Note: I hope I don’t offend anyone and apologize if I’ve left anyone out with my reflections in this column!
After nearly10 years of being associated with professional barbecue, I finally attended my very first annual barbecue conference. The National Barbecue Association conference in Mobile, AL the last week in February was a very fun and informative event. If you’ve never attended a barbecue conference, I highly recommend you do so soon.
Although I belong to a number of barbecue organizations like most of us do, I’ve never had the opportunity to attend a conference. This was usually due to my job, the distance, or prior family or community commitments. Since the NBBQA conference was only two and a half hours from my home in New Orleans, and after being repeatedly enticed by NBBQA friends in the past, I decided to go to the NBBQA meeting this year.
A third reason I decide to go was that I’d been in the process of starting-up my own barbecue products company. I’d been told by these same NBBQA friends who own their own businesses (restaurants) that I could learn a great
deal about the barbecue business and make some valuable contacts there. I still have a “non-barbecue”job, and
haven’t been able to make the jump to running my company 100% yet, so I thought their advice was sound. (Although, I hope I have the good fortune of being able to dedicate myself to my North-South
BBQ company someday; after it finally launches this summer.)
So, as soon as the registration e-mail came out I applied and made my hotel reservations. Over the next three months leading up to the conference, I was constantly thinking about the classes I’d signed up for, the tours I’d be taking, the business connections I’d make, and wondered what I’d learn. Also, I was curious about who I’d see there from my judging and cooking, and about the new barbecue friends I’d make.
When I arrived at the hotel the first person I ran into was my friend Dennis Sherman of Denny Mike’s barbecue products in York, ME. I’d taken a KCBS barbecue cooking class in Maine a few years ago with Paul Kirk and Dennis was our host. He also has served as a mentor to me regarding the process and cautions of starting-up a barbecue business ever since I began thinking about it three years ago. His guidance has been extremely invaluable in helping me plan and legally start-up my company.
After we finished talking, Dennis introduced me to Scott Shugers of Scott’s Pig Roast & More. He and his son Brandon run a great barbecue catering business in Marcellus, MI and were presenters at the conference. Like Mike, they are very sharing people. Scott immediately provided me a lot of key information about starting a barbecue business during our conversation; including emphatically definitively stressing that I need a co-packer to manufacture my products. This was a decision I’d been waffling back and forth with ever since I decided to start a business. Thus, the conference started off on a big, high note.
I was also pleased to make friends with James Hare of Cucamonga Cattle Co. barbecue products in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. He had begun his products business the year before, and he and I became quick friends. We actually attended many of the same classes together. I love trying new rubs and sauces, as many of you know, and James gave me some of his dry rub to sample the next time I cooked. (If I was the person who created products like Magic Dust or KC Masterpiece, I’d still try other rubs and sauces every chance I got!)
Another thing I love is trying new barbecue products. So, I took the opportunity to buy a Grill Grate directly from Brad Barrett. I was excited about this, as I’d always wanted one. The next weekend following the conference I cooked using James’ barbecue dry rub and my new Grill Grate…and Wow. I love the fact that it covers my whole 22.5”Weber grill rack and makes grilling a great deal more efficient without flare-ups. The Grate Tool included makes removing food so easy “a caveman could do it”. My next Grill Grate adventure is pizza! After cleaning the grill I called James and told him I really loved his dry rub, as he asked for feedback.
One of the biggest highlights of the conference for me, and there were many, was the barbecue restaurant tour and packing plant tour with The Shed’s Brooke Lewis. We toured the Beau Revage Casino kitchen and had a nice lunch in their barbecue restaurant, then visited 5 barbecue restaurants in the Mobile area, and ended the day with an awesome and fun dinner at the “original” rebuilt Shed in Ocean Springs, MS. Brooke was a great host for the tour!
The opening meeting was also a highlight, again with The Shed family taking center stage. Craig, Linda, and Brad Orrison and Brooke Lewis inspired, moved, and entertained us with a thorough presentation of the history and ‘Phoenix-like” rise of the original Shed following the tragic fire. Everyone there was touched emotionally, as they reinforced the idea that the most important thing in life is family!
I attended two classes on marketing, one with Amy Mills of The 17th Street Bar & Grill and one with Malcolm & Rachelle Reed of Killer Hogs. I was really looking forward to the classes, as good marketing and a wide audience can make a good company very successful. Both classes were highly educational, and I gained a lot of knowledge.
I’m not that internet savvy when it comes to Facebook, Twitter or the other social media sites, and now I have some tools to create a solid marketing campaign.
The best class of the conference, no disrespect to the other classes, was the Butcher class on Saturday morning and afternoon. It was expertly taught by a number of butchery professionals. Not only was the class well-presented and most of us in attendance learned a great deal, but we also got to sample some perfectly prepared meat samples!
As an added bonus, champion barbecue pitmaster Mark Lambert of Sweet Swine O’ Mine gave an outstanding sesson on competition whole hog preparation. Getting insights from him was a unique opportunity. I’m now inspired more than ever to cook and“butcher” a whole hog. This was something I’ve never felt confident enough to do prior to the Butcher class.
The grand finale of the class was the presentation of the two hogs cooked overnight by The Shed, Boar’s Night Out, and Black’s. It was a competition between Berkshire and Duroc premium brand hogs, more than just the cooking expertise of the teams. We all got the chance to sample meats from both amazing hogs. And, all I can say is that God Almighty himself was in the room during this “event”. Talk about ending a class with a bang (and a burp)!
Just as extraordinary was the sight the night before, outside the hotel’s front entrance, when all 4 cooking teams worked together to prepare and cook the hogs. Legends like
Mike Mills and Dave Anderson were also there. It was an historic moment that my
friends and I equated with the song “Rock & Roll Heaven…and we said, ”If
there is a barbecue heaven, they must have a hell of a cooking team” - like
we’re seeing tonight.
The Awards of Excellence ceremony was exciting to witness on Thursday night, as the award carries a lot of weight in the barbecue business world.
As my barbecue business friends prophesied, I made some valuable contacts. This included finding Derenda Carr with Ingredients Corporation of America (ICA)as a co-packer to manufacture my barbecue products. This was a big relief for me, as I’d finally made a decision to co-pack thanks to Scott and now had a vendor to work with.
The most significant impression I got from attending the NBBQA conference was that it was attended by great people! It was a mix of the experienced and less experienced, the successful business people and the want-a-bee business people (like me), and the famous, big name pitmasters and the not-famous pitmasters/cooks. But overall,
everyone got along and was willing to help each other. Where else in America does such a sense of unity exist
than in the barbecue community.
The opportunities to learn never end. Often the best way to learn is from each other because we all have special skills and experiences. This is what conferences lend themselves too. I learned far more by attending, than if I tried to gain the knowledge individually through the course of daily business operations. I hope that I continue to learn something new every day and always be willing to share that wisdom with whoever wants to listen, like the great barbecue people I met in February.
After all these great experiences at the NBBQA conference, a good thing to remember is….there’s always a BBQA, KCBS, MBN, and other regional barbecue conferences every year!
I highly recommend you attend at least one in the upcoming year.
Where there's smoke, there's probably barbecue!
During these tough financial and social times here in the United States I’ve come to the conclusion that barbecue should be the model for the governing and living in our great nation. While barbecue isn’t perfect, America should be more like barbecue.
