8 important lessons learned from judging 8 World Champions, Missouri, November 2012


8 important lessons learned from judging 8 World Champions at the Kingsford Invitational, Belle, Missouri, November 2012

I  was humbled to be selected among the thousands of barbecue judges and pitmasters in America to be part of the history making first-ever Kingsford Invitational contest to crown a single grand champion from eight winners of the nation’s top barbecue competitions.



At this best of the best contest, the pitmasters had to prove themselves to be skilled not only in barbecuing but also in grilling.  All contestants had to compete in the additional “One Bite Challenge” on Friday and use a Kingsford grill to create the tastiest single bite made up of not more than five ingredients.  The winner would win $5,000 and more importantly, one extra point going towards the total scores on Saturday. When the dust settled on November 10, 2012, only one team took home the winner-take-all sum of $50,000, the Championship Ring, Kingsford Trophy, and priceless bragging rights for the next 12 months.


As a spoiler alert, you might already know that the Kingsford Invitational 2012 winner was Melissa Cookston of Yazoo Delta Q who qualified by winning the prestigious 2012 Memphis in May contest.  Congrats to Yazoo Delta Q’s amazing performance where Melissa won 1st ribs, 1st pork, and 1st brisket; and also won the Friday One-Bite challenge.  Now that the headline is behind us, read on to get a front row seat of what it was like to judge this historic event which airs on TV on Destination America on Sunday, March 18, 2013.


I learned 8 barbecue competition lessons from the eight 2012 world champion teams.  I improved my game after this event so read on if you want to improve your game if you’re a competitor, judge, or barbecue aficionado!

The Event

Grand Champion trophy and priceless bragging rights

The event was hosted by pitmaster Chris Lilly who is no stranger to those of us in the barbecue world.   Chris is a world class pitmaster, cookbook author, Kingsford spokesperson, and popular TV personality. This project had been in incubation for several years as everyone in competition BBQ, including me, was asking the question, “Who is the best pitmaster in America?”   With numerous barbecue contests with the word “World Champion” in the winner’s title, many in the barbecue wondered who is really the best?


Kingsford with the help of Chris Lily and six hand-picked judges would find out at the first annual Kingsford Invitational on Veteran’s Day weekend in Belle, Missouri, home to the largest Kingsford charcoal manufacturing plant. Up for grabs was a $50,000 winner-take-all grand prize with no second-place payouts. Winners of each category (chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket) would only receive honorable mention but no cash prizes. The winner of the One-Bite challenge would receive $5,000 and more importantly, one point toward the barbecue contest.


Additionally, there were numerous food, wine, lifestyle and barbecue media in attendance ready to talk to both judges and pitmasters regarding competition barbecue, regional flavors, and competition judging. A full television crew with 7+ on site cameras from High Noon Entertainment (Cake Boss, Hurricane Hunters, etc.) was also present to shoot the special event for a Destination America episode airing in Spring 2013.

The Teams


For the 6,000+ teams in America, the criteria for entry was exceedingly difficult.  There are probably over 800 contests around the country across the different sanctioning bodies and the winners of the eight most coveted ones were invited to duke it out in a contest with five categories (one-bite, chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket). Only one team would walk away with the ultimate bragging rights.  The chosen teams were as follows:

  1. Motley Que CrewHouston Livestock Show & Rodeo World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest Grand Champion
  2. Yazoo’s Delta QMemphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest Grand Champion
  3. Smokin’ Triggers BBQ, BBQ Pitmasters TV Show Grand Champion
  4. Smokers PurgatoryGreat Lenexa BBQ Battle Grand Champion
  5. Shiggin’ & Grinnin’American Royal World Series of Barbecue Open Contest Grand Champion
  6. Lucky’s Q, Sam’s Club National BBQ Championship Grand Champion
  7. Pig Skin BBQ, Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue
  8. Checkered Pig, Kingsford 40k National Challenge Representative

The Judges

I was immensely honored to be chosen out of the thousands of certified BBQ judges and pitmasters to judge this event.  The six chosen judges would represent various parts of the country to ensure that no single regional flavor profile would have an advantage.  To win, the pitmasters had to be able to please a wide range of judges’ palate.


The six judges were Tuffy Stone of Cool Smoke from Virginia, Brad Orrison from the Shed in Mississippi, Amy Mills of 17th Street Bar and Grill and daughter of BBQ legend Mike Mills from Illinois, Craig Goldwyn aka Meathead of the world’s most popular BBQ website Amazing Ribs.com from Chicago, Ardie Davis PhB (doctorate in barbecue philosophy) aka Remus Powers from Kansas City and the founder of American Royal sauce contest, and myself representing the Western states.



To ensure that there were no ties among the six judges, a Kingsford employee and competition pitmaster Kris was also added as a 7th judge in case his scores were needed to break any ties.  In summary, the scores from all six judges would count and the low score would not be thrown out.   The score of the 7th judge would be used only if there was a tie among the six judges.  To be selected as a judge, you have to be a CBJ, an experienced BBQer, and be highly regarded for your participation and involvement in barbecue in your region.

The Judging Process


The judging was based on a single 13-point scale with 1 being inedible, 7 for average, and 13 for excellent.  Judges were instructed to give one composite score instead of the KCBS or PNWBA scoring method of appearance, taste, and tenderness.  I’m cooked under a similar scoring system by the Texas-based International Barbecue Cookers Association (IBCA) so it was not difficult for me to adapt to a 1 to 13 scale instead of a 1 to 10 scale of the IBCA.  My experience with a composite scoring system like IBCA is that it works as the top team finishes on top.


To ensure fairness to all the teams, all entries would land on only one judging table and each judge would score all eight entries.  This would minimize variability in judging and landing on a table that had tougher judges than a previous entry.

If a team submitted more than one cut meat (e.g., breasts, wings, and thighs), we were asked to taste each cut and to give a composite score.  There was no garnish and a foil sheet was used at the bottom of the box. Judges were instructed to conduct comparative judging which meant all 8 entries in each category were tasted before scoring. After writing down preliminary scores, we were asked to discuss our impressions on-camera before finalizing them. Despite the post-scoring discussion, I did not see many scores change. All the judges acknowledged and accepted the enormity of their decisions and everyone tried their best to pick the champion among champions. And it was not an easy job.  See the next page for 8 lessons I learned from 8 world champions!