professional chefs in a class, and then got to show off their own talents with a contest.

“I’ve already won,” said Steve Harris of the Cowlitz Tribal Public Safety, long before any judging occurred. “I got to learn from these guys. This is what they do. I love to cook. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Hopefully with their mentoring, it will be able to work out more so than not.”

Operation BBQ Relief started 11 years ago when tornadoes ripped up parts of Joplin, Mo.  

“It was just a bunch of competition barbecue guys who had an idea,” said Stan Hays, co-founder of the organization. “That idea of using barbecue as comfort food to help the community went from a few days and a few thousand meals to being in a parking lot in Joplin for 11 days, cooking and serving approximately 120,000 meals off of competition barbecue smokers.”

Stan Hays, co-founder of Operation BBQ Relief, said his organization has cooked and served 9.6 million meals in 11 years, deploying to disaster areas to bring comfort food to people in need. Photo by Paul Valencia
Stan Hays, co-founder of Operation BBQ Relief, said his organization has cooked and served 9.6 million meals in 11 years, deploying to disaster areas to bring comfort food to people in need. Photo by Paul Valencia

Since then, Operation BBQ Relief has worked more than 90 disasters in 30 states.

“We knew we found a gap that existed,” Hays said. “After a disaster strikes, it takes a long time for the bigger organizations to get there to really start feeding people.”

Plus, for the most part, that is just food. It’s not special.

“A baloney sandwich, yes it’s sustenance, but it’s not comfort food. It’s not doing anything to help them outside of that it’s going (sustain) them over until the next meal. Barbecue is quintessential comfort food. 

“When you smell barbecue, when you see barbecue, when you taste it, it brings back a lot of memories and emotions,” Hays said.

If your house has just been destroyed, a taste of barbecue can be inspirational.

“You can see yourself with your neighbors having another barbecue,” Hays said. “It gives you a little hope for your future.”

Steve Harris of Cowlitz Tribe Public Safety said he was a winner Sunday for just being part of the Operation BBQ Relief competition. First responders were given cooking classes from experts, then tried their skills. Photo by Paul Valencia
Steve Harris of Cowlitz Tribe Public Safety said he was a winner Sunday for just being part of the Operation BBQ Relief competition. First responders were given cooking classes from experts, then tried their skills. Photo by Paul Valencia

Hays said that first deployment in Joplin gave him his “why,” as in why does he do this. At first, to him and his fellow chefs, it was just a pulled pork sandwich. To those receiving the food, it was so much more.

He remembers an old lady in Missouri, who had a damaged car from the tornado, and all of her belongings in the car. Just enough room for her to drive. She started crying after having a sandwich.

“She wanted to know who to thank. ‘I need to know who to thank. This is much more than a pulled pork sandwich.’ I didn’t think of it that way until that moment,” Hays said. “I never felt that humbled, to sit there with someone who lost everything and she is thanking me. Now I understand it is so much more than a pulled pork sandwich.”

Since its beginnings, Operation BBQ Relief has been deployed for a total of three years when adding up all of the days. In that time, chefs have cooked 9.6 million meals.

In between disasters, the group heads to events such as the ilani BBQ Fest to raise awareness and funds. Part of that is inviting local first responders, veterans, and active duty military to attend BBQ Basic classes, a one- or two-day event. Then those first responders take what they’ve learned and have a competition.

Fred and Kateri Harrison, who both work at the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, were on a team Sunday at ilani.

Kateri and Fred Harrison of Clark County Sheriff’s Office loved their experience Sunday, learning new tricks for the grill and competing with other first responders in a cooking competition. Photo by Paul Valencia
Kateri and Fred Harrison of Clark County Sheriff’s Office loved their experience Sunday, learning new tricks for the grill and competing with other first responders in a cooking competition. Photo by Paul Valencia

“He barbecues at home. He likes to experiment at home,” Kateri said. “I do a lot of the prep, and he does a lot of the cooking. He likes to experiment with different temperatures, different woods.”

They jumped at the chance to take BBQ Basic.

“It’s lots of fun. We’re learning lots. And it’s nice talking to brothers and sisters in law enforcement, as well,” Kateri said.

There were teams from the Washington State Patrol, Woodland Police, and from the Clark County Corrections, among others.

They were learning from the best, having fun, and spreading the word about an organization that does good for people in need.

To donate to Operation BBQ Relief, go to: https://operationbbqrelief.org/

Big event today, bigger tomorrow

This was the first ilani BBQ Fest, but organizers expect it to only grow from here.

“It will be an annual event,” said Rick Browne, one of the organizers and a former Clark County resident who is now famous in the barbecue community. “I expect in the next two or three years, it will be the biggest on the West Coast. They have the backing for it. They’re enthusiastic. It’s going to happen.”

Rick Browne, a former Clark County resident, and Chef Erica Blaire Roby give a presentation Sunday at the ilani BBQ Fest. Browne helped organize the event. Photo by Paul Valencia
Rick Browne, a former Clark County resident, and Chef Erica Blaire Roby give a presentation Sunday at the ilani BBQ Fest. Browne helped organize the event. Photo by Paul Valencia

Browne was a Ridgefield resident when he authored his first book. He now has 16 books under his name, and he is working on an online barbecue magazine. He had his own television show and has been a guest on just about every national morning talk/news show. Oh, and there is another television show in the works based on one of his books.

A former photographer in the news media, he turned his passion into a career.

“It’s my life,” he said of barbecuing. “It’s family. It’s friendship. It’s the joy of giving someone something to eat.”


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Vera Kier
Vera Kier
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