Cooking against the Barbecue Big Boys

Donna Fong, Grand Champion Pitmaster, Butchers Daughter BBQ, Alameda, Calif.

Donna Fong, Grand Champion Pitmaster, Butchers Daughter BBQ, Alameda, Calif.


By Donna Fong, Butchers Daughter BBQ

Ever wondered if cooking a barbeque competition is anything like what you see on TV? So is it like that in real life? Here’s my account of what it’s like cooking against some barbecue Big Boys who have appeared in TV,

Barbecue TV shows depend on drama and strong personalities. In this sense, it is no different from any other sport.  Professional sports are more enjoyable if you know the players. You have to know who the athletes are to follow the sport.  Tiger Woods, Jerry Rice, Bret Favre, and Kobe Bryant make for interesting drama. The West coast competition barbecue circuit has similar personalities in place to make it exciting. But big personalities don’t make up for lack of skill or talent. What’s good for TV ratings doesn’t equate to good performance on the circuit. 

That being said, we have our share thunderstorms, floods, grease fires, flaming smokers on the highway, RV accidents, drunken episodes, internet hostilities and scandals. But the contests keep going because there will always be people to help you when you’re in trouble and that goodwill keeps you going.

I’ve been cooking on the professional circuit for three years now and consider it my second home. Each weekend, teams pack up their BBQ equipment and drive to a new location. We recreate our outdoor kitchens each Friday. Our neighbors change but the players remain the same. It’s kind of a modern migratory lifestyle. Are you bored at home? Do you know how to cook? Want to re-connect with your family members, friends or partners? Consider forming a professional BBQ team. 

For a $300 entry fee, you can enter a professional BBQ contest and cook against the best. All you need is some meat, spices, a smoker, a tent, a few tables and some nerve. The hardest part is getting the nerve. 

You have to put yourself on the line and be judged very publicly by people who are not your friends. If you mess up, you’ll have to own up to it. The reward is to say you cooked with the best of them and if you’re lucky or talented enough, you might beat a few barbecue Big Boys in a category or two. If you end up winning the big shebang, you won’t forget it for the rest of your natural life.

The barbecue Big Boys are easy to see. You can recognize their signature smoker or their banner names.  Most of the time, they make themselves recluse to save their energies for the contest. Since they are expected to do well, they must perform. The rest of the contest is made up of judges, contest promoters, representatives from the sanctioning body, visitors and media. You have to be patient as some organizers are not very organized. And some newbie judges do not know how to judge. And some newbie cooks do not know how to cook. It is a learning experience for everyone involved. Most of all, you have to be willing to leave the comforts of home at home. Bringing it all with you will either break your bank or your will power. 

When I get to a contest, I get plenty of jitters during setup. I want my meat inspected as soon as possible so I can start my lengthy preparation. The contest representative will hold a cooks meeting on Friday night which can have a tempo all its own. Cooks meeting in the spring are loud. The cooks meeting in the fall are shorter and somber. Some partying and music can happen around dinner time but when curfew sets in, it gets quiet.

The meats slowly go on throughout the night and into the morning. As a headcook, you may or may not get any sleep. You might have a teammate that starts his shift at assigned times. By morning, it is a fight against exhaustion. You need to think clearly to put forth some terrific barbeque. 

Bands begin playing music and visitors want to talk to you. The temperature can get pretty hot.  It is hard to focus and you need your mental acuity to be at its highest. You need to trust your intuition and be honest with yourself when you taste your competition meat. If you can manage to turn in all of your meat on time, congratulate yourself for a job well done. Sit back and chat with another team who just turned in their meat too and enjoy the moment. In a little while, you’ll have to put your game face on again and pack up the mess you just made and bring it all home. With any luck, you can bring home a trophy as a memento of a day hard fought. This is a sport that money can’t buy. Respect comes from cooking hard and being an honest and decent neighbor. 

The barbecue TV shows may come and go but the friendships that develop on the circuit are real and tangible. There is more camaraderie than showmanship. There is more teaching than hiding of secrets. Secrets are only valuable if you’re winning. Nobody cares what your secrets are if you are on the bottom. It is a tough sport to maintain year after year. I take off my hat to those who can cook on the circuit for more than 5 years. Fortunately, there is more than one aspect to competitive barbecue I love. You can cook, clean, judge, organize, write, or photograph.  It is all good.