There you sit in the hot sun, not sure whether its exhaustion or relief that’s caused you to collapse in your seat. Your heart begins pumping a little faster. You try concealing your nervousness, but its not working. The heart pounding reminds you that you still have a competitive streak in you. You’re brimming with anticipation. You’ve practiced, and practiced, you’ve prepared, you’ve cooked and you’ve submitted your food to the judges. At the awards ceremony, the moment of truth has arrived…”Tenth place chicken goes to…” Oh how you wish it was your name. But before you get here, there’s a whole lot that happens on BBQ Saturday. Here’s the final installment of the three part series shedding some light onto what goes on at a competition from a cook’s perspective.

BBQ Friday is characterized by pockets of intense activity followed by extended duration of lull time. BBQ Saturday is quite different. It starts sedate and calm, just like the dawn. As the sun rises to its zenith, so does the activity and stress levels of the BBQ cooks, culminating in an hour and a half of self induced penance we affectionately call “turn-in.”

Dawn – BBQ Saturday starts with coffee and the rising sun. First order of business: establish how the briskets and butts have cooked. Are they still cooking at temperature, do the fires need fuel, and what do they look like? We don’t peek at the meat until this point, but now its time. I suppose everyone has a little different opinion here, but for me, dawn is my favorite time of a contest. It’s usually cool and fresh, a welcome relief from the sweltering heat of the previous evening, or the rest of the day to come. It’s filled with anticipation of a good cook and memories of good times and conversations shared just a couple hours earlier. But there’s not much time to take in the moment. Looking at the clock it’s 7 hours or so before rib turn-ins, and it’s time to get them and the cooker ready. Up until this point, all the activities that need done have been manageable, but Saturday morning brings a completely different demand on your ability to manage time. Best practice is to have a plan, a Gantt chart, a white board, a Blackberry reminder, strings around your fingers, what ever it takes to have some reminders of what needs done.

Early Morning – Those hours between 7:00a and 9 or 10a can be different for each contest. The big meats come off and go into their storage. Ribs may or may not get foiled depending on your approach, and chicken will go on sometime towards the end of that time period. The biggest activity during this period should be preparing for the anarchy of the hours between 11:00a and 1:35p. This means getting the prep site cleaned as much as possible, washing greens if you’re using, and getting boxes ready for turn-in. Sauces may need some final tweaking. We usually take some time to start the packing process as well. Things that aren’t needed anymore are prepared for the return trip. You’ll also find yourself chatting with fellow competitors, although now the banter doesn’t have the same light heartedness of Friday night. A feeling of anxiousness begins to creep into body language. There are attempts to cover the nervousness with feigned confidence or nonchalance, but it’s unmistakably there. This is the time where a contest begins to transform from a great gathering of friends to, well a contest. Well wishes are exchanged as the cooks retreat to the privacy of their canopies or campers to prepare for the anarchy ahead.

Late morning – More strangers will start walking by…You’ll have a good gauge on how your brisket and butts have cooked up…If you’re lucky, there will be no Bobcat tractors around to knock over your WSM (yes that happened to me once…great story, with a happy ending!).

After about 10:30a, the real franticness sets in. Butts are wrapped….Briskets are resting…Ribs are cooking…If It’s not on, the chicken will be soon…sauces are simmering….Dishes are being washed…Boxes are going being prepped one more time…Knives are honed…And cooks pace.

11:00a – 11:35aThis is the absolute busiest time of a contest…Chicken and Ribs each demand attention…At first the clock seems to slow down, you’re staring at it every 30 seconds…Chicken comes to temperature…Glaze applied…Ribs need flipped and glazed…Chicken needs moved…Wind comes out of nowhere rocking the canopy…Ribs need some more attention…You look at the clock, and suddenly, the moment of truth has descended up you…

11:45 – CHICKEN TURN-IN
Chicken’s off the cooker.
The best pieces are selected.
They get staged on the cutting board.
They are rotated, and rotated again, and rocked, and shifted, and rotated, and moved around like something resembling a 6 piece shell game.
Fingers become numb from handling the hot meat.
Into the box…doesn’t look right, rearrange, try again
11:50 – 5 minutes till turnings begin
Rearrange again…still not right…rearrange
11:54 – 1 minute
Looks good…a little piece of garnish here…there…looks real good
11:55 – Turn-ins begin
Cooks and runners start walking by.
Take the picture.
Bless it with a little luck
Close it up…wrap it up…hand it to my wife…kids blow kisses…off it goes.

At that point in time at my very first contest I collapsed onto a cooler. I couldn’t believe that my hands could shake so much. I never thought that 15 minutes could pass by in 10 seconds. And I couldn’t answer the question of “why would I choose to subject myself to such pressure?” I must have sat there for a solid 5 minutes, motionless, unable to find an ounce of enjoyment in that experience…when a fellow competitor walked up and patted me on the back and said “Having fun yet? How’d ya do Joey?” That snapped me out of the funk I was in. About that time my wife returned, and the whole world started moving again.

It’s not quite as crazy anymore. My hands don’t shake nearly as bad; I only rearrange the chicken ½ a dozen times instead of 24 like the first contest. And instead of collapsing, we just casually start cleaning up and getting prepped for the next category…Ribs.

