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In the barbecue world, modesty is not necessarily a virtue. Every self-promoting pitmeister worth his brisket is out there crafting an image -- from catchy names (Butt Rub comes to mind) to merchandise and as much media exposure as possible. Bravado helps, but in the case of Tuffy Stone, possibly the most modest man ever to hit the barbecue circuit, it takes a bunch of national cooking titles and even an award-winning logo design to convince him to open his own place and fight for a share of what seems to be an insatiable market.

Stone just signed a lease to build out Q, the 150-seat "contemporary barbeque" joint he's bringing to Midlothian (near Sam's Club) this summer, serving the stuff that makes his Cool Smoke team the reigning national champion. Twice a month Stone has been hitting the prize-money trail with his father, George, and neighbor Kendall Lamp.

"We've got it down to a spreadsheet," he says of their highly detailed process, "and nothing is left to chance." That means power-washing the pit each time, rounding up fresh spices, hickory logs, prime meats and the all-important pepper grinder — plus enough curly parsley to lay down putting-green-caliber beds to set off all that steaming protein in the judges' foam boxes. They're the guys to beat in the Jack Daniels, American Royal and GAB invitationals and have walked away with sometimes-perfect scores and outsized trophies — plus bragging rights that usually go unclaimed.

The team competes against aerospace engineers, plumbers, dentists — "a real mixed bag," Stone says of the players. "There's a lot of secrecy. Smoke is dirt. Learning how to cook with it and to make it taste good, you have to pay attention to what you're doing."

That's the fun part for Stone, who also runs A Sharper Palate catering company and sells plenty of the elaborate and sometimes frou-frou menus that separate the party circuit from the pit. "Barbecue was this thing I underestimated," he says. "It's so intriguing, so challenging — modest but complicated, rich in history. I could go on and on." And he does, when asked. He learned the art of understatement from his grandfather and hopes that his product will speak for itself soon enough.

Across town in Hanover County, Stone's friend and pretend-rival Buz Grossberg is stretching too, with the energetic bluster that made him famous among Food Network viewers and those who can't miss his sauce-covered "Flay Slayer" T-shirt. He just inked the deal for a second branch of Buz & Ned's Real Barbecue to be built near Bass Pro Shops, an outdoor superstore that's one of retail's biggest tourist attractions, under construction on Lewistown Road. Bass Pro's a dream neighbor for a bigger, brighter barbecue restaurant, Grossberg says, and his place should open next year — its I-95 location sending out smoke signals and that unmistakable pit-cooked aroma to a lot of very desirable traffic.

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