The most common question I hear when I tell people I am a certified BBQ judge is “How do you become a judge?” That’s the easy question to answer. I admit that it seems like a pretty good racket. You take a BBQ judging class from one of many sanctioning bodies that exist. I’m certified to judge BBQ by two organizations, the Kansas City BBQ Society and the Pacific Northwest BBQ Association. To be truthful, you don’t have to be certified to judge competition BBQ but being so makes it easier to get into a contest.
The second question I get is a little harder to answer and the nuances of the answer lies in better kept secrets than those made in Las Vegas. The question is “How do you judge BBQ?” It seems harmless enough of a question. I usually say that I am required to judge according to appearance, taste and tenderness and the scores are weighted with taste having the most weighting and appearance having the least weighting.
For KCBS, the scoring scale is from 2 through 9. The appearance / taste / tenderness criteria makes up 14%, 57%, and 29% of a meat score. For PNWBA, the scale runs from 2 through 10, and it makes up 19%, 51% and 30%. Those are the numbers but beyond the numbers is the more subjective question of how do you judge a bad, average, or excellent submission. What does the meat have to look like, taste like, and feel like to be judged as excellent? How do you mentally compare a perfect score with something you have personally experienced?
Ben Lobenstein, KCBS Master Judge and California contest promoter says that if you can recall the best steak you ever ate in your life, that steak should be given a score of 11 on a scale of 2-9. If you remember the entry after leaving the contest, it is a 9. If you remember it for a long time, it is a 10. Others have described an average score (6) as BBQ you’d eat in a restaurant.
Harry and I recently competed in Sam’s Club National BBQ tour in Sacramento, CA. The top 6 teams overall out of 30 teams gets to move on to the regional contest in Las Vegas. There, Harry finished 3rd and I finished 11th. Troy Black, All-Star Pitmaster and Sam’s Club National BBQ Tour Ambassador, commented at the awards ceremony that the judges had given the cooks the lowest score of any Grand Champion in the series. I checked and he’s right. Big B’s Down-N-Dirty scored 662.8116 out of a possible perfect 720. Grand Champions so far this year have scored between 670 and a blistering 694. Mr. Black said that the BBQ was just as good in Northern California as it was anywhere else and he wasn’t sure why the scores were so low. The local judges were given the dubious honor of being the lowest scorers not only in California but possibly the entire country. Can we gather any clues from the scores to determine if the BBQ was judged fairly?
With the new score system put in place by KCBS, teams can now see how their entries do against others at the table and how the very same judges and tables judge other meats from other teams. Teams have developed terms like the “golden-table” or the “table-from-hell” based on this transparent disclosure on how they were scored. But is it really a table of BBQ hating judges or did the table just have the luck of receiving a lot of really great or really bad BBQ? I don’t think you can reasonably argue either case. Even the best teams can have an off day of cooking. Like most teams, I’ve been disappointed on those days when I thought I cooked well enough to deserve a walk but didn’t. And, I’ve also had days when I didn’t think I cooked well but got a walk anyways.
I do know a few things about judging BBQ at a table of judges. Many years ago, I sat with a table full of experienced judges and ate BBQ entries from a single experienced cook. It surprised me that we were all within a point or two of each other’s scoring, despite our personal preferences. I was proud because I sat next to one of the best judges around. We all felt similar about the entries and scored it up or down based on how well the BBQ was done.
What also surprised me was that many years later; I judged at the American Royal in 2010 and found my scores to be consistently lower than my counterparts. For example, if there was a dry brisket entry, I’d score it a 7 and my counterpart scored it an 8 or 9 for tenderness. We both thought the same of it but what a dry brisket translated to on a score sheet was very different. All I could say was Wow.
Do I as a judge, have higher standards than some others? Does living in the culinary Mecca of wine and food have some influence on how I score? Does the fact that I have tasted flavors from some of the most celebrated chefs in the world and have traveled and eaten a variety of foods from the other side of the planet influence how I judge? Maybe. However, I do know I give out plenty of 9’s and there’s rarely a contest I don’t give a perfect 9-9-9 a few times.
As a cook, I realize how hard it is to translate what I CAN cook to what I DO cook outside of my home, in some parking lot hours away. None of it is easy. That insight will manage my expectations as judge. I know none of the cooks have the luxury of creating what Thomas Keller can create at the French Laundry. There are no rules for Keller to follow. He creates his own rules. But cooks have rules and budgets to manage. The competition circuit has numerous environmental factors and the stress
At the same time, when I enter a tent, I have expectations of myself, and of my colleagues. I want to have a good time and I do. But judging BBQ is serious business and I try to bring all that I know about appearance, taste and tenderness to table, judge fairly, and be a little lenient. If I can’t decide between a 7 or an 8 and it takes me more than a few seconds to think about it, I’ll go higher. The other thing I try to do is share what I know. Judges should always talk about how and why they scored the way they did and learn from each other. With as many judges as we have in California, more experienced judges should transfer the art of judging to others and consider that process as important as judging itself.
The new KCBS scoring system gives more transparency to cooks but it can also turn bad results into witch hunts. Judges get all of the blame and none of the credit. And that’s too bad. I’ve turned in BBQ so riddled with mistakes that I should have written an apology letter and taped it to the top of the box. “Sorry you had to eat this.” or “I overslept and forgot about this meat.” No matter what, the judge still has to eat it. No one ever says thank you for eating my bad meat. But a single judge giving a low score at a table is questioned, even if that score is thrown out. It’s too bad that while it acceptable to have a learning curve for cooks, a learning curve for judges is fodder for fiery Internet forum threads. And who is to say the low score comes from the new judges anyways? I’ve seen one of our senior most experienced judges give a single 9-8-9 to an otherwise perfect 180 entry. His score was dropped but if five out of six judges called it 9-9-9, what could possibly be wrong?
Cooking is an art and judging is an art. If you have the fortune of being a part of competition BBQ, be thankful for the masterpiece, forgive the faults and hope for the best. It is all part of the ride.