The theme of my last article was goal setting.  I mentioned that setting a goal also dooms you to failure.  Sometimes it’s just a little miss, hitting 11th place brisket instead of top ten.  But other times the failure can be utterly dismal, like last place.  There’s nothing quite so humbling as to get your score sheet back and there at the very bottom of the list is your team’s name.  Oh there might be some team listed below yours, but they didn’t even turn in food because they have zeros across the bottom.  No, the truth of the matter was your food was terrible. Talk about failure. What do you do?


1) You WILL shake your head in disbelief, stomp your feet on the ground like a two-year old, shake your head back and forth uttering choice expletives about, at, around, and to the judges.   “What the heck were they thinking…a 4 in taste?  At least this guy gave me a 9 in texture, so what if the others gave 5s and 6s, at least someone knew how to judge.” 


2) You WILL blame the system.  “Someone at the turn-in table switched my number. Wasn’t really their fault, I know, but they better be careful, messing w/ my pride like this.  There is no way on this earth that my ribs were the worst at the contest. Someone really messed up.” 


3) You SHOULD eventually begin to take an objective look at what you turned in.  You’ll carefully taste and assess the texture.  At that point, maybe you’ll return to reaction 1, or maybe, just maybe, a shadow of doubt will be cast upon your confidence in the product.  You think, it’s a little spicy, and these black char marks, I thought they looked appealing, but….now you’re ready to start building a better product. 


Evaluate – This is the first step in assessing your product.  What was it about my food they didn’t like?  Was it too spicy, too salty, or too sweet?  Was it the rub or the sauce?  Was it too done or underdone?  Was it too smoky or not smoky enough?  You have so many questions and no answers.  Some will contend and bemoan that they long for some additional comments from the judges, a statement that indicates a reason for their distaste or even what they enjoyed about your submission.   Look at the score sheet in front of you, they already have!  That sheet is a record of what every person who scored your food thought about it.  What more do you need?    To do well, you’ll need mostly 8s and 9s across the board.  Do you have that?  Do you have some 8s, but some 4s at the same time?  Rather than moan about not having enough information about how to improve, look to what the numbers are telling you and interpret their message.  It’s not as hard as you think it is.   


Practice – This is the most important action to improving your food.  Get comfortable cooking the meat in question.  Focus not just on how TO COOK the meat, but on how the meat IS COOKING.  Observe how the bark changes, observe how tenderness is adjusted. And take notes.   Take meticulous notes.


Research – The internet has given us some great tools for assisting here.  Scour archives of BBQ websites.  Add some good BBQ books to your personal library.  Look in non-BBQ places for advice to understand how food cooks.  Go about your quest armed at least with a rudimentary understanding of how and why things do what they do.  Ask trusted sources for their opinions, their critical assessment of your technique.  By trusted I mean people who know the difference between good competition BBQ and just good BBQ.   LISTEN to what other BBQers tell you.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  In Mike Mills book, Peace, Love, and BBQ, he introduces the concept of “tips”.  It’s the little extras that Moms and Grandmas and cooks add when describing HOW they cook.  And they’re not written in the recipe.  He credits Desire Robinson of the Cozy Corner in Memphis of coining the phrase.  He goes on to say: “Good cooks look and listen for tips – even if they can’t get the actual recipe.”  You must learn to listen to what folks are telling, not just hearing the words they speak.  Not so much to repeat or replicate the exact process, but to apply their lessons to the process you’ve chosen. 


Refine – After researching and practicing, begin to refine the approach you’re using.  Determine whether it’s your flavor print that needs adjusted or the technique you’re using.  Is the technique you’re using compatible with the cooker you’re using?  Take ribs as an example.  Many people win with loin back ribs, many people win with spares.  Which do you prefer?  Will you use foil or not?  Will you cook at low temperatures, or higher temperatures?  Will you do dry or wet ribs?  Will you spritz or not? 


Practice – There is no substitute for this.  You will become your neighbor’s best friend, your workmates’ hero, and the scourge of your family as you practice the same thing over and over.   Before last season, my nemesis was ribs.  From October through April last year, my family got so tired of ribs, they were ready to throw them at me rather than eat them.  But I did get to where I was cooking them with mechanical repetition.  I was consistently getting a similar product.  When I launched my now refined technique at competition, scores improved, but still not as much as I would have liked.  However, now I could make smaller adjustments to get past the point of mediocrity.


Another area to practice is presentation.  When I make Q at home, most times I put at least some into a turn in box, sometimes with garnish, sometimes without.  It’s not so much to explore new presentation approaches as it is just becoming more adept at putting food into those tight confines in a prescribed amount of time…and making it look good.  That process should become a mechanical action, rather than a guessing game at 5 minutes before final turn-in.   It may also sound a little silly, but I hone these presentation skills for normal meals as well.  .  From presenting cold pizza or mac-n-cheese with hot dogs for the kids to serving apricot glazed pork tenderloin medallions with green beans and roasted new potatoes to dinner guests.   Try making a bologna sandwich into a gourmet offering. 


There are a couple words of caution.  After careful scrutinization of your scores, you need to determine whether a gross overhaul is in order, or just a minor adjustment.  Last place scores are pretty solid indicators for the need to make major adjustments.  But middle of the pack scores, or slightly better, might not necessarily need a complete overhaul.  Sometimes the most prudent thing to do is to be patient and not adjust anything to see how well that flavor profile/technique does at a different contest, with different judges and different table rotations.  You might not be as far off as you thought.


And that brings me to yet another method to improve your competition BBQ prowess, taking a competitive cooking class.  There are several offered throughout the year.  Many people who have taken them swear they are the single reason they’ve gone from “also rans”, to forces to be reckoned with at every contest.  I can’t comment on this as I have not been able to work one of these classes into my schedule…yet.  I probably will someday, was looking forward to it this year, but it just didn’t work out.  Because I can’t really comment on how taking a class affects you, I’ve asked a guest to write an article for me.  Hopefully I’ll get that posted in the near future. 


In conclusion, remember to:



Practice cooking


Practice cooking


Practice cooking



And remember, the most important thing about KCBS competitions are, “keep your area clean.”…least that’s what the CD says.  Have fun with all the practice and hopefully scores will start improving, and you start getting those calls to the stage…before me of course ;).    


Joey Mac