Monday, June 9, 2014

Trending: Inside the World of Competition 'Que

Imagine the scene- dozens of RVs and camping setups line the roadway. Stacks and stacks of coolers lined up and ready to go. The haze and smell of smoldering apple and cherry wood. Brightly colored banners of logos, team names, cute cartoon pigs and cows. Lawn chairs and beer cans sprinkled about the grounds. You're at a barbeque competition and things are about to get pretty interesting around here.

These teams mean business- big business. From hobbyists to professional chefs and restauranteurs, the barbeque pitmasters take this competition VERY seriously. To them, it's the Olympics of ribs and brisket, chicken and pork butts. The competition is tough, and losing even tougher. Reputations are at stake, bragging rights are on the line, and some of the best 'que is about to be sampled. What does it take to be a winner? The perfect rub? The right kind of wood? Will that smoke ring take you into the winners' circle? 

With the incredible popularity of food television it's no wonder shows like BBQ Pitmasters and BBQ Crawl have thrust this craft into the spotlight. Bobby Flay's Barbeque Addiction makes it seem so easy. These shows go way beyond the humble backyard grilling party. The teams have attention grabbing names: Smokin' Triggers, Wood Chick's BBQ, Slap Yo Daddy, and many more. Pitmasters like Johnny Trigg, Shad Kirton, Ray Lampe and Bubba Latimer have become household names and are celebrities in their own right. They love what they do, and they are committed. Winning means everything.

But have you ever wondered who are the lucky souls that get to judge all this expertly prepared barbeque? I'll admit, I never have- I was more interested in following the teams and watching them go to great lengths to hide their secret ingredients from their competition, but then a friend of mine, Janice Squire, who I have known since we were teenagers, and now lives in Texas, the heart of barbeque country, happened to mention she had been a judge in the Recess on the River competition in Smithville, TX., hosted by the International Barbeque Cookers Association. Well, I just had to ask her a few questions about this! So let's find out what Janice had to say about her barbeque judging experiences-

1. I was so surprised to see you say you had been a judge at a barbeque competition. How did you get involved in this?   We were invited by folks who had judged other contests. In this particular contest, we didn't need to be prequalified for judging. We just followed the rules.

2. Barbeque is obviously HUGE in Texas. How would you describe the perfect Texas barbeque?   Perfect barbeque is tender and juicy, yet not quite falling apart, has a nice bark and well rounded flavor profile.

3. What is YOUR personal favorite barbeque style- wet, dry, etc? Spicy, sweet?   My favorite flavor profile here is moist, a hint of sweet and spicy and plenty of sauce. Just a little salt and pepper. A bit of savory after flavor is pleasing.

4. How about meat- what is your favorite kind of meat to have barbequed?   As a semi-finalist judge we sampled about 15 pork ribs first. They must be the same cut. About an hour later we sampled a little over 15 brisket entries. Personally, I like all types of meat but I prefer the taste and texture of grassfed organic beef and humanely raised pork.

5. What's the most unusual thing you have seen in a competition? This was my first experience so nothing seemed unusual to me.  I did learn that most of the meat is brined. Personally, I usually brine with Himalayan or Celtic sea salts.

6. Barbeque teams are well known for their clever names and outrageous rigs. Did any really stand out to you? Favorite names or teams?  We got a laugh out of the team names but spent most of our time in the pavilion judging anonymous entries. We stayed for the awards ceremony too.

7. Can you break down the different things you look for when judging an entry in a barbeque competition? What are the basic requirements and are bonus points awarded for anything?  There were five criteria for judging: appearance, aroma, flavor texture and seasoning, but with one overall rating.

8. Many of the competition barbeque folks are pretty well known- do the judges get to hang out with the "celebrity chefs" at all? Did you recognize any famous names?     Didn't see any celebrities at this particular competition but several had barbequed for celebrities before.

9. Is there any special training required to be a judge? Any official governing body? Any sort of certification or credentials required? This one had no certification necessary, though plenty of the other judges had done it before. The folks conducting us had plenty of schooling in showing us the rules. One fork and knife per taste, then discard it, clearing your palette with a variety of items provided between tastings. No talking about the food you're eating, and take your time. It entry is judged on its own merits.

10. Finally, let's say you are having a special get together for 200 friends and family. What would be the perfect barbeque menu for you?   Wow, 200 is a lot of folks! I think it would be homespun style in a backyard or park. The menu would include brisket, burgers, chicken, beans, fresh lemonade, sweet potato salad and coleslaw with a vinegar based dressing. As for dessert- fresh peaches on the grill- yum!

Now, let's get the perspective from the other side, from a competitor. Jason Crees hails from Adel, Iowa and is the pitmaster for Jaestar BBQ. He and his team compete in the Kansas City Barbeque Society sanctioned events all over the midwest. As you can see, these guys have it down to a science- just look at a few of the many awards they have won!  I asked Jason ten questions about his experience and here is what he had to say-

1. Jason, how long have you been competing in barbeque?  This is my third year competing. I compete in contests sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS). They are the largest organization in the world and sanction contests in the US as well as other countries around the world. In KCBS competitions we compete in four main categories: chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder/butt and beef brisket.

