Spring Fever Contest in Austin, Part 4
By Donna Fong
Cindy and I went over the meats she purchased and then she showed me the Snake River Farms brisket that showed up at her doorstep only a day earlier. She was thrilled at Harry’s generous gift to us this weekend. Cindy had never cooked a marbled brisket like this one before.
After we injected and prepared our meats, Cindy handed me a beer, walked me around our camp and introduced me to her friends. It was still light out but it wouldn’t be for long. In our phone conversations over the last year, Cindy had mentioned Ernest Cervantes, the head cook of The Burnt Beans Co., as one the best in Texas. I honestly didn’t know who he was until I connected the name with the Food Channel’s winner of the Grill Masters Chopped series in 2012
Ernest beat out my buddy, Doug Keiles of Ribs Within from New Jersey. Also on the show were our friends from Gilbert, Arizona, Jennifer and Tommy Duncan (Smoked to the Bone & Whiskey Ranch). Ray Lampe aka Dr. BBQ was there too. Ernest beat every single pitmaster I knew! And he won cooking authentic Mexican cuisine.
Surrounded a small crowd, it was obvious that Ernest was a celebrity. Cindy introduced me as Harry’s finance and he and his wife, Belinda, smiled graciously and shook my hand. He looked younger than I remembered and then he told me he recently lost 80lbs. He looked good. His trailer looked nice too and I figured he probably spent some of that $50k on the trailer.
As our conversation lengthened, his friends paid their respectful goodbyes and the sky slowly darkened. It didn’t take long before it became obvious that we had stuff in common, even though he is a professional chef and I just a home cook with a side hobby of BBQ. When I told him how important I thought it was to win and still represent; he understood. Ernest talked about how Mexicans from everywhere expressed such overwhelming joy for him. How schools and organizations asked him to speak at their events and inspire a new generation. He tells young children, “If I can do it, so can you!” He looked at his wife against the trailer and said, “And you’ve been with me from the beginning.” Belinda nodded quietly from her chair. That’s love if I’ve ever seen it.
We must have looked a little hungry. Ernest’s neighbor, Robert Sierra of S & S Pit Crew offered to make us some fajitas. He had a young man perched up on his rig make us a couple of beef fajitas. The man wore a baseball cap that said Louie Mueller BBQ. I was told by someone that the young man cooked at Mueller’s. I tried not to look embarrassed eating food made by a man who could probably cook my BBQ pants off. The only thing that could have been more embarrassing was if Thomas Keller suddenly walked up and made me an omelet. Robert is best distinguished by his very wide brimmed black hat and his horseshoe mustache. He’s a super nice guy and I was glad we met.
Cindy and I walked back to our camp and ate some more. Troy had grilled up some sausages and Cindy contributed the tortillas. Combine that with a cheese plate and some more beer, and we called that a good Texan dinner.
We put the finishing touches on the brisket and put her in for the night. Cindy provided some bedding and some much-needed socks for the cold night ahead. I slept the best I could, knowing that my stoker wasn’t attached to Cindy’s WSMs. If we needed to make any adjustments, they’d be made in the morning. I let it go. I woke up at 5am to check on the smokers and they seem to be doing just fine. Turn in were 11am (beans & chili), 12pm (cook’s choice), 1:30pm (2 half chickens) and 4pm (beef brisket), with 20min windows. With 89 teams, you had to turn in two half chickens and 9 slices of brisket, no burnt ends allowed.
We decided to split duties with each of us taking different tasks for each meat. We cooked two separate chickens, two separate racks of ribs, and we shared duties on the brisket. We used my injection, her rub, her sauce, my call on doneness, and then she sliced and presented. In the end, we turned in both of our chickens, both of our ribs and our brisket was black as sin and jiggled enough to make me weep. I was very satisfied with our meats. Because our styles differ so much, we both learned a lot from each other. And the way BBQ is cooked for IBCA is also very different.
There are no certified judges at IBCA contests. The intent is to be judged by ordinary people. Because we did not enter the beans contest, I decided to judge beans at 11am. I wanted to see what it was like and it was a totally different experience. I asked lots of questions and ate 12 bean entries. Anything could be put into the beans but nothing could be larger than the size of the bean itself. These were pinto beans and they varied quite a bit from entry to entry. The entries get passed from person to person and you only put down one score for each. You tasted each entry with a plastic spoon that gets tossed after the tasting. That’s it!
After that, I walked back and checked on the ribs and brisket. Cindy had put in the chicken already. Then up comes a man who looked so happy to see me. Walker Keeney of Coyote Creek BBQ asked if I remembered him from Hilo. I mistook him for the cook from Texas that has won the contest in 2013, doubting myself because I remembered the cook who won to be much shorter. Walker Keeney is an IBCA cook and official and his wife, Judy was the head judge in Hilo. She taught me plenty about the IBCA methods when I was observing the judges. I was so glad to see Walker and we caught up with each other’s lives as the sun shined brightly. We posed for a photograph so Judy could see us since she was traveling.
After turn-ins were done, the Godmother of California BBQ showed up at our tent, the legendary Kim Walton, and I was absolutely thrilled!