It doesn’t take a financial whiz to figure that being a barbecue competitor can get expensive. With entry fees on the West Coast pushing $350 and a high-dollar brisket edging past $200 with shipping, not to mention the Duroc butt and ribs that are jetted in, it’s financially challenging to compete in more than a few contests a year. In my heyday doing 30+ contests annually from 2010 to 2012, I spent over $40K each year in expenses, fees, and travel costs competing around the country.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you went to a contest where the meat was covered under the entry fee and all teams would cook the same meat like all race car drivers would drive the same model car? If you win, you’re the best pitmaster and not just because you could afford the most expensive meat. Wouldn’t it be nice if the prize pool was spread out so you got some mullah to take home to cover your entry fee even if you came in 10th place?
Enter the Guinea Pig Contest which is the brainchild of Sterling Ball of Big Poppa Smokers. Sterling hosted a private soiree for about 50 teams in a KCBS sanctioned Competitor-series contest in Palm Springs on February 21, 2015. A competitor series is the same as a regular KCBS contest except there are no KCBS TOY or category points. This contest was a California BBQ Association TOY sanctioned event.
I was one of the lucky folks who grabbed a spot in this sold-out event and the deal was simple. A single $450 entry fee included 1 brisket, 2 butts, 3 St Louis ribs, and 9 thighs. Everyone cooks the same meat using a ping pong ball lottery for a numbered meat box where the weights of each box were published on a wall for all the teams to see.
With a Kids Que for the little ones and a side dessert category, you have the recipe for a fun weekend. The kids also got to take home a Smokey Joe which they used to cook Kids Que and the hamburger meat was also provided. There was no public tasting requirement and thus no one to interfere with your cook.
To ensure that the $10,000 prize money would be officiated properly, Sterling brought in the two top KCBS Contest Representatives Kelly and Kathleen McIntosh to run the event, assisted by two more top reps in Steve and Merrialyce Alvarez. Combine that with promotion by Big Poppa Smokers and Arlie Bragg, among the top national heavyweight promoters, and you’ve got the A-team running the show. To cap that, teams were hosted in private gated golf resort in Palm Springs amid sunny skies and 85˚F weather.
Since it was “back to basics,” and a cost-controlled contest, there was no organizer-supplied electrical power. Further, no generators were allowed between 10 pm and 6 am. And NO WHINING!
Teams were warned that there might be surprise checks for illegal use of electricity. Teams using power would be disqualified and banned from future Guinea Pig events. Naturally, I missed the fine print that stated inverters could be used. I incorrectly assumed that the King of Smoker rules (I cooked KOS1 and KOS2) would prevail and no electronic blowers were allowed. I had to resort to a bit of red-neck engineering and borrowed Stoker System parts from 3 teams (Dead Pig Walking, When Pigs Fly, and Woodhouse) to jury rig a blower system with parsley wire, duct tape, and foil. See the pics.
I drew ping pong ball #34 and lugged my heavy box of meat back to my tent. Each team was also treated to custom made Woodhouse Chocolates handmade in Napa Valley and a CD.
The CD was titled “Better Late Than Never” by Sterling who heads up Ernie Ball, Inc., founded by his father. The company is the world’s leading manufacturer of guitar strings. For his 60th birthday, Sterling finally debuted his musical talents in his first CD with a mix of 7 instrumental tracks from the Everly Brother’s “Let it be me” to his interpretation of Aloha music. I played the CD on the way home and it sounded great.
I think it’s pretty cool that Sterling is a man of many passions. He’s a philanthropist with the Casey Lee Ball Foundation raising over $11.5 million for pediatric kidney research and the CEO of large company as well as a longtime musician who has toured across the globe with several legendary acts including Albert Lee, Steve Morse and more.
To top that, Sterling can cook as he won the 2012 American Royal Invitational. Several California teams were there, including myself, to witness that special moment.
I got a 14 lb Double R Ranch sponsored by Snake River Farms, two butts from Restaurant Depot, a package of Swift St. Louis ribs from Costco, and a vacuum pack of 9 chicken thighs.
Some teams got briskets up to 20 lbs and my 14 lbs was on the low end of the scale. I reminded myself of the no whining rule when I plucked the feather stubs from my thighs taking care not to damage even a single thigh. Nine is not many thighs to start with to get six good pieces for the turn-in box.
Teams were treated to tube steak for dinner which I heard was actually Double R Ranch beef hot dogs. The host Mission Hills Country Club sponsored the dinner and side dishes. There was a potluck dessert table and I helped myself to some pie, cookies, and fudge. I ran into the Executive Chef and General Manager and realized that I two head chefs from Mission Hills were my barbecue students. Small world!
My cook went smoothly despite this being my first contest in 2015. I had not competed since November. Congrats to Sterling Smith of Loot n Booty from Arizona who took top honors as Grand Champion, and to Tim Wong of Dead Pig Walking from California as Reserve Champion. Sterling Ball was able to convince Jeff Stehney and his wife Joy to come out of retirement. Jeff and Joy are from Kansas City and compete as Rocket Pig and they finished third. The Stehneys are owners of the famous Kansas City’s Oklahoma Joe’s Bar-B-Que restaurants, and founding members of the Slaughterhouse Five championship barbecue team.
Slap Yo Daddy came in 12th overall with a walk-in 8th ribs and 15th chicken, 20th pork, and 16th brisket. When the dust had settled, I was glad that I was a “guinea pig” in Sterling Ball’s grand experiment in a $450 meat-included contest. I think it’s a terrific idea and the time has come where others should follow his footsteps in creating fun and affordable contests for friends to get together to see who’s the best cook using affordable cuts of meat. The cherry on top is the redistribution of the prize pool so many teams got to take home some money and not just the GC and RC. I can’t wait to sign up for the next Guinea Pig!