After seven years as a competitor, I was very excited to make my first foray into the judging tent as a newbie BBQ judge. Sure, I’ve judged Invitational events, backyards, and even tried my hand as a contest organizer but my 2008 KCBS Judging Logbook was devoid of entries of the 30 contests I needed to become a Master Certified Barbecue Judge (MCBJ). I made my first baby step towards the MCBJ certification at the Elk Grove Western Festival & BBQ Championship on May 3, 2014. For an excellent primer of how judging a KCBS sanctioned contest works, check out the prior three-part storyboard by Donna of Butcher’s Daughter BBQ (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).
When my alarm went off on Saturday morning, my first instinct was to awaken to prepare ribs. Nope, not today. Instead, it was time to get dressed in my new powder blue KCBS judge shirt and head on over to Sacramento. When I arrived, it was a picture-perfect day with blue skies and temps in the low 70’s. The Western Festival was in full swing with a full carnival and three music stages which had entertained the surrounding communities for over 50 years.
Since judges were not permitted to fraternize with teams during the Saturday contest, I took a detour route to the yellow judges’ tent and tried to stay away from the barbecue alley where the teams were situated. Of course, my fellow competitors and friends spotted me and waved. I waved back and told them I would come hang with them after judging was over. I wanted to be on my best behavior to avoid being reprimanded by the KCBS officials in charge as judges are not permitted to socialize with teams prior to judging. It seemed like I was not the only newbie judge as I ran into Dennis Daniels and Mike Restivo who were also judging for the first time. Added to that was the amazing coincidence that we had two brand spanking new KCBS contest representatives, Steve and Merrialyce Alvarez, from Yorba Linda, California, in attendance.
Steve and Merrialyce conducted the Southwest Sort which was to line all the judges from most contests judged to the least contests judged. It was easy for Dennis, Mike, and me to find our place at the end of the line while other judges jockeyed for position based on their respective contest counts. We had four MCBJ in the mix including two budding MCBJ of the husband and wife team of Aaron Staines and Lori Lieneke who were celebrating their 30th contest judged at Elk Grove.
After the alternate pairing of the most experienced judge with least experienced judge, I was assigned to one of the 5 judging tables with one Master Judge seated at my table. I was judge No. 3 on my table. Seat No. 3 was a good seat because I would have a choice of meat in the turn-in box if a team turned in only 6 pieces. This meant that I could choose which piece I wanted from the turn-in box unlike the judge at the last seat at the table. Seat No. 1 or No. 6 could be the last judge depending on whether the meat was taken in a clockwise or counterclockwise manner.
My other two rookie counterparts were assigned to other tables and five judges were assigned Table Captain (TC) duties to bring the boxes to the tables and handle the showing of the boxes to the judges. A total of 5 tables of 6 judges at each table would tackle the judging task for 33 teams. One of the 5 tables of judges was selected for additional duty to judge the backyard division which may be bad or good depending on their capacity to sample meat from both the backyard and the pro division. I was glad my table was not chosen as I wanted to save my stomach to judge the pro division.
After the 8-minute taped KCBS judges briefing and KCBS Judges Oath, chicken judging began for my table around 12:05. Our TC Lori Lieneke sequentially showed us all the six entries to allow us to judge the boxes first for Appearance. The Appearance score ranged from 1 to 9, with 9 being the best. My approach to judging appearance was to first scan the box from afar (macro) to judge how appetizing the box looked. Then my eyes zoomed in to look closer (micro) at the color, sheen, shape, symmetry, and size of the pieces. Garnish is optional and all the boxes had garnish. I did not focus on the garnish besides notice that it was green and that no illegal garnish was used in the box. All boxes we judged that day did not have illegal garnish such as kale or red leaf lettuce. Everyone had complied with the KCBS garnish rules and used green leaf lettuce and curly parsley. There were no foreign objects such as bits of aluminum foil so no team was DQ’ed.
With appearance behind us, each judge then took a thigh from each box until we had six pieces of chicken to begin the judging process for Taste and Texture. The chicken boxes at my table were all the play-it-safe chicken thighs even though I was secretly hoping to get breasts and. drums. Dang!
When it got to my turn, I had four thighs left as Judge #1 and #2 had taken their pieces. I carefully picked the biggest and most beautiful thigh remaining in the box and placed it on my 11 X 17 KCBS cardboard judging plate. The chicken was already at room temperature (70’s) so there was no barbecue chicken aroma that I could detect on any of the pieces. Our TC Lori reminded us to ignore any sauce on the inner lid caused by the chicken touching the inside and judge only the chicken.
My judging technique was to first position the thigh with the meaty side facing my right since I was planning to pick it up with my left hand and hold my wet napkin in my right hand to wipe my lips after each bite. There are six potential bite positions on a chicken thigh as three bite positions are possible on each leading edge of the thigh (3 x 2 = 6). I arranged all my six thighs so I could bite into the middle of the meatier verses the skinnier leading edge of the chicken thigh.
