For the next couple of articles, I want to cover some other contest topics, judging, the KCBS representative’s role, and the organizer’s input into a contest. I’ve enlisted the help of several BBQ buddies to help write and add content to these articles. Thanks guys. There’s much more to a contest than just cooking. Hopefully I’ll shed a little light on some of the other things that go on, but even then, I’m sure I won’t adequately relay all that happens behind the scenes.

The first in this series is the topic of judging. This can sometimes be a delicate issue, but when all the smoke clears one thing is clear, cooks and judges share a passion for BBQ. And as tumultuous as the cook/judge relationship can be at times, a mutual respect is generally observed between both parties. And you won’t have to dig too deep to find cooks who judge on occasion and judges who cook on occasion. So here it goes…judging, when you flame me, please be kind. This article will focus on KCBS-sanctioned contests (while acknowledging that there are many other sanctioning bodies across the country) by outlining the judging process and then having a Q & A format to elaborate on some points.

At the cook’s meeting, teams receive a set of uniquely numbered Styrofoam boxes for submitting their entries to the judges. After the cooks hand over their box at the turn-in table, a contest rep or an assistant renumbers that box. This is to ensure that judges don’t know which team’s food they are sampling. Table Captains then log the entry number (the new number of course), and carry the boxes (usually six per category) to their respective tables.

At the judges’ table, the captain reads off the numbers of the entries and the judges record the numbers on their standardized KCBS issued score sheet and placemats. The judging begins when the captain opens and presents the lowest numbered box to the judges who then evaluate the appearance and record their scores. Allowable scores are whole numbers between 2 and 9 with 9 being the highest. The table captain scans the entry for any rules violations. If there are none, the box is closed and the next entry in the sequence is opened and scored. This is repeated until all the appearance scores have been recorded.

The boxes are then passed around the table in the same order in which they were presented to the judges for appearance. Each judge takes a sample of the BBQ, placing it on his/her placemat. After all of the entries have been distributed, judges may begin sampling the product for taste and tenderness. Judges will try the first entry, carefully evaluate it, and mark the taste and tenderness scores before moving on to the second sample, and so on. No talking is allowed during this time to prevent the comments of one judge from perhaps influencing the others.

The completed score cards are gathered by the table captain and turned over to the contest reps who enter the scores into the computer. Judges are allowed to discuss entries only after all these tasks have been completed. New placemats and score cards are distributed by the table captain and the process repeats for each of the remaining categories.

Q. Who are the judges?
A. Barbecue judges come from all walks of life, teachers, students, retirees, engineers, construction workers, truck drivers, realtors, farmers, and so on. Despite their varied backgrounds and lifestyles, most judges share a love of great BBQ and a deep appreciation for the people who make it.

Q. What is a certified barbeque judge (CBJ)?
A. To be certified, a judge has attended certification class taught by an accredited instructor recognized by the KCBS. During the class, the judge is taught the various cuts of meats allowed in competition, the scoring system, some standards for testing the tenderness of meat, rules regarding illegal entries and garnishes, rules of conduct, the importance of their role, and more. The students then apply these lessons by judging a mock contest. They are tasked with scoring and spotting rules violations while sampling two or three entries from each of the four main KCBS meat categories.

Q. How does a certified judge get on a roster? Are they assigned by the KCBS?
A. A one-year membership in KCBS is included in the CBJ class fee. The judges then receive the Bullsheet, KCBS’ monthly newsletter. Upcoming contest schedules are listed in this publication. In some cases, if a judge has served at a contest before, the organizer may contact the judge to give them the right of first refusal to serve at the contest. Most of the time however, it’s the judge’s responsibility to contact a contest organizer and request to serve.

Q. Are judges paid for their services?
A. No. They are responsible for picking up their own travel expenses, hotels, etc.

Q. Who finds the judges for a contest?
A. The individual contest organizers are responsible for finding judges to serve at their contests. Usually, eight judges are needed for every six teams competing. Each table has six judges and one table captain. The extra judges can be used at the turn-in table, assigned the task of renumbering boxes or other jobs as necessary. It is also left up to the organizer whether to use certified judges exclusively; or friends, neighbors, co-workers, sponsors, people pulled off the street, or other volunteers; or any combination of the above.

Q. Why should an organizer go through the additional trouble to line up CBJs from far away?
A. As described above, the selection of judges is left to the organizer’s discretion. There are a few sanctioned contests that do not use certified judges at all. Certification does not automatically make good, qualified judges. There are a number of experienced judges who have judged many years without being certified or receiving formal instruction. However, most competitors agree it’s advantageous to compete at contests where the majority of the judges are certified. These people are much more likely to judge according to a set of more narrowly defined and generally accepted standards. There is also an element of accountability with certified judges since they must abide by the sanctioning body’s standards for conduct. CBJs make a commitment to attend contests. Most travel many miles and sacrifice a significant portion of their weekend to serve. These actions demonstrate a level of dedication that the certified judge has to the BBQ passion, a dedication that may or may not be there for the local citizen.