First off, the barbecue profession is just that “professional”. Barbecue competition cooks take their craft seriously and want to produce the best product possible every time they cook at a contest. Backyard cooks want to impress everyone with their skills. Barbecue Judges always want their scores to be accurate and in-line with the other judges evaluating the same entries. And barbecue organizations care about their reputations and their membership and work hard to ensure contests are running consistently and fairly to all contestants.
Unfortunately, Congress isn’t as“professional”. They don’t appear to take their jobs as seriously by representing the needs and best interests of their constituency and the nation as a whole, but the best interests of themselves.
They “say” they care about their reputations and reprenting their electorate, but their actions speak louder than words. By this I’m referring to all the scandals, the inability to compromise on legislation to get at least something passed for the benefit of “We the people” – thus the constant deadlock, the individual grandstanding, and the constant political party bickering that always “somehow” makes its way to the overzealous, sensationalizing media.
Competition barbecue has rules in place that are enforced to ensure all contests are judged fairly and have an equal chance of winning. The total focus being on awarding best barbecue. On any given day, a new
barbecue cook using weber grills has an equal opportunity to be the grand champion based on their cooking skills,
as a more experienced cook with large, expensive equipment.
Unlike in America, where overall legislation or a particular legislation always seems to favor either small business or big business. It shouldn’t be at the expense of one or the other. Lawmakers should work harder to draft laws that benefit all businesses in the spirit of promoting fair competition and American entrepenualism at all levels.
Barbecue organizations are financially sound and responsible entities. As barbecue continues to be the fastest growing culinary art in America, barbecue organizations continue to grow and remain solvent. I don’t know of any of these organizations that have been on the brink of going out of business.
On the other hand, the fact that our Congress has brought America to the “Financial Cliff” crisis numerous times over the past three years and has the nation trillions of dollars in debt, and in debt to other nations, says it all. By “nation” I’m referring to us, the average taxpayer, who is mainly picking up the majority of the check for that outrageous debt.
While every barbecue competitor wants to win every contest they enter, every backyard cook wants their barbecue to be considered the best in the neighborhood, and every restaurant chef wants his barbecue to be considered the
best in town. However, there is a sense of teamwork and unity in barbecue for the glory of the sport. All barbecue cooks brag a little (or a lot) and share techniques and recipes with each. Even though they don’t give away all their secrets. This forms a sense of community that everyone is invited to join.
Congress has become more of a select“club” that is always looking to one up each other for appointments, committees, and prestige, has cliques, and forms alliances only for short periods of time. It seems to me the main focus is to stay in office, not the quality quantity of the work. More effort and money seems to more often be put into re-election than accomplishing for the good of their constituency and the nation as a whole. A reoccurring theme here, huh?
The barbecue community is about the preservation of the American barbecue heritage, which translates to the protection of the traditional cooking techniques and quality smoked meat. Barbecue judges take an oath before judging a contest to evaluate each barbecue entry in accordance with the established criteria of the organization
and to the best of their ability. A judge’s scoring is also addressed if their scores are too far out of alignment with the other judges at the table. In essence, an individual “checks and balances” system is employed, and performance is consistently monitored.
America is in such a tough situation today that all members of Congress should be re-elected by performance, not power or longevity. Remember Machiavelli, “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. And today Congress is as close to having absolute power and being wholly unaccountable as any time in American history. I guess the American people have seen so much negativity and corruption in politics over the past 50 years that we feel powerless to change the climate no matter who we vote for.
Barbecue people are a very genuine and down to earth group of people. While we are intense and passionate about our craft, we truly enjoy the company and the conversation of fellow barbecue enthusiasts. I’ve never seen a fight or verbally abusive exchange amongst by barbecue brethren. Although I’m sure it happens from time to time, it’s not a daily event.
Congress has come to have an elitist and entitled mentality today. They are there to serve the people, not themselves. If we did some of the things they do, like if we didn’t show up for a vote or important meeting, be ineffective, be disagreeable or hard tom work with, we’d be reprimanded. Or if a pattern existed, be fired from the job. The art and decorum of politicking, as seen by our forefathers Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Alexander Hamilton, has become a lost art. It has been replaced by an atmosphere of hate and discord.
Barbecue is universal. The basic principles are hard and steadfast; low& slow with smoke. This makes barbecue potentially great wherever you go in America; Tennessee or New York, North Carolina or California. This leads to
consistency, with specific regional flavor profiles and individual creativity the point of differentiation between barbecue products. Regional preferences are strong, with each thinking their style is the best, but respecting other regional styles and the barbecue culture as a whole.
America conversely, seems to have few common threads today with state and regional pride often overriding national patriotism. While diversity is a desirable thing, America is too polarized on too many big political issues and social ideology. This is a divisive state of affairs. As a nation we’ve come to focus more on our differences, rather than celebrating our similarities and insincerely working to resolve our differences. And most appalling, we’ve empowering the media to form our opinions, rather than research, intelligence, and logic, like an educated, first world country should.
The signature aspect of barbecue (vs. grilling) is it’s low and slow cooking method. Part of the process is spending a great deal of time and attention monitoring the grill’s temperature, establishing timing, mopping and basting, and testing the internal temperature of the meat to determine doneness. If you don’t constantly focus on preparing your barbecue, the meat will most likely turn out poorly.
Drivers in America need to follow barbecue’s slow and attentive methodology. Instead of talking on their cell phones without ear buds or blue tooth (or at all), texting, sending e-mails, eating, putting on make-up, and a shocking array of other in-car activities, drivers need to obey the posted speed limit and pay attention to the road. This would reduce accidents and make American highways and back roads a lot safer for everyone.
And finally, barbecue doesn’t see color or race, religion or political affiliation, or male or female. It’s simply about one thing….producing and eating great barbecue!
America has become so segregated today, with everything being scrutinized and categorized, that there exists a perpetual attitude of us vs. them. This has resulted in a never-ending competition among different groups and organizations. We should all work for what is morally right and fair without prejudice. We should all strive to
be one thing for the common good and advancement of all of us in the United States…Americans!
I have a basic, rudimentary plan to help fix Congress, but that’s for another column and in another forum.
While barbecue isn’t perfect, at least it’s theoretically better than America today. Hence my belief, America should be more like barbecue!
Where there's smoke,
there's probably barbecue!
As the Barbecue Competition season has wound down, with only a few more scheduled contests this year, our thoughts turn to the Christmas season. This time of year is what I refer to as the “off season”, like in sports.
Pitmasters and their teams have the opportunity to stay home and travel a lot less, or not at all. Team members have a chance to reunite and spend quality time with their “natural” families, if their significant others aren’t members of their cooking team. Most of the competition equipment gets thoroughly cleaned and stored for a month or so. And our clothes get a break from smelling like smoke every week. Teams may spend some time adjusting their rub and sauces recipes, developing new recipes, or modifying their cooking methods. Almost every cook looks to purchase some type of new equipment to give themselves and a better competitive edge the following year. So teams receive a “Christmas gift of time” at the end of November and December to catch their breath and prepare to next season. Judges also have the opportunity to travel a lot less and spend quality time with their families. They also begin setting up their judging schedule for the following year; applying to early published barbecue contests. This is done during the "off season" as it is harder to apply and get selected to judge a contest than it is to register to cook a contest. (What contest would turn down a cooking team, as the number of judges is determined by the number of cooking teams?) Additionally, they have a chance to consider cooking the following season; either forming their own team or coordinating to cook on an established team.
As a barbecue addict and gift lover, this time of year also means the possibility of getting barbecue-related gifts for Christmas! Or what I call “Santa ‘Que”.
