Smoking slow and steady Top Flight BBQ is expanding its catering service

Top Flight BBQ is expanding its catering service

Posted: May 15, 2013

The Winchester Star

Red Skinned Potato Salad is offered by the catering company.
Michele Wilson of Winchester checks on meat in the smoker for Top Flight BBQ. She recently decided to quit her job and work full time in the catering business she owns with her husband, Steve. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)
A pulled pork sandwich is on the catering menu prepared by Top Flight BBQ. Side dishes include Rocky Top Coleslaw, Red Skinned Potato Salad, and Summer Corn Salad. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)

Winchester — Low and slow is the motto for Top Flight BBQ in Winchester.

Whether it is a pork shoulder slow cooked in a smoker for 12 hours or baked beans soaking up the smoke in a separate chamber for three and a half hours, taking the time to do it right pays off in the taste, said Michele Wilson, who co-owns the catering company with her husband, Steve.

“You know you have good barbecue when it is just falling apart and falls off the bone,” said Michele, 45, of Winchester.

Great barbecue is the cornerstone of Top Flight, which the Wilsons started in 2007 as a part-time endeavor, she said.

Every step of preparation is important, starting with sourcing locally all the way up to putting the finished product on the plate, she said. “We really don’t want to cut corners.”

Michele will have more time to make sure that doesn’t happen now. She left her position in the office of advancement at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and went full time into the catering company May 1.

The Wilsons had reached the point where they couldn’t grow the business anymore because of their schedules, she said. So, they are taking a chance by having her taking it on full time.

“It is scary, but life is short,” she said. “I think it is important to follow what you are passionate about.”

Steve, 45, is a helicopter pilot for Air Methods and currently commutes in a rotation to Prestonburg, Ky. His aviation background is the inspiration for the catering business’ name.

The Wilsons weren’t originally looking to start a business. Having moved to Winchester in 2004 for Steve’s job (he was based in Leesburg then), they simply found it challenging to find “authentic barbecue.”

For them, that meant a smoker fueled with hickory hardwood instead of wood chips or essence of wood, she said. The wood chips add the “sense of the smoke” rather than the smoke ring created by cooking for a long time using real wood.

The Wilsons bought a small smoker and cooked for themselves and their son and daughter, Ethan, now 21, and Erin, 17. Then they cooked for friends, who urged them to think about selling their food.

With the purchase of a large smoker in 2007, the couple was able to vastly expand what they could do and launch their new venture, said Steve.

“We started out as a weekend adventure. I wanted to be able to provide good quality food for individuals — provide something people couldn’t get in the area,” he said.

Their signature dish is pulled pork, which is made using the pork shoulder or butt, he said. It took several years to develop the right recipe and technique on how to smoke it so the end product is a “very flavorful meal everybody can enjoy.”

After the fat is trimmed, the pork is slathered in mustard and the “secret barbecue rub” is worked into it, Michele said.

The pork is cooked for a total of 12 hours in a large pill-shaped Lang smoker, she said. The temperature varies depending on the spot in the smoker.

The first six hours the pork is cooked at 300 to 325 degrees, where it develops the nice crust and smoke ring, she said. Then it is moved to 225 degrees to cook for another six hours to tenderize the meat from the inside out.

“When you get to know your smoker, you know the sweet spots where to place your meat,” she said.

The brisket follows the same basic process, she said. It uses a rub with a base of black peppercorn, garlic and chili pepper. It also smokes for 14 hours — seven each on the higher and lower temperatures.

The baby back ribs are coated with a dry rub and smoked six to seven hours, Steve said. They keep them moisturized with apple juice, which also adds a little sweetness.

“About two-thirds of the way through the smoking, I will wrap them up after putting some butter and brown sugar on top,” he said. “The butter helps keep the moisture in the meat and the brown sugar really adds some sweetness to the meat.”

The couple also makes two basic kinds of chicken — barbecue or tarragon and lemon marinated, which is popular with brides, Michele said. The chicken is smoked for seven to eight hours if it is bone-in or two and a half it is boneless.

Poultry is so “accepting of any scent or flavor” that it can’t stay in the smoker too long or the hickory taste will be overpowering, she said. They like to finish the chicken on the grill to give it a nice char.

The meat is not sauced unless people ask for it, and there are two reasons for that, she said.

First, although they are proud of their three custom barbecue sauces, they want their clients to “really taste that hickory smoke flavor we have worked so hard to infuse in the meat,” she said.

Second, it gives clients an opportunity to try one or more of the sauces and see which one they like best, said Steve, who is in charge of the sauces. They have a mild sweet and a spicy, both of which are tomato-based, and a “Kitty Hawk,” or vinegar-based sauce.

“Each sauce has its own flavor profile,” he said. “When you add it to the meat, it takes the meat to a different level.”

Adding to the effect of the meat is a selection of sides. The most popular is the redskin potato salad, a simple recipe using potatoes, celery, hard-boiled eggs, scallions and mayonnaise, Steve said.

It is lightly coated in the mayonnaise so it is creamy but not overpowering, he said. They use the red skin potatoes because they are buttery, creamy and rich.

“When the potato salad is cool and it is hot outside, it is a nice cool snack,” he said.

Another popular side is the Rocky Top Cole Slaw, named for a song important to the Wilsons’ alma mater, the University of Tennessee. The dish uses red cabbage, carrots and a cole slaw dressing that is slightly orange because of cayenne pepper, which gives it a little bite.

The slow smoked baked beans consist of kidney beans with a little barbecue sauce, brown sugar, secret rub and a shot of scotch, Michele said. The fact that they are in the smoking chamber (separate from main smoker) for more than three hours, combined with a little pulled pork added in, gives it “that essence of smoke.”

For dessert, the Wilsons serve banana cream pudding, brownies and an assortment of cookies, she said. They also make their own cornbread.

With Michele working full time, the Wilsons hope to expand the events they can do. To date, they have catered parties, weddings, fundraisers, family reunions, festivals and corporate gatherings.

They also set up and sell at the Freight Station Farmers Market, 315 W. Boscawen St., Winchester. Usually they are there every other Saturday. A schedule is on their website,

The dream one day is to have Steve join the company full time as well, but that is still a ways off, he said.


For more information on Top Flight BBQ, contact 540-931-9568 or or go to


— Contact Laura McFarland at