It has been a while since I have just sat do and wrote about, BBQ and all that means to me. I have been busy, like the most of us, keeping up with, real life duties, ie, Family, Job & Life as a whole. After a while the competition scene, gets put on the back burner, literally. Unless you are one of the lucky few that can do competition BBQ for a living, this is something that happens to all teams, from time to time. When this happens to a team, it puts you off your game. It is no secret, the teams that consistently win, compete the most. Sure there are times where a surprise team will come in, and take the competition, on any given weekend, but for the most part, the winning teams are going to be the seasoned professional.
Living here in Florida, definitely has it’s advantages, when it comes to cooking BBQ. Minus a hurricane, or two, we can pretty much BBQ year around. The FBA (Florida Barbecue Association) competition schedule starts by the second week of January, and runs well into December. The biggest break is normally during the middle of summer, July & August, just too hot to be spending a long amount of time outside. Throw in a couple of KCBS (Kansas City Barbecue Society) events, a Sam’s club event, and even shoot across the border into Georgia, and try out a GBA (Georgia Barbecue Association) or an MBN (Memphis Barbecue Network) and there is a BBQ competition darn near every weekend of the year. Folks up north are just digging their cookers out of the snow, and FBA teams already have 3-4 competitions in for the year. It would be save to say, the competition here is very tough, and some of the best teams in the nation cook here in Florida, but not all of us are lucky enough to get after it every weekend. How can we close the gap, and be able to compete with these teams? Teams like mine, that usually hit the scores in about the middle of the field at many competitions, have to try and make up ground by practice cooks, by judging competitions and by attending the occasional class put on by a BBQ expert. All are great ways to make up a little ground on the super teams. Nothing will make up for real world experience, but practice and more practice will help to keep pace with the other teams.
Practice cooks will help a team on many levels. It helps to try out those flavor profiles, and to get down the cooking times for each category. Getting familiar with the cooker that you will be competing on helps, and we even go as far as practicing boxing as we would for turn-in. I really enjoy doing practice cooks, and it really helps my confidence level, going into a competition. The one problem I have is, finding volunteers to eat all the BBQ. When I started BBQ I never thought this would be a problem, but after years of forcing BBQ on my family, to critique, they go running for the hills at the first sign of smoke. I’m glad I have a lot of folks at my real job who are still BBQ fans. My wife gladly helps me pack all the BBQ up, to take to work and offer up to all my friends.
In my opinion, judging is a great way to up your BBQ awareness. You will get the best bang for your buck through judging. If the competition you will be judging is a local one, all you have to do (once your a certified judge) is show up and eat some BBQ. Normally a judge will need to contact the event organizer to get on the list to judge, but judging is a good time, and great information that many cook teams will not experience. I have heard many cook teams ask, “What the hell was that judge thinking?”. What better what to find out then by setting at the table while food is being judged. While the actual judging is going on, judges are not allowed to commit on the entries, but after all scores have been recorded, judges are free to discuss the entries they have sampled. So not only has the judge experienced what 5-6 other teams have turned in, but they also get to participate in a discussion on what the judges liked or did not like about these entries. I have been privileged enough to judge at a few competitions, and I can honestly say, I have learned something at each judging. I think each cook team should really try to judge at least one competition, if only to experience the other side of competition BBQ, that most teams do not see. I also think judges should try to cook with a cook team, if possible. Great knowledge comes from experience, so get out there and experience as much BBQ as you can!!! It will not only be beneficial to you and your team, but to the sport of BBQ as a whole.
One very popular way for many teams to help them keep up with or over take the competition is by taking BBQ classes given by BBQ experts. This has been an option that has been growing in popularity over the past 5+ years. Many BBQ professionals have recognized that there is a great market for their skills, and classes are filling up across the country. Classes have seen cook teams travel from out of state & even from out of the country, to attend their, not to mention putting out hundreds of dollars. I am a fan of these classes, and have been to one organized class from; Dana and Janet Hillis, of Big Papa‘s Country Kitchen. For more information, on Dana’s class, please visit the FBA sight HERE contact information is listed in the competition schedule under; Big Papa’s Competition BBQ School – Naples, FL.
I have known Dana & Janet Hillis, for a couple of years now, from the BBQ circuit. I saw them walking to the stage, a lot, before we were able to meet personally. We were lucky enough to set up next to them at a competition in Sebring, FL a couple years ago, and they were very welcoming, and helpful. Us being the new team, Dana & Janet were happy to lend a hand, and give advice. Dana was so excited to try out and give us his opinion on our food, and it really helped, we got three calls that competition, and came very close to getting a GC, (tanked one category). I knew that if Dana ever came out with a class, I would take it. We took Dana’s first class in the summer of 2012, and we had a great time. My team has not won a GC since taking Dana’s class, but it has kept us competitive in a very talented field of BBQ cooks, around the Central Florida area. So, look around for a class that best suits you, and sign up for it. They do vary in price a bit, I have seen some that run about $150 for a one day class to $700-$800 for a two day class. Most classes will give a discount for folks who would like to bring their spouse to the class, as well. Many classes offer a fine dinner, cooked by your host, and plenty of goodies in your team bag. Sponsors are happy to give some sample products for folks in the classes to try out, because they know these are folks that are going to be doing BBQ for a long time, and could be a future long term customer. Another plus for taking a class is, not only do you get to see what a true Pitmaster does to compete in BBQ, but there is opportunity to meet some other great BBQ folks, who are there to take the class. A lot of discussion about procedures and other secrets, are normally shared during these classes, even amongst the students. I know we had a great time at the class we took, and will do it again. I also feel that we learned a lot during the class, and it was money well spent.
These are in my opinion, three ways to up your game as a professional BBQ cook team. I know there are more schools out there, and a few that are on-line or CD classes. I hope to be able to check them out, one day, and be able to render an opinion on them as well, but for now this is all the first hand experiences I have.
It is not easy to keep up with the “super” teams, and it is even more difficult to know just, “what the hell was that judge was thinking?”. I have heard it many times on the competition trail, it has a lot to do with luck, and that is very true, to a point. Luck does play a part in, which tables your entries land on, and which judges are at that table, and even which competitor’s entries are at the same table as your entry. Those are things you, as a cook team can not control, but what you can control is, the quality of BBQ you choose to turn in at any given contest. You and you alone will decide what your flavor profile should be, if your entry is cook to your liking, how you want to arrange your box for turn-in, sauce or no sauce, these are examples of things with in your realm of circumstances that you can control at a BBQ competition. The best thing we can do as cooks is to make the most informed decisions that we can make, this will help us with our performance at a BBQ competition. The best way to make a sound informed decision is by educating our selves as much as possible. Please go out and get involved with competition BBQ, if you can’t cook on a given weekend, go judge an event. Volunteer some time to a organization in your area, I know they would love the help. This is all good stuff to help our sport grow, and when competition BBQ grows, it’s good for all of us. I think I will take some of my own advice, time for a brisket practice cook. Thanks all and God bless!!!