Winning Your First Competition

Smokin' Hot Backyard BBQ Grand ChampionI really debated on whether to write something about this, because I don’t want to appear as if I’m gloating. Then again, I thought it would be a great message to send out to other BBQ enthusiasts looking to compete and want to learn more about the experience.

If you’ve been following my site, you already know that I’m not a professional BBQ competitor. I recently stumbled into the pro circuit last month by competing in the Poor Que event located in Wisconsin. What I thought was a backyard competition by the low entry fee, quickly turned into a professional event, being surrounded by high-end smokers twice the size as mine, and extremely friendly competitors that have been cooking on the circuit for years. The Wisconsin 9:22 toast can’t be beat either!

Poor Que was the fourth competition I’ve entered, and only the second one to have a teammate on. It was the first overnight cook with four meats (chicken, ribs, brisket and pork) I’ve competed in, because backyards typically just go with ribs and chicken (should have been a red flag to me, but lesson learned).

One thing I quickly realized about an overnight cook, is that lack of sleep doesn’t work for everyone. So, unless you’re using something like a Big Green Egg, or other smoker that doesn’t require constant fire tending, you’ll need someone to stay up through the night to toss on logs and spray the meat. Given my new offset smoker needs a new log every 1-1.5 hours, (even with over 24 fire bricks inside) constant tending was a must.

After little sleep that night, the quality of the turn-in boxes suffered, and the anxiety of the competition was definitely raised. All-in-all, we still got a call for the Pork Shoulder by placing 9th in a very tough competition. However, I was happy when the overall ranking landed in the middle of the pack, given the fact it was the pro circuit and my first four meat competition. Would I do it again? I’m not so sure yet, as the dishes suffered, and so did the team.

The latest competition landed me in Cottage Grove, WI for another backyard event that also included raising money for the local firemen. Per the KCBS rules, slipping into only one pro circuit event still allows me to go back to a backyard event, so challenge accepted. Since my new teammate couldn’t make it due to other commitments, I decided to welcome my oldest son on-board, as he had been asking me all year to attend one.

As a backyard event, you generally only cook Ribs and Chicken, which means firing up the smoker the day of the event. However, since Smokin’ Hot Backyard was 3.5 hours from me, I opted to drive over the night before. This event turned out to be the most relaxing of all the previous 4. The jitters of being something new had passed, and having just my son with me meant that the only stress that could be created would be my own.

My son was a great help with prepping the meat, getting the firewood, and helping out any other way he could for a 7 year old. Having Father’s Day that weekend made the experience all the better. Turn-ins were on time, and he helped me walk the meat box up each time. Every technique I planned to use was executed, instead of in the past where I remember forgetting at least 1-2 steps along the way. I also opted for different cuts of meat and a new BBQ sauce creation I call the “Darkside of the Midwest”.

When the award ceremony kicked off that afternoon, I wasn’t nervous initially, because I had just spent the day doing what I love with one of my kids, and couldn’t care less if I placed at all. My son, on the other hand, insisted we had to win the whole thing! First announcement comes chicken and we place 6th. After a quick glance at my boy, I notice his head is hung low and he’s got the saddest pair of eyes on him. Ribs are up next and we got 4th place, while the first place chicken team had slipped to 10th on ribs. Now, if you’ve ever been to a KCBS competition, you know that obtaining a Grand Champion or Reserve Champion doesn’t matter as much for placing first in the categories. It boils down to the tallied points for all the meats, and sometimes placing 1st versus 4th could be the difference of only a half point.

I quickly did some math in my head based on other team placements, and assumed I had to have gotten third place. 3rd overall was announced no call. That’s when the nerves kicked in. Could it be? Did I just place the top two with my son’s first time out? Better yet, we got Grand Champion!! First thing out of my boy’s mouth was that since he helped on the cooking he deserved the money from the GC award and that I could keep the money from the Ribs award, which was less by the way. I spent the drive back explaining the costs to competing at each of the events and that the money wasn’t as important as being able to talk to other BBQ enthusiasts and to learn newer and better ways to cook the meats you love.

Of course, I slipped him some cash and a trip to the toy store the next day, as he was still on cloud nine and needed to be rewarded for all the hard work, and not just with that awesome hand-painted trophy.

Best advice I can give to anyone new to competing on the BBQ circuit is take your time, and go with the ones you love. The experience is far more rewarding if you can sit back and realize that you’re there to share your passion, your recipes, and not trying to go for the Gold. Second, don’t over-complicate the recipe. As soon as you realize that you’re turning a cooked poultry dish into something entirely different (like scraping fat from the skin), you’re doing it wrong. I though it was the way to go, but who needs to waste hours for so little difference in quality. In fact, doing the opposite raised my scores!

Thanks to everyone at Poor Que and Smokin’ Hot Backyard BBQ who coordinated the events. Thanks to those teams I got to compete alongside, and all the volunteers and judges who turn out to make everything successful. We really couldn’t do it without you!

Competition BBQ Chicken
Turn-In Box for the competition, placing 6th.
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