Q. When considering all the costs (time and expenses) why volunteer to judge?
A. Many judges agree their payment is in intangibles. Judges sample bbq from some of the country’s best cooks. That fact alone offsets much of the inconvenience. Judging can also serve as an excellent learning experience, for new competitors as well as for home cooks wishing to improve the quality of their own barbeque. The social aspect also appeals to judge, forming new friendships and developing a sense camaraderie between fellow enthusiasts, judges and competitors alike. Despite its sometimes serious overtones, serving as a judge can be a way of supporting an enjoyable activity.

Q. What happens during the judges’ meeting?
A. The judges’ meeting is held about two hours before the first entries are due. The timing of the meeting allows the reps to count the available judges. With the number of judges known, the reps will be able to determine whether they’ll have to resort to any contingency plans to have enough judges on hand. Seating is determined, making sure to separate married couples or buddies and disturbing new or inexperienced judges around all tables. Tasks such as table captains, turn-in table staff, and others are also assigned during the meeting. If needed, instructions specific to that contest are given by the reps then a CD containing recorded judging instructions (similar to that played at the cook’s meeting) is played for the group. This ensures all judges are made aware of the common set of rules. At the close of the meeting, the judges are asked to recite the Judges’ Oath. They are dismissed with the reminder to keep a respectable distance from the cooks. They are free to wander around the contest grounds, see the sites, and exchange greetings with the teams until they’re needed when the first turn-ins are due.

Q. An oath! Doesn’t that seem a bit hokey?
A. Maybe; but the oath is included to reinforce the importance of the role the judge plays in competition BBQ.

Q. What happens if there aren’t enough judges to go around, certified or not?
A. As they say on Broadway, “The show must go on.” If the number of judges is significantly short, the organizer can round up enough volunteers from bystanders and they are given a crash course in judging by the contest reps. These judges are then interspersed among the tables as evenly as possible to eliminate having one or more tables comprised entirely of inexperienced and quickly trained judges. Most reps, cooks, and judges would agree this is undesirable and used only when necessary. Another solution is to have the judges present double up on the number of entries they judge per category. Usually a table will judge only six chicken entries. When there is a shortage of judges, a table may instead judge 12 in two rounds of six entries each. Table captains can be pressed into double duty, serving as both captain and a judge.

Q. What is a table captain?
A. Captains are generally experienced judges who have given up a seat on the judging panel to allow a new judge to gain valuable experience. A captain oversees the judges at his or her table. They are responsible for maintaining order at the table, keeping the table clean, bringing samples to the table, logging the box numbers, presenting the boxes for appearance, checking entries for rules infractions, collecting score cards, making sure they are filled in properly and legible, keeping the judges supplied with fresh water and napkins, and more. In essence, a captain is the contest reps’ eyes and ears at each table. They monitor the judges to ensure they stay focused on the food on their own plates and fill in the score cards according to their instructions.

Q. When a table captain declares an entry legal, is that the final word on it?
A. Not at all. Any judge can question an entry’s legality and have the captain call a contest rep over to the table for a clarification and final ruling. In many instances, the judge may be viewing the entry from a different perspective and spotted something the captain could not see. Regardless of who spots a possible rule violation, the contest reps are the only people who have the authority to disqualify an entry.

Q. What happens when an entry is disqualified?
A. First of all, disqualifying a team is NOT taken lightly. Most judges and table captains are well aware of the time, money, and prestige each team has invested in their entries and knows the effect a disqualification will have on that team’s chances. Paraphrasing the process: the Representatives convene and make a decision. If it warrants a DQ, the Rep then has the dubious task of informing the cook of the decision and infraction to ensure it’s not repeated in other entries submitted. NOTE FROM JOEY MAC: This topic is important enough to have a complete article dedicated to it and that will be submitted in the near future.

Q. Can a competition cook benefit from serving as a judge?
A. Absolutely. This is especially true for cooks who are relatively new to the contest environment. By participating as a judge, a cook can eavesdrop on other judges as they discuss the entries they have sampled. New cooks will also get to see, feel, smell, and taste a wider variety of flavors and presentations by judging a couple of contests than they are likely to try in many months of practice. This knowledge about what other teams are turning in may also give the budding cook a baseline against which they can compare the quality and appearance of their own entries. Finally, exposing cooks to the entire judging experience may help eliminate some misconceptions cooks may have about judges and the judging process.