Great American Cookoff, Woodlake, California, July 27, 2013
Whenever I’m at BBQ contests, I get a lot of visitors. Some are my devoted fans of Season One of TLC’s BBQ Pitmasters and ask to take a photo with me. Others are attracted to the catchy “Slap Yo’ Daddy” team name. You have to admit it. It just rolls off the tongue. Strangers, who have never heard of me, will walk by my tent and just can’t help themselves. They say my team name out loud and emphasize each word with a southern drawl. I hear it at least 10 times at major contests.
The ones that don’t know much about BBQ often ask what my specialty is or what am I cooking? I say the same thing every time: chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder and beef brisket. And it’s true. I cook the same meats again and again! It’s funny that no one ever asks if I ever get bored of cooking the same thing each weekend. The truth is that there is enough variation from contest to contest, like source of meats, quality of each cut, wind, rain, temperature, humidity, altitude, failure of equipment or even local taste preferences that keeps every pitmaster on his toes. And yes, cooking the four meats does get pretty routine and occasionally boring. I’ve cooked over 200 contests in many states (AL, AZ, CA, OR, WA, UT, DE, NV, NM, KS, MO, TN), Hawaii, and in three countries (US, Canada, UK). So when I get a chance to do cook something different, I jump at the opportunity.
I love cooking anything and everything. It could be Moroccan, Italian, French, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, American, Indian or even my home cuisine of Malaysia. I’ve won “Iron Chef” type cooking contests in Canada, UK, and in California. But when it comes to the lone food category of American-style dessert, I am at a loss. It isn’t that I’m bad at making dessert. It’s just that I grew up in Southeast Asia where dessert consists of a myriad of sweet delicacies made mostly of coconut milk and palm sugar. Also, there are so many great pastry chefs out there that I would be hard pressed to measure up. This is also true at BBQ contests. A small percentage of contests will have auxiliary side contests like beef ribs, sausage, tri-tip, lamb, chili, mystery meat, wings, corn bread and the ever popular dessert category. I tend to shy away from the dessert category because it’s my weakness.
More often than not, dessert entries are made by the spouse of the pitmaster. Pitmasters are mostly men and their wives are often voracious food warriors. I cannot beat these master level bakers, mothers, pastry chefs, whatever you want to call them. They bake their long held family secret recipes or ones they have developed over many years. They bring with them goblets of creamy chocolate mousse, ramekins filled with crème brulee, Jack Daniels laced bread pudding, chilled banana pudding, plates of peach cobbler, lemon bars, pecan pies, coconut cake, and cheesecakes. The list is overwhelming. The judge is satiated. And I am usually at the bottom of the dessert contest pile.
At the Jack Daniels 2012, I entered the dessert category and our team made a traditional Southern Lane cake which is a white cake filled with nuts and fruit and finished a shimmery white frosting. The locals hated it and we tanked. A few weeks prior to the Jack, we made beignets, an American-French fried doughnut sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar. The judges at Dana Point judged it thumbs down.
This year, I thought I would try yet again. In July, the small town of Woodlake held California’s largest BBQ purse of $30,000. The Grand Champion would win $10,000. Reserve Grand Champion took home $4,000. Each meat category winner took home $1,000. The winning dessert was worth $750, 2nd was $500, and 3rd was $250. And the dessert category was free to enter. I had nothing to lose. I already lost my dessert dignity last year.
Work had been crazy and I had little time to prepare. I barely got all of my meats in the minivan and equipment packed before driving 4 hours north to Woodlake in Tulare County. The town is just an hour west of Sequoia National Park. So when I arrived, I realized that I had forgotten about the dessert category.
My heart dropped when my fiancée’s 9 year old daughter showed up with her prized lemon curd cheesecake. Miranda cooks under her Mom’s team called Butcher’s Daughter BBQ of Alameda, California. The kid took 6th last year at Dana Point among 47 dessert entries from adults. I wasn’t about to be defeated again by a 9 year old again. So I went to the local supermarket, the only one in town, and wandered the aisle until I found a box of Betty Crocker yellow cake mix, cream cheese, berries, eggs and powdered sugar. The expression on Miranda’s face turned from happy to concern. Even though I’ve never won in dessert, I was deemed a threat.
With the help of my Bed & Breakfast Innkeeper, Monica Pizura from Wicky Up Ranch, we baked our hearts out in her antique oven. Even I was surprised that we could create a scrumptious looking entry full of bright berry colors and geometric elegance. We walked proudly to the judges’ tent and noticed Miranda glaring at our beautiful dessert that didn’t melt in the soufflé deflating 100°F weather that day.
When the time came for the awards ceremony, Monica and I patiently waited to hear our team name called. Woo Hoo! Slap Yo’ Daddy was victorious in chicken, coming in first in the category in a deep field of 50+ teams. We also took 7th in pork shoulder and a 5th overall.
Unfortunately, in the dessert category, my name was never called. I had been beaten by a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place of Lemon Cream cheesecake, Dutch Apple cheesecake, and Key Lime pie. I had to wait until our score sheets were handed out before I realized I was at the bottom again. Well, not the very bottom, but I was third from the bottom. And that 9-year old kid beat me by 10 places.
Maybe it is time to try baking a cheesecake? I will persevere until I get into the top three for dessert. Stay tuned for my future dessert adventures and mis-adventures!