By Jade Ruggieri
Morgantown native Luke Darnell shows off his BBQ talents in an hour-long episode to renowned, award-winning chef Michael Symon on the Food Network show BBQ USA at the New Jersey KnoQ-Out competition in Blairstown, premiering at 9 p.m. Aug. 8. BBQ USA is based on Michael Symon going to different BBQ competitions around the country and following teams that are competing.
“I couldn’t be more excited about being on this show,” Darnell said. “To have someone of that caliber like Michael Symon try your food was nerve-wracking, but was a great experience. This new TV series will show that there’s nothing better than being out on the circuit and hanging with the people we love while striving to get better, every single week, at cooking up mouth-watering chicken, ribs, pork and brisket.”
Darnell and his wife Kim are no strangers to the BBQ competition world. With their competition team, Old Virginia Smoke, they were crowned the 2016 World BBQ Champion at the World Food Championships in 2017 was the Chicken Team of the Year for the Kansas City BBQ Society. They also won the chicken category at the 2021 American Royal — the biggest BBQ competition in the world.
“BBQ is different because it seems like an easy thing to put in a cooker for 8-10 hours, but there’s a process to make sure it’s not dry,” Darnell said. “It’s like with any type of cooking, it takes care and love in the heart, and everything will turn out great.”
Growing up in Morgantown, Darnell found a passion for BBQ when he was a child through family get-togethers, where his dad would cook whole hogs in the ground. That would involve building a fire, putting a wire rack over the fire, then the hog, cardboard on top and finally burying the pig in the dirt to keep the heat in.
Darnell made sure that if any smoke rose from the ground, to cover the hog with dirt. Thinking it was the most-important job, he took it very seriously, but looking back, he realized it was busywork, so the adults could relax and drink some beer. From then on, Darnell discovered he loved outdoor cooking.
“Food is important for bringing people together because that’s what it’s always been. Growing up and being surrounded by great cooking every Saturday; cooking with family, playing football and having that shared experience is something I carry forward.”
Darnell’s father, Warren Darnell, said when Luke was in college, the family would prepare a whole week in advance for WVU gameday weekends, including cooking a whole turkey in the Blue Lot parking lot.
“We watched all these different shows on the Food Network for many, many years and always a lot of these barbeque contests,” Warren Darnell said. “Lucas always said, ‘One of these days I’ll be there.’ I’m very proud of him. He’s got something he really enjoys and it’s what makes him happy.”
Darnell met his wife at a Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia University game. At the time, Darnell attended WVU, majoring in English with a minor in political science — with no plans to make his cooking hobby a life career. He said he is blessed to have Kim as a partner for the summer BBQ competitions, due to her organizational and attention-to-detail skills, along with her strong streak of competitiveness.
“The one thing that drives her the most [for competition BBQ] is that she is extremely competitive,” Darnell said. “She played college softball and was in gymnastics. On our third date, we went to the ESPN Zone and played a game of air hockey — I’ll be completely transparent that I’m not the best winner — but I beat her at air hockey, and she stormed off and didn’t talk to me for half an hour.”
Even chef Michael Symon was amazed at Kim’s attention to detail during the show production, Darnell said.
Throughout the school year, Kim is a guidance counselor. Old Virginia Smoke is Darnell’s passion, but the competitions provide an opportunity for them to spend time together.
Darnell said barbecue is not just BBQ — rather it’s an art form of putting himself and his story on a plate and that is firmly rooted in family and a way to pay homage to where he’s from. Combining both West Virginia and his current residence in Virginia, Darnell created Old Virginia Smoke in 2012 to highlight dishes and ingredients from Appalachia, by putting twists on familiar dishes like cabbage rolls, freeze-dried ranch and pepperoni rolls in competitions.
Old Virginia Smoke participates in the chicken, ribs, brisket and pork categories at competitions, with brisket being Darnell’s favorite item to cook, due to it being the most difficult to cook consistently.
“My favorite aspect about barbecuing is knowing you put so much time into something and when it comes out perfect, you can take a lot of pride in that,” Darnell said. “I still tear up every time I put the knife to a competition brisket and it’s perfect. Every contest. We cook 230 of them now — every time I have to take a moment and be emotional about what I just did, knowing that I did it right.”
With 13 Grand Championships and 20 Reserve Grand Championships over the past 10 years, Darnell made his passion for barbecuing into a successful full-time job. Old Virginia Smoke has its own food truck, catering and sauce business.
Through his feature on Food Network, Darnell is honored not only to represent West Virginia but also to honor his mother who died a couple of years ago.
“I can’t help but think she’s up there pulling strings to make all this happen and I wish she was here for this,” Darnell said. “This was something that — us competing and doing competition BBQ — is something she truly loved, that I was doing something with cooking. To have it come this far is something that she would be proud of and something I shared with her.”
As for what the future holds for Darnell and Old Virginia Smoke, he added, “I’m going to keep on going and I don’t think there’s a limit to this, because that’s what Mom would want me to do.”
To learn more about Old Virginia Smoke visit oldvirginiasmoke.com.