Grand Champion pitmaster Stan Hays takes barbecue seriously.
For seven years, he and thousands of volunteers have been sharing their cooking skills and camaraderie with those in need through his nonprofit, Operation BBQ Relief, providing meals for disaster victims and first responders.
"Barbecue is comfort food," Hays said. "Disasters are what we do, but our passion is helping people. ... For us, that's about both feeding those who are hungry and honoring veterans and those in the military."
Thursday, Hays and his team put their grilling skills to use at the Invincible Spirit Festival, an annual event that honors military service members and their families, hosted by the Gary Sinise Foundation. Celebrity chef Robert Irvine, whose foundation assists with the event, invited Hays' group to be part of it. Among those in attendance were wounded and ill service members being treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
For Hays, it's a chance to show appreciation to those who've sacrificed a great deal in service to the country. It's also a valuable opportunity for his volunteers to practice working together as they would in a disaster situation.
"We're going to be serving more than 6,500 people, which is a really good training operation for us," Hays said. "We'll be serving more variety of food than on a disaster, but in many ways it will be like a real deployment."
It's a meaningful day for Hays and his Operation BBQ Relief team. The group got its start after Joplin, Missouri, was devastated by a tornado on May 24, 2011.
Since then, the group has responded to 46 disasters around the US, serving more than 1.75 million free meals to victims and first responders."Cooking for wounded warriors and their families and the caregivers ... to do something that's so special on our 7th anniversary just means a lot," said Hays, who was honored as a Top 10 CNN Hero last year for his efforts. "I can't think of a better place for us to be."
In the coming months, Hays and his group will continue expanding their mission. He hopes to partner with another 2017 Top 10 CNN Hero, Andy Manzi, whose nonprofit, Warrior Surf, helps veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder.
And in August, Hays plans to run a "BBQ Boot Camp" at Fort Bragg in North Carolina for active duty service members.
"We'll teach them the basics of grilling and smoking," Hays said. "We'll show them about competition barbecue and the camaraderie that offers ... and we'll teach them what we do in BBQ deployments and hopefully get more volunteers. "
Ultimately, Hays loves using his passion for barbecue to help others. For him, nothing is more satisfying than finding new ways to do just that.