When your family and friends say to you “What do you want for Christmas?” why not tell them the truth…barbecue stuff! Better yet, have a list of items already prepared that you’ve memorized. Of course you’ll have to hesitate for a second before answering the question. This will make them think you’ve been caught by surprise and have delivered a spontaneous, heartfelt reply. The reply would be heartfelt alright, and premeditated.
What are some really good barbecue items to ask for as Christmas gifts? Each of us has a different for answer for this question based on our current level of barbecue “want” and “need”. So, here are a few old and new things that I’d highly recommend. I’d like to receive each myself, if I didn’t already have one. And, you know I like lists!
1. Barbecue Restaurant Gift Cards / Certificates
You can receive the “gift of great barbecue” from your loved ones and friends at your favorite establishment. Cards and certificates normally range from $20 - $100, but you can usually ask for any amount at many restaurants. As a great example, I recently ate at the Memphis Barbecue Company which is owned & operated by World Champion Pitmasters Melissa Cookston & Mike Wheeler. They sold gift cards, and my whole dining experience was a 5-Star barbecue event. Everything I tried was honestly excellent. However, the baby back ribs and brisket were down right amazing! So, receiving a gift card from the Memphis Barbecue Company would be a thoughtful and mouthwatering gift.
2. Food Handling - BBQ Gloves
A good pair of these heat-resistant gloves lets you handle food better and safer; like when pulling pork. Gloves can cost from $10 - $75 depending on the type you buy. There are many brands and types of these gloves on the market; from rubber to leather to suede. However, I prefer the rubber type, as they are lighter and work well. They are much easier to clean too, only requiring soap and water. Tongs and a hot pad may work fine, but BBQ gloves these are cool (no pun intended) and more efficient to me.
3. Guru Thermometer
There are even more types of thermometers out there than BBQ gloves. However, I feel that Guru thermometers are the best in the business to more precisely temp your barbecue. They are very accurate, easy to read, and seemingly become a part of your grill or smoker. They have a few types to choose from. Additionally, they are fairly expensive as compared to other types of thermometers and would be better to receive for Christmas. A Guru costs from $25 for a standard probe, up to $600+ for a very top of the line wireless control thermometer.
4. Grill Accessories
This is a gift that has an unlimited price range depending on what you want to purchase, but a basic price range is from $20 - $100. I like grill accessories that extend the functionality of the grill cooking capabilities. Often the spaces on the metal grill racks on grills & smokers are too wide to prevent food from falling through into the fire, or falling apart during cooking and flipping. And more often, grill racks have too little grill space to barbecue all the meat we need to prepare; especially for a social function. So, it’s always good to have a grill accessory available to resolve these issues. (And all barbecue enthusiasts love toys.) In the past decade a number of these gadgets have entered the market. Two of these functionality extending items that I’ve come across that I really like the most are the assorted Grill Grates and the brand new Barbecue Buddy. The Grill Grate is a product that has been around for a few years now. It protects food by raising it above the grill with less touch points and draining the drippings less directly onto the flame. Major barbecue companies like Weber and Char-Broil, as well as a number of others, make these accessories and they are available where most barbecue supplies are sold; like most big box hardware stores. They range from $35 - $70. The Barbecue Buddy is a brand new product that is making its way into barbecue circles. It expands your grill area with two racks that sit on your grill, so you can stack your meat and double your production. It also comes with a water/drip pan. This accessory is currently only available on Amazon.com and costs $38.
5. Injector Set
Injection is a great method for infusing meat with enhanced flavor and keeping it moist throughout the cooking process. A good set of injection needle(s) costs around $15, and can run up to $60 for a professional set. So, they’re pretty inexpensive and can be a big valued-added to your cooking. Every pitmaster that cooks a whole hog injects it. They use concoctions made up of ingredients like vinegar, fruit juice, wine, spices, as well as other creative ingredients. Having a quality injector set with a multi-part injector and two or more sizes of needles is a must for . These products can be purchased at most stores where barbecue supplies are sold, as well as Bed, Bath & Beyond. (Ironically, this is where I got mine thanks to my girlfriend’s recommendation.)
6. Membership in A Barbecue Association
While most of us are members of numerous barbecue associations, there probably are one or two that we’d like to join. Based on the association you are joining, memberships can run on average $30 - $50 for an individual and around $50 - $75 for a family plan. By receiving a membership as a gift, it ties the giver into our passionate barbecue world and may justify future barbecue gifts. Sneaky, and clever, huh?
7. Barbecue Books (Cook Books & Histories)
You never stop learning at anything you do; to include barbecue. So, no matter how long or at what level you’ve been involved in barbecue, you can still learn something from time to time. Books are a great way to discover new techniques, recipes and learn more about our culinary heritage. Today there are a wide variety of very good barbecue books available in store and on-line, written by world champion pitmasters and noted authors with a wealth of knowledge. Barbecue books are a good buy as they can range from $30 for a recently published book, down to $8 for a book on the sale rack.
8. Barbecue Store Gift Cards
This is the ultimate gift where you have a “candy store” of options to select from to feed your barbecue passion. Like restaurant gift cards and certificates, they normally range from $20 - $100, but you can usually ask for any amount at many restaurants. Additionally, as we have all experienced in the past, you loved one or friend may unintentionally not get you exactly what you wanted; buying the wrong brand, style, or even the wrong item. Again, there are a number of these businesses accessible on-line, which makes it even easier to gift. The Kansas City BBQ Store and The Barbecue Store are two of my favorites. But remember, it needs to be a high enough amount so you can have numerous options on what to buy. Asking for a $200 gift card isn’t unreasonable, is it?
I know this column makes me sound like a cheap, petty, gift grabbing, son of a gun. However, it’s a tough life when you have an obsession and know what you want need! J
Have a very Merry Christmas!
And I hope your family and friends are good to you by gifting lots of “Santa ‘Que”!
Where there's smoke, there's probably barbecue!
In the past month I’ve judged both Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) contests and a Memphis Barbecue Network (MBN) contests. While the purpose of the two contests are the same, judging excellent barbecued meat, the overall atmosphere of each contest is different. (As a macho BBQ guy, I’d never say the feeling of the two contests is different.)
In KCBS contests you know what categories you’ll be judging at each event; all the four meat categories - Chicken, Ribs, Pork and Brisket. Everyone judges the same four categories, six entries in each category. Additionally, the contest only uses the Blind judging method, where all the entry boxes are renumbered when they arrive at the turn-in table. So, the judges never know which cooking team’s sample they are judging.
In MBN you don’t know what category you’ll judge until you arrive at the event. You may judge one or two of the three categories, or even the Finals. The three categories are Whole Hog, Shoulder and Ribs. Also, in MBN there are two judging methods employed, blind judging and on-site judging. On-site judging entails the judges going out to the cooking team sites and evaluating their barbecue, as well as their presentation and the site itself.
Now in MBN if you are selected to judge the Finals, you’ll judge all three categories and a total of 9 entries. You’ll judge the Top Three cooking teams in each of the three categories from the blind and on-site judging. The Finals is only on-site judging. Also, a team may “final” in each category, so you’d be going to their site 3 times. In judging a Finals it’s hard to pace yourself in how much you eat from the 1stto the 9th team, and you’ll be very full afterwards.
Ironically, there are some people that don’t like to judge on-site or don’t want the pressure of judging a Finals round. So, they only judge one or two categories in the blind judging.