My goal was to give each team an optimum opportunity to impress me with their best one bite wonder. I ate with my eyes closed because I wanted to shut off all other senses and tune out the cacophony of the noises in the judging tent. I was completely focused as I wanted to give a 9 in Taste to the thigh that could create a mini symphony of flavor that exploded in my mouth and make me smile inwardly. I stress “inwardly” because judging is serious business done in pokerfaced silence. Judges are not permitted to whoop or groan depending on whether the entry was good or bad.
Judges must take care to cleanse their palate between samples by taking a sip of water and/or nibble on saltine crackers. They are not allowed to score comparatively and must complete their scoring of each sample, in ink, before proceeding to the next sample. So if an entry is too spicy or too smoky, the judge has to make an effort to “recover” his or her taste buds before tasting the next entry so as to score it fairly and objectively.
Judges must also shield their scores from other judges so as not to influence the judges sitting beside them. I did sneak a peek at my fellow judges’ score sheets when our TC Lori collected everyone’s sheet after each meat entry. Lori laid out all six score sheets side-by-side to check for accurate and complete scoring. If a judge’s score was not in line with the others (more than 2-point difference), the TC could question the judge why. I was glad to see that my scores were in the same ballpark as the other more experienced judges at my table, especially my table’s MCBJ’s scores.
I had to limit myself to one bite per sample because if you do the math, one bite is about 1 to 1.5 ounces. So in this contest, I would have to judge 26 (6+7+6+7) samples totaling between 26 oz to 39 oz of meat. I don’t know about you but that’s a LOT of meat to eat!
In my chicken thigh judging, I allowed a few moments for my brain to process the flavors in my mouth and I took care to chew slowly in silence and to allow my saliva to mix and for the taste receptors in my mouth, tongue, and throat to send electrical signals to my brain. I scored the Tenderness concurrently with the Taste score as I think the two are intertwined somewhat. That is, when I bit into the chicken, I was experiencing whether the skin was bite-through and how the skin texture and taste felt in my mouth. Some judges have told me that they judge via two bites so as to completely and independently separate the taste versus texture scores by taking one bite to evaluate taste and blocking out any tenderness impressions, and then taking the second bite to assess solely the tenderness without regard to taste. For me, a one-bite Taste and Texture technique made more sense for my palate. .
I concluded that three of the 6 chicken samples I tasted were superb in taste and tenderness but only one received all 9’s from me. I gave one 6’s because it had a gritty rub coating, dry meat, and blotchy tough skin. Sauce is optional according to KCBS guidelines and judges are not supposed to score down for lack or absence of sauce. This sample was not sauced and I suspect the dry chicken might have benefited with some sauce. In my opinion, the sheen from some sauce would have helped make it look more appetizing. If I had to guess, I would presume that it came from a backyard team that was competing in the pro division for the first time. As suggested by my TC, I completed a KCBS comment card and filed out the requisite check boxes (dry, tough, etc.). I also wrote a couple of sentences to provide feedback and I took care to be kind and constructive. Hey, I’m a cook so I’ve received my fair share of comment cards the past 7 years and have read every one of them. Most were kindly written and a few were not.
Largely, I was pleasantly surprised by the overall level of the quality of the chicken turn-ins for this NorCal contest. The 7 rib entries my table judged similarly impressed me by several outstanding entries. With the 6 pork butt turn-ins we judged; the quality trend took a nosedive as three of the six were not very good. By the brisket turn-ins, all 7 entries were off the mark as they were all tough and bland. Three of the briskets were over smoked and had a very bitter aftertaste.
I spoke to the other judges after brisket turn-in and they had good briskets but so-so chicken and ribs. This meant that the box rotation process to ensure that no table will judge more than one meat from each team was working. When my table tasted good chicken and ribs, the other tables had less than stellar chicken and ribs. This probably meant that the good teams’ chicken and ribs ended up on our table and their pork and brisket went to the other tables. Such is the diversity of meat that judges have to taste.
When the last entry was done, judges were dismissed so I jumped at the opportunity to go visit with my team friends the rest of the afternoon. I couldn’t stay for the 5 pm awards and found out later that my good friends and SYD alumni John and Tracy of Woodhouse BBQ won GC. Congratulations for GC and congrats to the Scott and Pam Hares of Too Ashamed To Name for RC. I enjoyed my first judging experience and look forward to my next judging opportunity. Next week, I will switch gears back to being a cook at the Long Beach Championship. Judging is great but my heart belongs on the competition side. It was a nice break to judge and to take lessons learned to my next contest. Among the important lesson I learned is I now have renewed respect for the high caliber of barbecue produced at contests. I’ll have to work much harder as there are so many excellent pitmasters in California; among them are many of the 1,300 of whom I’m very proud to have personally trained.
With my first contest behind me, I now have 29 more to go for an MCBJ. I also took home a souvenir autographed bottle of bubbly thanks to Donna and all the judges and officials. Stay tuned for my future adventures. Many thanks to everyone for your well wishes for my first judging event!