Please allow me to introduce Mark Pepelea, head cook for Slug Bug BBQ, and his tag on the Forum is ‘pepeq’.  The Slug Bug team consists of Mark and his wife Lisa.  They currently reside in the Cleveland, Ohio area, but have roots in Northern Illinois and the Chicago land area.  Mark and Lisa were some of the very first people I met in competition BBQ and I consider them to be not only BBQ buddies, but friends as well.  Like so many of us, Mark and Lisa would love to cook at contests every weekend, but also like so many of us, other obligations prevent that, so they get out when ever they can.   I’ve asked Mark to write a little piece about choosing to attend a competition BBQ cooking class.  I haven’t done that yet, but I knew he and Lisa had, so I thought such a discussion would be better coming from someone who had actually attended a class.   So if you’re out on the circuit, and happen to run into these guys, stop by and say hello.  But be careful, because it was Mark’s gently persuasive demeanor that pushed me over the edge and got me into this obsession we call BBQ 😉 !  Thanks for the article Mark.  Joey Mac.   


My love of BBQ started about 8 years ago on a trip to North Carolina where I tasted pulled pork for the first time. A short time after that on another trip I tasted some Texas BBQ. That is when I said “I gotta learn how to cook this stuff”.  I cooked BBQ at home for about 5 years and just like everyone else, my friends and family said my food was the best they ever tasted. My wife Lisa and I became CBJs under KCBS and judged a couple of contests. When I tasted the food I thought “My stuff is better than this!”  Then we jumped into competition and had a real awakening.


Our first contest was at Shannon, IL  and we competed in all the usual categories chicken, ribs, brisket, pork and the optional categories of sausage, beans, and pie. We tried a citrus based sauce for the chicken that we thought was terrific; the rest of the food was prepared how we like it. The only call we got was for the pie. Of the four main categories our best finish was middle of the road. Our chicken and pork came in close to last. Our overall finish was at the top of the bottom third. We realized that we needed to cook for a different palette, not for ours. Boy, competition BBQ was different than what I cooked at home just for us.


The second contest was in Peoria, IL where our overall finish was slightly better, but still in the bottom half (although we got a call for dessert!!). Since my wife does the dessert and I cook the meat, I was happy for her but getting frustrated with my turn-ins.


At contests we kept hearing that one good way to do better at contests is to cook at a lot of contests. Since we only cook 2 – 4 contests a year due to time limitations, we needed something else.  I wanted to improve, but could not commit the time for competing more.  I heard about the various competition classes that were offered and looked into them. We decided to take Ray Lampe’s (Dr. BBQ) Real Deal class. The one we took was offered early in the season and my real attraction to it was that you cooked overnight, just like a competition. The fact that Ray competes in some of the contests that we consider for our schedule and does very well at them reinforced the decision since he would know what works at those contests.  I signed up to cook and my wife attended as a non-cooking spouse.


When we arrived, we were surprised by the number of faces that were familiar from the competition circuit including some teams that I considered successful and experienced. Now it would not be fair to disclose the content of the class but I believe Ray really did reveal what he does for competitions.  Despite a 34 degree night with rain wind and a little sleet, the class was fun too. We received many pointers and tips from prep, to cooking technique, to rubs and sauces, to presentation that we put into use. At the very next contest, I got my first two calls in meat.  Nothing stellar, but substantially better than we had done before and I give most of the credit to the information I learned in class. I know that one person’s experience does not mean that everyone’s experience will be the same, but I am certain that the class shortened the time it would have taken us to reach this level. Our overall finish was right in the middle – I still went my own way on ribs.


My wife and I agree that the class was worth every dollar that we spent and we recommend Ray’s class to anyone that is interested. Even the experienced teams said that they picked up some worthwhile information from the class. Every issue of the Bullsheet lists cooking classes taught by big name BBQ cooks. I have only taken Ray’s class so I cannot comment from experience about the other classes, but there have been very positive comments about them on the BBQ Forum.


If you can cook with a winning team, it might not be worth your while to take a class since you already have a proven source of information.  If you are fortunate enough to do well on your own, you might not want a class. But if you are like me with limited time and/or are not improving in you scoring, a class might be the thing to help break into the next level.


Mark Pepelea

Slug Bug BBQ