The Judges Meeting are different too. KCBS meetings are more formal and highly organized, while an MBN meeting is more informal and laid back. KCBS has the judge’s meeting with the “famous” instructional CD that gets played before every contest, before the judge’s oath. The MBN judge’s meeting briefing is less formal and shorter.
I’ve outlined the Scoring differences between the two organizations in detail in a previous column - A Tale of Two Methods. However, simply stated, KCBS scoring involves blind judging only and no comparison of entries, while MBN scoring involves blind judging and on-site judging, and comparing and ranking the entries.
The Cooking is slightly different in the two contests too. In KCBS contests teams cook all of the four categories because it’s fruitless to do otherwise. The Grand and Reserve Champion is determined by calculating the four scores from each of the categories. Teams can win a trophy for best in chicken, ribs, pork and brisket, but can win outright without barbecuing all the meats.
In MBN most teams cook all the categories too, all pork, but some teams only cook whole hog, shoulder or ribs. The reason is that the Grand Champion is selected as the best from the nine entries in the Finals. So, focusing on one category and making it to the Finals with a chance to win it all may be worth it.
To me, cooking a Whole Hog is the biggest difference between the two contests. While it takes a great deal of skill to cook any meat in a professional barbecue contest, it’s a bigger, more time consuming endeavor to properly prepare a whole hog for competition. Especially since all the major parts of the hog are judged – the loin, ham and ribs – and the bacon is very often presented to the delight of the judges. Therefore, the whole whole hog has to be cooked perfectly.
KCBS is currently a larger, national and international organization, while MBN is smaller and more localized in the South.
At a KCBS contest there is a proud, institutional atmosphere of being the world largest barbecue organization that set the standard for professional barbecue judging. It’s also a challenge to cook three very different types of meat well at a competition level.
At an MBN contest there is an elite, showmanship atmosphere with the theatrical on-site presentations and judging. Whole hog is also what I consider the old school traditional way to barbecue. Throughout American history when barbecues were held and pork cooked, it was almost always a whole hog.
While there are a number of differences between the two contests, there are also a number of similarities. Each organization is very professionally run by experienced Contest Representatives and enthusiastic Local Coordinators, from the judge and cooking team registrations to the actual contest itself. A majority to 100% of the barbecue judges at contests are certified by their organization through a sanctioned training course. Each organization maintains strict control over the scoring of the contest, to ensure the integrity of the competition. Contests are often associated with an event or festival. At each contest you meet great people who are as obsessed and knowledgeable about barbecue as you are, and that you enjoy seeing again and again throughout the barbecue season. But most importantly, both organizations are promoting and preserving the high standards of the American barbecue tradition.
If you are truly a barbecue fanatic, I high recommend that you be a member of both KCBS and MBN. Neither organization is “better” than the other, and I thoroughly enjoy judging both. It helps me stay in touch with the
current cooking trends and flavor profiles of each type of barbecue, gives me the opportunity to judge more, allows me to make more new barbecue friends, and widens my overall barbecue knowledge and experience; which I’m a big proponent of. And most of all, Variety is the spice of life in barbecue too!
Where there's smoke, there's probably barbecue!
As a follow-up to my last column, where discussed a great barbecue contest I’d just judged in Georgia, I wanted to write about what I feel makes a great contest. There are many aspects that make a contest great, and a contest doesn’t have to encompass all the aspects I’ll mention to be great.
This is my list of criteria. Most importantly, if a contest is one that you have fun attending and want to judge again year after year, for whatever reason, it should be a great contest to you.
My “Big 7” criteria are as follows:
1. The first thing a great barbecue contest needs to have is Good Cooking Teams. Barbecue contests are open to all cooking teams, and there is no requirement to attend a barbecue cooking class, nor is there a process in place to become “certified” as a professional cooking team. Additionally, brand new teams are competing for the first time at every event. I’m not saying new cooking teams produce “not good” barbecue. However, but it usually takes a few contests to become a proficient barbecue cook; no matter someone’s background. Cooking in backyard competitions first speeds up the learning curve. So, it’s a necessity for contest organizers to attract a number of the best
competition teams on the circuit; and there are a number of them throughout the nation. And of course, all judges
want to sample good to great barbecue.
2. Without being considered a barbecue snob, which I am anyway, I feel great contests need to have 100% Certified Judges. If you need good cooking teams, you need properly trained judges to properly judge the high quality barbecue. As we know, cooking teams spend a great deal of time, travel and money to compete at contests.
Therefore, we owe it to them to have their labored entries judged by the best available barbecue people. Since professional barbecue competition has become so popular and has evolved so much over recent years, consistent
judging is essential to maintaining the integrity and credibility of the sport.
3. An Organized and Friendly Contest Coordinator is imperative to a great contest. The coordinator sets tone of event, both at the event and prior to it. The coordinator is usually responsible for communicating with the cooking
teams and judges, and determining the number of judges the contest will required based on the number of cooking teams entered. Responding promptly and friendlily to everyone initially and leading up to the event is a key. Cooking
teams and judges can rescind their request to attend the contest if they believe they aren’t being taken seriously or it doesn’t appear the contest is organized well. There are many other barbecue contests to attend in lieu of a particular one. During the contest the organizer is the main local individual working with the contest representatives, cooking teams, and judges performing a number of functions. As minimum coordinators usually welcome everyone to the event during registration, speak briefly at the meetings, and resolve issues.
4. A fourth criteria is an Open, Comfortable Judging Area. No one wants to judge in a cramped, small room. It’s hard for table captains to maneuver trays with entries and judges are figuratively sitting on top of each other as the tables are so close. Sometimes a small room becomes hot as well. To me conference rooms are the best venues to judge in, due to the large space and air conditioning. Judging a Memphis Barbecue Network contest, or similar contest like Memphis in May, where on-site judging is conducted is my favorite method of judging. Not only is it fun to visit a cooking team’s site, receive a presentation on how they prepare their barbecue, and is outdoors, it’s
also not cramped!
5. While judges don’t get paid for judging barbecue contests and don’t have an opportunity to win cash prizes, receiving a Goodie Bag is a very cool thing. I’m always grateful to receive one because contests obviously aren’t required to provide one. It is going above and beyond and shows they really care about the participants, as judges don't get paid for their services or receive per diem. Goodie bags can have a variety of items and can be quite creative. They can contain anything from foam beverage koosies, to pens & note pads, to local products. To me, a truly great goodie bag contains a free contest t-shirt. I love barbecue contest t-shirts and have an ever growing collection of them. Most of them I’ve purchased though.
6. Another aspect of a great barbecue contest is a Good Ancillary Event in conjunction with the contest. Most frequently Fairs are the event with live bands, food, various vendor booths. I’ve encountered fairs in many of the regions I’ve judged in, so it not limited to one part of the country. They are fun and give you something to do in addition to just judging or cooking at the contest. They are also good places to buy fun things like apple cider, fresh preserves, crafts, art, and services like free blood pressure checks. And, they usually have a booth selling event
7. A final thing I believe makes a great barbecue contest is Good Weather. I know this is an uncontrollable and only applies to an outdoor contest. Therefore, it is not a hard criterion for me, but more of a “nice to have”. It does make attending the contest more pleasurable. Everyone, especially cooking teams, love warm, sunny days with no rain.
All barbecue contests are good. However, some can be considered great for a variety of reasons. You need to determine your own criteria for“contest greatness” and apply those standards to the contests you attend. As I said, if a contest is one that you have fun attending and want to judge again year after year, it should be a great contest to you!