2. Were you in a culinary profession before this or was it just a passion you really wanted to get into?  Cooking has always been a passion of mine. My mom owned restaurants and I grew up in them. I am a competitive person by nature, so once I started learning how to barbeque, competitions seemed like a great next step.

3. I had no idea barbeque was so popular in Iowa. Do you think there will ever be a competition in central Iowa? Are competitions separated by divisions/regions?  This is one area I think that a lot of Iowa are in the dark about. There are actually quite a few contests in Iowa. A good resource to find them is to go to the Iowa BBQ Society's website. They have KCBS sanctioned contests and local, unsanctioned contests listed there. I think there are around 15 KCBS contests in Iowa this year! With KCBS,there is no separation by division or regions. They have an overall point system that they rank teams. They have them for each of the four categories and an overall ranking. One other thing that many people don't realize is that Iowa teams are some of the best in the country. In the past five years or so Iowa BBQ teams have won the Jack Daniels World BBQ Championship twice, the American Royal World Series of BBQ three times, the Sam's Club National BBQ Tour two out of three years, as well as many KCBS team of the year category and overall Top Ten finishes. It is not uncommon to go to an Iowa competition and have a good portion of the top 20 teams in the country competing. There isn't another state that can claim all of that!

4. Barbeque is so big now with all the tv shows and huge winners, some of the competitors have become celebrities of sorts. Have you ever competed against someof them? Ever hang around with them at competitions?  Television has been great for increasing the popularity of BBQ and BBQ completions. I think that participation increased around 17% last year, making it one of the fastest growing "sports" out there. I have competed against a lot of the BBQ celebrities and have become friends with quite a few of them.

5. When you set up your cooking/camping area for a competition, what's the overall atmosphere like? Is there a camaraderie between the teams? Is it like one big party or everyone sizing up the competition?  There is definitely a camaraderie between teams. Some of the best people I have ever met in my life are BBQ competition people. This is not just the other teams, but judges, organizers, contest reps and volunteers at events. Having competed in such a vast number of states has also allowed me to meet and become good friends with people across the country. Friday afternoon and evening we are all usually busy at our sites prepping meat and getting everything ready to go on the smoker. Usually around 8-9 pm we start wandering around socializing with each other. It is also not uncommon for us to have potluck meals on Friday night.

Jason in the kitchen with "Dr. BBQ" Ray Lampe.
6. Are the teams pretty hardcore about preserving secret formulas and recipes? Does Jaestar have their secret formulas?  What's really interesting is that we are all using very similar rubs and sauces. The secret comes in how much of them we use, how we mix and match or how we blend them with other ingredients. One of the other pretty amazing things about competition is how willing teams are to help each other out. We all come to a competition wanting to win, but if I forgot something or needed something I would have ten teams there ready to help out. I was ready to hang it up about mid way my first year of competing. One of my friends gave me some advice on rubs and sauces and it helped me move from a bottom of the pack finisher to finishing in the Top Ten. If someone is truly needing help and struggling, most of us would be willing to help out and give advice to help correct what they might be doing wrong.

7. What is your favorite part of competition- which meat do you like working with the most and which do you like the least? How about the most unusual food?  Nothing beats hearing your name called at awards. Second to that is being able to relax and do something that I love with great friends. I like brisket the best because it is considered the most challenging to cook. Contests can be very easily won or lost on brisket and I have been on both ends of that. I don't know that it's unusual but I have smoked salt, butter, cheeses and made my own bacon. Nothing too exotic. An interesting one is you can smoke water, make ice and then use it in cocktails.

8. Home many competitions do you normally compete in every year? Is it seasonal, since you're based in Iowa or do you travel to warmer states also?  I will probably compete in 30 competitions this year. I mainly compete in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas and Minnesota, but I will travel to other states. Last year I competed up until the middle of December at a contest in Georgia. This year, a friend and I am setting up a west coast operation and plan on competing in Arizona, California and Nevada this fall and winter.

9. How did you come up with your team name?  The back story is long and boring on the name. I have used it as my email address since around 1995. I was filling out my first BBQ contest application and couldn't think of a name. My email address was listed so I just added BBQ to the end.

10. Are there any champs out there that you'd LOVE to go head-to-head with- and beat? I have competed against many of them. Some days they win, some days I do. In KCBS competitions, each entry is judged separately from the next. This is no comparative judging. You may finish better than someone else but there are a lot of variables that play into it. You may not have been judged by the same people or maybe hit a hot or cold table. Now if we are talking about a heads up competition, comparative cook, there are a lot of teams that would be fun to compete against. I could easily come up with a list of 10 teams from Iowa, but Darren Warth with Iowa's Smokey D's would be towards the top of the list. He can cook well and win any given week, anywhere in the country and has done so consistently for eleven years.

I don't know about you guys, but this sounds like a wildly fun-filled experience. Seeing and hearing the passion these folks feel about the food, the barbeque, the history, their rigs (and let me tell you, some of them are INCREDIBLE), it's like the Super Bowl. If you ever get the opportunity the check out a barbeque competition or festival, you absolutely MUST do it! I know I plan on it. The barbeque bug is highly contagious. Who might get bit too......

****BIG thanks to Janice and Jason for spending time talking with me and allowing me to use their pictures.

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