12:15 – RIB TURN-IN
This is where I think we start to relax again. Now it’s only about ribs, nothing else is requiring attention. We move to cutting the ribs and sampling…not that we could do much about what we’re turning in at this point anyway. The best ribs are selected and they go in the box. After several contests, I had the plan of how I was presenting the ribs engrained in my head, there was no guess work. Just little things that I guess would be considered a bit anal retentive anymore. And as frantic as chicken might be, ribs just seem a little more relaxed. Same ritual…Done? Yeah. Snap a picture, beg for luck, close, wrap, blow kisses, off it goes to the judges. That’s usually right at 12:30. For those of you new to competition cooking, turn-ins start 5 minutes before the prescribed time and go until 5 minutes after the time. After taking 5 minutes to take in the scene and ‘rib’ a couple fellow cooks as they walk by, we begin to attack pork.

PORK TURN IN
If your reading this article, there’s a good chance you know that pork butts wrapped in foil, and towels, resting in a dry cooler can keep so much heat that even after 4 or 5 hours from the cooker, they are still too hot to handle. But handle we must. For our team this is a two man affair. My partner has one job and I have another. First couple comps we were pretty timid, we gave ourselves PLENTY of time to pull. Now, we have the process down so hopefully, the pork is able to maintain some heat on its journey to the judge’s palate. We taste, make adjustments and additions as necessary. There’s little debate on the presentation. Box is declared complete, picture is taken, box is closed wrapped, has it blown kisses, and it’s off! Preparing pork is messy, the whole area needs cleaned before starting on the final entry of the competition….brisket.

BRISKET TURN IN
There is probably no meat more telling about its chances upon first slice than brisket. Instantly with the first slice you can tell about the tenderness of the meat. I have no idea why, but I always seem to use up every second worth of turn-in time available for brisket. Don’t know why, tenderness is determined by this point, and I can’t do much about flavor either, should be easy, slice, put it the box and send it away. Always seems like it needs some piddling though. Brisket’s also the absolute messiest of all of the turn-ins. I heard it described once as the “brisket bomb”, brisket pieces and juice get everywhere. We cook two briskets and have learned to make sure you cut into both of them. Sometime you’re surprised by how the “other” one turns out. Now if I cook it at a competition, I am at least going to take a look at it. We finish the box, take the picture, get the kisses, and I personally march it to the judges tent. I guess it’s my way of putting closure to another contest. I usually run into lots of fellow cooks and we all critique our food…”brisket sucked”, “ribs were OK”, “I was happy with chicken”, “who knows about pork”. After visiting for several minutes, it’s back to site…for a beer and to begin the tear down.

I’ll fast forward over the whole tear-down thing this time around. It’s boring, pack things and get them into the van. It’s hard work. It’s usually hot. And all you really want to do is sit down and drink a beer and reminisce a bit.

That brings us back to the awards ceremony. You’ve just turned in some of the best food, or at least you and your team think so, and you’re ready for that “call” to the stage. They start at 10 and work backwards, 8, 7…5 (maybe I did better than I thought?)…3 (no way, not me), 2, 1, and your name wasn’t called. Next category… (my ribs were really good)…10…5 (maybe?)…3, 2, 1. (Oh well, maybe they were spicy…Pork, everyone likes my pork) But when it’s all said and done, you weren’t called there either. Reality begins to sink in, (I know my brisket was too tough), and sure enough, the announcements come and go, and no one called your name. The reserve and grand champions are announced, then you find out they give out your scores as well. You work your way up the Rep handing out the scores, you get yours and at first you’re woefully confused by all the numbers, you start turning pages, and finding your name, middle to lower middle with all categories, except ribs. There you find you’re dead last, yes last place. Someone’s got to be there, but you’d prefer it wasn’t you. Yes this is autobiographical, but what comes next is what BBQ competition is all about.

Dejection doesn’t adequately describe the feeling I had that day. I was shocked. In retrospect I got what I deserved, but it didn’t feel that way on that Saturday. A venerable veteran BBQer came sauntering over, where I was looking in disbelieve at my scores. “You did real good for a first contest Joey”. My first thought was this guy’s just patronizing me, until I made eye contact and saw his concern, and encouragement and that he really meant it. “Can I give you some pointers?” “Sure” I respond. “Get your notebook, every good competition cook’s got a notebook, you got one?” A moment later I pulled out of my bag my notebook, and a smile cracked across Old Dave’s face as he began….”you ever thought about….” Old Dave spent about an hour with me after that first contest. He really told me no secrets, just lots of reassurances, and some tidbits that have made me a better cook. In that hour I made a transformation from a backyard cook to a newbie competition cook.

One year later, at the same contest where I took last place in Ribs, I took my first First Place in any category, and it happened to be in Ribs. How I turned that around is subject for another article. It was I who took that first place plaque home that day, it wasn’t with out plenty of input from many different cooks, like Old Dave, who I’ve met along the way. Saturday’s are bittersweet, but strangely, the bitter times make those sweet moments that much better.

Happy New Year to everybody and start mapping your contest trail out…it’s already January you know!

Joey Mac