Where there's smoke, there's probably barbecue!
The weekend before last I judged the Pigs & Peaches barbecue contest in Kennesaw, GA. It’s the first contest I’ve judged in 5 months due to constraints associated with my new job. I had to drive 7.5 hours to get to Kennesaw from New Orleans.
I know that non-barbecue people (like my girlfriend) don't understand why I would travel so far just to judge a barbecue contest. However, for me there are a few reasons in this particular case.
First, I had judged for what seemed like an eternity and there were no other contests in my immediate area the rest of the barbecue season. Most of the contests in Louisiana are held in the spring timeframe, and are all over by the end of March.
Second, Georgia has been on my list of states to judge in ever since I began judging. I have a well thought out judging planning list of the places and states I want to judge in the future. Sometimes where I get to judge is dependent on where I’m living at the time and where I can have the opportunity to fly to. This contest in Georgia was my 15thstate that I’ve judged in. The contests have all been in the South and Midwest, and one in the Northeast. A few other states on my list are Arkansas, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Washington, and New York.
Third, I’d heard that it was a very fun and well run event in a small community with a very nice festival associated with it. And that is exactly what I found. It was well worth the long drive to Georgia. As a matter of fact, Pigs & Peaches is in my ‘Top 5’ list of contests that I’ve ever judged and I really hope to be in Kennesaw next year for their 11th annual event.
Fourth, I like travelling and taking road trips. I get bored staying at home on weekends, even though there is often a lot to do in New Orleans.
Finally, “What the heck, it’s Barbecue”!
It was a very peaceful, incident-free, and long road trip. And traveling through the two barbecue states of Mississippi and Alabama, I had thoughts of the local barbecue establishments, upcoming contests I’m scheduled to judge, my “someday hopefully in the near future” barbecue restaurant that I’m planning on opening, and not being at work on a beautiful day in August.
My weekend barbecue experience started out on a funny and unexpected note on Friday evening when I arrived at the contest site. When you travel a fair distance East or West in the United States you very often pass into another time zone. We all know this, but often forget about the change in time when planning our trip. This, of course, happened to me.
I was travelling from Central to Eastern Time, an hour ahead, and arrived just as the judge’s meeting as about to begin. Actually I was 15 minutes late. I arrived at the site, parked my car, and walked to the convention center. When I walked in, I asked a volunteer at the Information Office to show me where the barbecue contest sign-in was. He walked me down the hallway and when we came to the door of the meeting room Doug Rhodes, the contest organizer, opened the door and said are you Marc”? I said “Yes” and walked into the room to a round of applause. I naturally took a bow. Apparently, Doug had just told the other judges that I was traveling in from New Orleans and that he’d check one more time to see if I’d arrived. I’d never made such a grand entrance before and Doug and I joked about it. This not only speaks to the quality of Doug and the KCBS contest reps, but to the barbecue community as a whole.
(I hate to admit it, but this also happened to me at my very first barbecue contest. I was traveling from Chicago, IL to Goshen, IN. However, this was the morning of the actual KCBS contest. I arrived just after the meeting and oath, and I was very fortunate enough they allowed me judge. (“Rookie” mistake!)
The contest this weekend was a very friendly and fun atmosphere, and the hospitality of Doug and his staff was truly first rate. I made some new “barbecue buddies”outside of my normal judging territory, which is always great. The Pigs & Peaches Festival was larger than most you encounter on the barbecue circuit. It had a wide variety of booths selling everything from massages to raffles to apple cider, and as always, great barbecue was vended.
Additionally great, the contest was held in the town convention center in a large, air conditioned meeting room. It’s always a great thing in the South during summer to have a function in an air conditioned, indoor venue. We’ve all been to events where we’ve judged in a large tent outside in the sweltering heat, so I know you can appreciate the venue too.
As this was a KCBS-sanctioned contest the usual four categories were judged. On Friday night there was an Anything Butt’ and ‘Peach Dessert’ contest. Unfortunately fewer and fewer contests do this, which is a real shame. Friday night ‘other’ contests are always fun, relaxed, interesting, and give the cooks an opportunity to test their creative skills in categories they don’t normally cook.
The ‘Anything Butt’ entries were pretty good, but the ‘Peach Dessert’ entries were all amazing! It was the hardest category I had to judge all weekend. The winner on my score card was a peach and apple crisp cheesecake with a tart peach glaze, very slightly over a perfectly cooked half peach with apple crisp in it and a white icing artistically drizzled on top. My favorite dessert in the whole world is Peach Cobbler, or anything peach really. So, the dessert category was the main reason I fell asleep early last Friday night and gained 5 lbs. over the weekend. I definitely over-indulged on peachy sweetness!
I became disappointingly aware of something this weekend that has become a trend in all the contests I’ve judged in various places over the past 2 years. The quality of the ribs has declined and cooking brisket has become a lost art. The chicken and pork categories have remained at a high level of quality fortunately.
The ribs have tended to be overcooked - falling off the bone, less flavorful spicing or not enough spice, and too much sauce - masking the taste of the cooked meat. I’ve even judged a few ribs that were burned– probably from putting on the direct heat to warm-up or finish cooking. These days it’s hard to find a great rib that you’d “kill for” a full rack of after sampling it. In the past I’d find at least one at every 2-3 contests I judged. I know my palate and judging skills haven’t changes in the past 2 years.
The brisket has tended to be dry, with little flavor, and over or under cooked in a majority of the 6 entries I’ve judged.
Usually there is only one, or possibly two, “good” brisket entries per table. And this has been the consensus of the other judges at my tables during our discussion, following turning in our score cards, not just my opinion. I know brisket is the hardest meat to cook, as the window where it is perfectly cooked is so small. However, this is professional barbecue and the percentage of “good” brisket entries should be much higher.
I don’t know if it is the number of new cooks on the barbecue circuit these days who aren’t as skilled as the more experienced cooks, the random selection of entries that I’ve been presented at my tables to judge – which is statistically unlikely, or the high number of events that cooks compete in during the season these days where they have become laxed with their cooking techniques, or something else, or a combination of things, but something has
effected what we receive judge.
As a master judge, I feel confident in my assessment and stand behind the statement. This is based on my honest observations and passion for our great “sport”. It is also something I hope changes very soon.
However, what matters most is that I had a great time at a barbecue contests this weekend! As we all know, any day judging or cooking barbecue is always better than a good day at work!
Since I put Pigs & Peaches in my “Top 5” list, my next column will be about What Makes a Great Barbecue Contest?
Where there's smoke, there's probably barbecue!
As I pass the weeks until my next barbecue contest, I do a lot of reading. I read everything from my monthly barbecue newsletters, to on-line barbecue websites, to classic books (even Shakespeare plays), to new business development books, to various sports magazines. As I read, I came across several cleaver plays on words. These were single words where all the letters of the word were used to spell other words from it. The other words reflect the essence or nature of the word. I’m sure there is a name for this literary method, but I don’t know it.
So, yesterday I started thinking… What could all the letters of the word “Barbecue” stand for? And without the aid of alcohol, here is what I came up with:
B - Bad to the Bone
A - Aroma
R - Rubs
B - Beer
E - Excitement
C - Culinary Group
U - Unity
E - Excellence
B – Bad to the Bone
True barbecue is an ancient and primal technique of cooking meat with low heat and smoke, the minimum of cooking technology, to produce a succulent meat offering. All you really need is a pit, wood and fire. That’s all our Caribbean ancestors had. It’s also the hearty way to cook simple cuts of meat and make them taste amazing. In the antebellum South, the poorer cuts of meat were given to the servants who patiently barbecued them into better fare (I imagine) than served at the main house. I could eat barbecue 6 times a week, as I need to save one day each week for steak and seafood.
A - Aroma
What is better than the smoky smell of meat being barbecued? Nothing!!! Enough said.
R - Rub
In barbecue seasoning is called a “Rub”. Why? Because it’s rubbed into the meat to create a deeper and more harmonized melding with the meat. It’s not simply applied to the top of the meat, but on the top, bottom and sides for maximum flavor. Rubs also vary from very mild, to herbal, to very hot.
I also like the fact that the word “Rub” sounds kind of sensual! I find this a manifestation of the passion of barbecue.
B - Beer
OK, just saying the word “Beer” should get no argument from anyone. Beer is one of the best beverages to assist in the consumption of any barbecue meat. And many barbecue cooks use beer in the preparation and cooking of their meat, as well as in their homemade sauce. To me, Dark beer is the best to use in cooking barbecue. It imparts a rich, bold flavor to accent the rich, smoky flavor of the meat.
Dark beer is also good to me to drink with barbecue. Although in the hot summer months I prefer a classic Ale, and not a wimpy India Pale Ale.
I normally drink and cook with English, Irish and German beers. Yeah, I know, in my American barbecue.
Sorry! However, I have discovered a few new American microbrews (dark and ales) in the past year that I
really liked and want to experiment cooking with.
E - Excitement
Who doesn’t get excited about barbecue? Certainly the cook gets excited as he plans, cooks and serves their
prized barbecue. And certainly the lucky beneficiaries of the barbecue are excited to eat it – not having to cook
themselves, if nothing else.
And barbecue functions are almost always successful. You don’t have to worry who will come and who won’t, or everyone getting along. Just light up the grill, slap down some meat, open a refreshing beverage, and “they will come” and have a good time.
C - Culinary America
Barbecue is truly “America’s culinary cuisine”, even though it’s roots go back to native tribes of the Caribbean. American’s have adopted this culinary method and perfected it. We’ve perfected the end product, created consistency, and added variety, without compromising the original art and simplicity of barbecue. Barbecue is a culinary category that continues to grow and get more recognition every day. No other country has added as much to the evolution and elevation of barbecue, nor claimed it as their own, as the United States.
U - Unity
Other food categories rarely please everyone.
Some people are allergic to shellfish, some people don’t like Italian or Mexican food, or seafood, and some people are just very picky eaters. However, barbecue is the one food group that just about everyone can agree to eat. Especially at an organized barbecue. It doesn’t matter whether the barbecue is pork, beef, chicken or another meat, people are “all in” and the initial line is long.
And as we all know, the camaraderie at barbecue contests among the cooks, judges and volunteers is unlike you’d find many places else. People are so genuine and down to earth.
Finally, as I’ve already mentioned, barbecue functions are fun. They are usually family or community gatherings bring out the best in everyone.
E - Excellence
Barbecue is all about producing an “Excellent” smoked meat product. With all the time, effort, attention and patience it takes to properly prepare barbecued meat, it should be better than just good. And if it isn’t “perfect”, as long as it’s not burned or undercooked, people will be very happy to eat it.
Then there is the other foods that being out the excellence in barbecue; the sides. Excellent barbecue is enhanced by great sides, which can be anything these days. I prefer the traditional Memphis-style classics of BBQ beans, Cole slaw, greens and cornbread. However, items like macaroni & cheese, rice, French fries, mashed potatoes, potato salad, corn salad - basically picnic foods - are all acceptable now.
So there it is, B.A.R.B.E.C.U.E. defined. Cleaver, huh? I can’t wait until my next barbecue contest, so I can think about less trivial things.
Where there's smoke, there's probably barbecue!
When writer’s run out of things to write about, or want to take a sabbatical, they usually write about the “Best of Something”. This is similar to actors, singers, and politicians who write ‘tell all’books at the end of their careers.
The same can be said of me in regard to this column. All though I’m not burned out or at the end of my barbecue
writing career, I hope! Starting a new job a few months ago has taken up all of my time and energy. Taking over an operation that needs to be turned around 180 degrees is very time consuming and tiring. As a result, I’ve been prohibited from judging or cooking in any barbecue contests in the last month, and don’t currently have any scheduled for the remainder of the year. All the local contests had already been held, and there aren’t any close enough for me to be able to make a day trip to judge. Cooking a contest is definitely out of the question right now, due the time and
preparation involved in competing.
So, it’s time for the best of Marc’s BBQ experiences. I have to go with my Top 3 in each category as there are so many great barbecue venues and products out there today, and that I’ve visited. All these entries receive a 5
on my personal scale of 5 to 1, or Great to Bad. (Please note that ‘5 to 1’ isn’t referring to the Doors song.
Although, it is a Great song.) Every barbecue enthusiast has their own favorites, which will generate passionate agreement or disagreement with my listings. And that’s OK, as variety and discussion is what make life worth living.
Best BBQ Restaurant
Gates BBQ (Original location –Brooklyn St.) – Kansas City, MO
I love all their food – ribs, burnt ends, pulled pork, cole slaw, beans, and sauce. It looks, feels and smells like a great BBQ “joint”. Arthur Bryant’s original location & Oklahoma Joe’s are also excellent barbecue restaurants, but in my
opinion, not as excellent as Gates.
Germantown Commissary – Germantown, TN (Memphis Suburbs)
Great ribs, beans, cole slaw, sauce too, like Gates. And their banana pudding and service is outstanding.
The restaurant in an old military commissary next to an active rail road track; very cool when a train goes by.
I feel the Rendezvous is highly overrated: the ribs are not just dry, but brittle. And it appears they only bring out their best for food television and their regulars. I’ve had two very bad meals there, out of two total meals there!
17th Street Bar& Grill (Original location) – Murphysboro, IL
The legend Mike Mill’s place in a quaint little Southern Illinois town. Again, all the barbecue menu items are great, to include the wings and Southern fried dill pickles. However, my favorite item is the ribs due to Mike’s Magic Dust rub, either dry or with his signature sauce.
Underrated or Not Well-known:
Crosstown Barbecue – Springfield, MO
Ranch House BBQ & Steak House - Olympia, WA
Best Barbecue Sauce
There are so many choices that this will be the most subjective of all the categories.
The Smoke Daddy, Sweet & Smokey - Chicago, IL
Chicago has a number of very good barbecue restaurants and companies that produce barbecue products.
This sauce is thick, bold, smoky and very flavorful. It is perfect on ribs and pulled pork – my favorites. The
restaurant is one of Chicago’s best, a Memphis-style barbecue & motif with three excellent sauces – the Original and Mustard-Q are excellent too.
Blues Hog, Original - Perry, MO
I know it’s so “yesterday” on the competition circuit, but it was revolutionary and everyone was using it. But it has
a unique flavor, is sweet & spicy, is a glaze, and goes well with all meat. Also, my girlfriend who isn’t a big barbecue fan still loves it.
The Shed, Original – Ocean Springs, MS
The original restaurant (shack) burned down but the fine barbecue & sauce keeps coming. The sauce has a
classic, flavorful, mild flavor that appeals to a wide variety of peopleand enhances and meats.
Underrated or Not Well-known:
Head Brother’s - Mobile, AL
Tennessee Whiskey - Lynchburg, TN
Yes, the bottle’s label looks like the “bigger” bottle and it’s a very well-known name, but also a great BBQ sauce with Jack Daniels in it (!!) that not many people outside Tennessee are very familiar with.
Best Dry Rubs
Denny Mike's, Pixie Dust - York, ME
Mike Sherman finally got the national recognition he has so richly deserved for his outstanding rubs at The
2012 National Barbecue Association (NBBQA) Awards of Excellence presentation.
Rendezvous - Memphis, TN
While I don’t like their food, their dry rub is excellent; a big, unique flavor (Greek-like) with celery seed. It
is great on your own dry ribs, like at the famous restaurant. Only one of two rubs that I use on dry ribs.
17th Street Bar & Grill, Mike Mill’s Magic Dust - Murphysboro, IL
A classic dry rub that is great with sauce, or alone on dry ribs. This is the second of the two rubs I only use
on my dry ribs.
Underrated or Not Well-known:
Draper's BBQ - Cunningham, KY
Andy Roo's, BBQ Grill Seasoning - New Orleans, LA
Best Commercial Barbecue Sauce
Jack Daniels, No. 7
This is my favorite commercial barbecue sauce, even without the JD, as it has a bold, sweet, classic barbecue sauce
taste. It has a slightly different flavor than the other classic sauces that really appeals to me.
KC Masterpiece, Original
What can I say, the great, classic sauce that I believe is still the leading selling barbecue sauce in the United States.
Sweet Baby Ray’s, Original & Honey Barbecue (mix them 50/50!)
All their barbecue sauces are outstanding: now a wide variety. The first sauce I used when I began to cook barbecue, mixing the two types.
Best Commercial Dry Rubs
There are not many “great” choices in this category.
Stubbs, Barbecue Seasoning –Lubbock, TX
The first dry rub I used when I began to cook barbecue. Nice spices and flavorful barbecue taste.
Southern Comfort - New Orleans, LA
Unique, large-grained rub. It’s hard to find, but worth the hunt and results.
Nantucket Off-Shore, Rasta Rub (Pork& Chicken) – Nantucket, MA
Salt & sugar-free seasoning, but very good flavor.
As a note (or warning), as I continue to have more and more barbecue experiences, there may be a ‘The Best of… Marc’s BBQ Experiences II – The First Revision’. I might even add more categories; just wanting to cover the basics this time.
Time to get off my computer and get busy doing barbecue stuff again, so that my next column is more current, poignant and inspiring. OK, more current anyway!
Happy Memorial Day Weekend!
Where there's smoke, there's probably barbecue!
For barbecue judges and cooks there is nothing better in life than the beginning of a brand new barbecue season in the United States. (I know the Super Bowl, March Madness, and the opening of a new baseball season are pretty awesome too…but this is BBQ Critic.) Our existence once again focuses on barbecue after a brief intermission from intense competition and travel.
The new barbecue season “unofficially” begins in earnest in March with a large number of KCBS sanctioned and regional barbecue society sanctioned contests scheduled throughout the country. However, there are a few great contests in January and February as well, such as the Lakeland Pigfest in Lakeland, FL at the end of January. So my passion for barbecue has again been shifted into overdrive; prior to judging my first contest of the year last weekend.
The‘off season’ is usually the last week of October following the Jack Daniels World Championship barbecue contest, through the end of February. In the off season barbecue judges and cooks usually eat a little less barbecue, look at new equipment, explore new cooking techniques, look for additional sources of quality meat, and dream up new sauces and dry rubs. The off season brings out the mad scientist in us all.
I will judge three KCBS contests this month to begin my barbecue season. All are within two and a half hours of home which is nice for a change. I call these contests “home games”. I'm so used to traveling a number of hours to and from contests, or staying overnight. In addition, I get to see and visit with many of my barbecue friends on a regular basis.
The first weekend in March I had the pleasure of judging the BBQ Championship & Hog Wild Festival in Mobile, AL. This is a very well-run contest and festival that I really enjoy attending each year. An additional advantage is
that the festival benefits the United Cerebral Palsy Association, which the local contest coordinator does an outstanding job of representing. So not only do you enjoy judging great barbecue, but you can also feel
good about supporting to a great cause. And on a fashion note, the contest has one of the best designed contest t-shirts very year as well.
The third weekend in March I judged the Smokin’ Blues & BBQ contest. This is another well-run contest that I also enjoy attending each year. It is set in the very quaint, little town of Hammond, LA. The event benefits the Special Olympics and the Children’s Museum. Following the contest I usually walk around looking in the stores and have a beer (or more) at one of the local establishments.
The last weekend of this month I'll be judging in the Slidell BBQ Challenge in Slidell, LA. Slidell is a little town too that hosts a very quaint barbecue contest in the older section of town. This contest will be more special than usual for me this year, as for the first time ever I’ll have one of my children attend a barbecue contest with me. I’ve talk about barbecue with them over the years and they've eaten plenty of decent barbecue with me before, but they've never been exposed to a professional competition. So, they’ve heard stories of how great barbecue can be at a contest, as opposed to many restaurants, and that it could be the best barbecue they’ll ever taste. Also, they've never had the opportunity to take a class to become certified barbecue judge either. Becoming a certified KCBS barbecue judge may be the next step for my oldest if she gets addicted to the great people and contest atmosphere the way I did after attending Memphis in May in 2004.
My one regret about judging these three contests is that I’ve never able to attend the outstanding dinners hosted by the contests organizers the Friday night before the competition; due to work constraints or family obligations. I’ve been told by my barbecue friends that each contest puts on a very thoughtful and delicious spread, The organizers spend a
great deal of time and effort, and take pride in ensuring that the judges and cooks are well feed and have a good time.
And it is very much appreciated. Next year I plan on taking a vacation day or arranging to leave work early so I can enjoy the full experience of these excellent contests.
Currently I don’t have any definite plans to cook at any contests, but that will probably change as the barbecue season progresses. My urge to cook in competition has been burning inside me for the last 4 months, as well as with my barbecue teammate. However, it’s been very difficult for both of us to find the time to properly prepare and cook
successfully right now.
I do plan on judging a contest in at least one new state this year though, as I’ve done each year before. It will probably later in the season. Arkansas and Washington State are the prime candidates. I usually begin contacting contest organizers at the end of the previous year and beginning of the new year, and have most of my KCBS and MBN schedules completed by March. And then apply for contests held later in the barbecue season when applications become available. I know this is pretty much what all judges and cooks do, but somehow I’ve been told I’m more
“retentive” about it. I just call it being “business organized”! After all, barbecue is an obsession and we are professionals. Right?
Some of my other favorite barbecue contest to judge, in addition to the three mentioned above, that you might want to check out for great hospitality and a fun event are as follows:
The Murphysboro Cook-off (Murphysboro, IL) - a dual KCBS and MBN contest in a small quaint town, top cooking
teams, Mike Mills hosts, and great 17th Street Grill & Bar barbecue for dinner the night before.
The Mainely Grillin’ & Chillin’ BBQ Championship (Eliot, ME) - a small contest in a small, quaint New England town
held at Raitt Homestead Farm benefiting the farm, with good outlet shopping in nearby York, ME.
The Variety Children’s Charity BBQ Bash (Memphis, TN) - a well-run contest in “a capital of barbecue”, top cooking
teams, judging additional categories like sauces with the MBN scoring systems, kids cooking contest, and benefits
the Children’s Charity that is dedicated to promoting and protecting the health and well-being of children around the
The Lakeland Pigfest (Lakeland, FL) - a big, fun festival at the Detroit Tigers training facility with a big backyard
contest, top barbecue teams, many of the top Pit Masters like Ray Lampe and Myron Mixon man booths.
The American Royal (Kansas City, MO) –the largest barbecue contest in the U.S. in “a capital of barbecue” with
hundreds of cooking teams and certified judges in the professional and backyard divisions, all the top cooking
teams in attendance, a big barbecue festival, and very prestigious.
However, I’ve never attended a KCBS or MBN barbecue contest that everyone hasn’t been genuine and down to earth, from my fellow judges, to the cooks, to the contest reps, to the contest organizers. So, I guess you could say “I’ve never meet a barbecue contest that I haven’t liked”!
Thank goodness it’s open season on hogs and other tasty competition animals again. Sorry PETA. Not!
Have a great 2012 barbecue season everyone!!
Where there's smoke, there's probably barbecue!
Columnist's Note: This editorial may be geared for passionate and experienced barbecue enthusiasts only. This columnisn’t intended to make anyone angry or single-out any particular establishment, but merely report my honest opinion of the state of barbecue in New Orleans. But we’ll see (about the angry part).
New Orleans is home to a number of world-class restaurants and amazing chefs. It is also well-known as a top culinary destination in the United States, and after its “rebirth” from Katrina, in many ways rivals New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. However, when it comes to world-class or great barbecue, New Orleans isn’t close to the likes of
Memphis, Kansas City, various locations in North Carolina and other cities. But it could be someday.
I love living in New Orleans and I love barbecue, therefore I’m disappointed that I can’t find a worthy barbecue restaurant to frequent regularly. I haven’t had one great meal yet. I’m also disappointed that the people of this resilient city don’t have truly great barbecue options as they do with other food categories; such as Cajun, Italian, French, etc. I especially miss it now (in February) during Mardi Gras where elaborate parades, vast quantities of alcohol, king cake, costumes, and great food is all the rage throughout the city.
And as a professional barbecue judge and cook, I understand there is a difference in between competition barbecue and restaurant barbecue. However, there are no iconic barbecue restaurants here like the original Gate’s and Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, like the original Corky’s and Germantown Commissary in Memphis, or The Pit and Skylight in North Carolina to enjoy, support, and recommend. Even major culinary cities not known for barbecue has one or two “great” barbecue restaurants: New York has Blue Smoke, Las Vegas has Championship Barbecue, and Chicago has Smoque and The Smoke Daddy. You would think there would be at least one here.
By“world-class” or “great” I’m referring to high quality barbecue in the traditional way the meat is cooked and served.
Being in the South, the meat being primarily pork - ribs and pulled pork. And of course, all restaurants need to have outstanding sides as well.
There are a few restaurants that have good barbecue that the whole family can enjoy. However, there aren’t any that I’d consider memorable, desire to go to when I’m craving barbecue, or brag to friends and tourists about. Most importantly, there aren’t any that apassionate and experiencedbarbecue enthusiast would go bananas for. And every passionate and experienced barbecue enthusiast needs at least one near home.
My “street credit” in rendering my opinion of New Orleans barbecue restaurants comes from obsessive dining past.
I’ve eaten at a large number of barbecue restaurants East and West of the Mississippi, from coast to coast. I’ve judged and patronized barbecue restaurants in 15 different states in the Southeast, Northeast, Midwest, and Texas. While judging a contest, I always eat at one or two local barbecue restaurants in the area. I do this as I love barbecue, love eating at new places, and want to experience the local fare. I also try a mix of the famous-name and lesser-known restaurants.
I know that I haven’t tried every barbecue restaurant in the New Orleans area, but I’ve tried a large number of them. Most have either been recommended to me or new ones that have opened over the past few years. (I’ve found that the locals are the best source for the best places to eat no matter what you’re looking for. After that, it’s an adventure where being lucky is a good thing).
I know not everyone can cook barbecue. Even if you are a chef, it still is no guarantee you can prepare world-class
barbecue. Many chefs are locked in their culinary disciplines or have multiple varieties of food at their restaurant and barbecue isn't their main focus.
I also know there is a barbecue restaurant in New Orleans that was featured on a TV food show in the past and I’ve eaten there. The barbecued ribs that I had were good, better than most I’ve had here, but not great. The sides were
Here are some of the things I’ve experienced that prevent barbecue from being world-class in New Orleans. These
are shortcuts, cost savings measures, poor management, or inexperience – and all cardinal sins. And yes, you could experience all these deadly sins at establishments in any city. But this is New Orleans!!
- Meat that has been holding too long or is from the previous day, but still being served. This has happened to me
once for sure, and possibly a second time here. And while I didn’t say anything in the two instances, I was quite peeved. ·
- Parboiling the meat prior to smoking it. Parboiling is the only barbecue no-no for me, everything else is a
method or technique. ·
- Meat that doesn’t have any smoke flavor. This usually happens when it’s parboiled, baked in an oven, or
grilled. Yes, cooking over direct high heat is grilling, not barbecuing. Grilling pork will cause it to turn out tough, as it cooks too fast and doesn’t have time to properly tenderize. ·
- Using liquid smoke in lieu of smoking the meat with wood. Liquid smoke produces an artificial flavor in meat.
It is best used as an ingredient in barbecue sauce. ·
- Using a microwave to reheat barbecued meat. This dries out the meat and often degrades the flavor. ·
- Wrapping the barbecued meat in plastic wraps to keep it hot. This continues to cook the meat, overcooking it so it’s mushy. Or if left too long in the plastic, dries it out. ·
- Overcooking the meat. The texture becomes mushy and is bland tasting.·
- Under seasoned or poorly seasoned meat. You don’t have to douse the meat with dry rub, and it’s always proper to taste the flavor of the meat as well as seasonings, but it shouldn’t be bland.
- Over-barbecue-sauced meat. Real barbecue uses sauce to accent the flavor of the meat and smoke, but doesn’t hide it. ·
- Poor tasting barbecue sauce. Not having a quality sauce(s) can ruin the flavor of even the best barbecued meat.
As you know from previous columns, my basic criteria for what true, quality barbecue is, is the following:
1. The meat needs to be cooked low and slow in a smoker or pit to produce a true smoke flavor, not artificial smoke.
2. The meat needs to have smoke flavor evident in the taste.
3. The meat needs to be tender.
4. The meat needs to be fresh – not reheat by a grill or microwave; as it dries out.
5. There should be options for the sides, but BBQ beans and cole slaw are a must. This criteria is a little more flexible
and subjective with me, as barbecue is primarily about the meat.
Unfortunately, I have to leave the New Orleans area to get great quality barbecue. There are places I visit in Mississippi and Alabama, or travel even further to establishments in Memphis, Tennessee.
I want to reiterate that in writing this editorial I’m not trying to make anyone angry. I just hope that my comments will be read by some New Orleans barbecue restaurant owners, and future owners, and will inspire the improvement of barbecue in New Orleans citywide.
However, if you have knowledge of a great barbecue restaurant in the New Orleans area, please let me know.
I acknowledge that may have missed one that is small, unassuming, and not well known. If this is the case, I’ll report back on it in a future column possibly titled “A Great BBQ Joint in NOLA”.
I realize that New Orleans is famous for its Cajun and Creole cuisines, and barbecue hasn’t been an historical cuisine here. However, as a Southern gourmet city, New Orleaneans deserve better barbecue choices.
Where there's smoke, there's probably barbecue!