My BBQ Journey – Mike Pagel

Intro by Donna Fong, Butchers Daughter BBQ

When it comes to Harry’s classes, each class is different. Usually, it is 95% men and backyard cooks.  There is usually a funny guy who cracks the jokes and keeps the class light. There’s the newbie who is shy: never cooked much but wants to learn about BBQ. Then there’s the experienced cook who wants to learn more about BBQing for parties at home. And once in a while, there’s one or two guys who want to start cooking in BBQ competitions or is looking to improve their performance.

Mike Pagel is the guy who wanted to go pro. Mike is a tall, good-looking guy who had lots of questions for us. And we were happy to answer them. He owns a pediatric supply company and though he doesn’t mention it, has a big heart. He’s also easy to identify at a contest because most cooks aren’t as thin as he is. At Pechanga one year, Mike cooked next to Slap Yo’ Daddy. At first, I didn’t know who was in the new trailer was next to us but when Mike popped out, I laughed. Dude, a new trailer just for BBQ? Actually, people do it all of the time but for me, it was a clear sign that Mike was in really deep. I smiled and knew he was in for the long haul.

Mike’s team that day, was quiet and smooth. I noted it because new teams tend to be chaotic and he was cool the whole time: Cool Grilling, that is. The members understood their roles so well that they hardly made any chatter. This wasn’t a party; it was a competition and Mike understood that from the beginning. We talked about his struggles a few times during his first year and I wondered if he’d be okay. So when he started doing well on the circuit, and then got his first perfect 180 pin, I no longer worried.

Many thanks to Mike for agreeing to write this blog about his journey and his team. Not all journeys start off with a bunch of trophies (like Harry) and his story reminds me of the importance of perseverance and cooking from the heart. You will be rewarded sooner or later: and sometimes in ways you never imagined.


* * *

It was Dante Alighieri that said, “A mighty flame followeth a tiny spark”

For me that spark happened in early 2013. I was doing what I do best, which was sitting on the couch drinking beer while watching TV. The TV program BBQ Pitmaster caught my attention. It was season 1 episode 1. I saw this guy from Southern California holding on to his canopy during a violent rainstorm yelling “We are all going to die”! It was at that point I started paying attention. I came to find out his name is Harry Soo. Pitmaster of Slap Yo’ Daddy BQQ Team from Diamond Bar, CA. His simple philosophy- it’s not the tools, it’s the technique- has stuck with me ever since that day.


It was not long afterwards that I took his BBQ class. Having learned the basics from Harry and Donna, I felt confident I could compete and not embarrass myself. My brother and I soon entered a backyard BBQ event in Riverside, CA. We finished 2nd in ribs and finished in the top 10. That’s all it took. I was hooked. Later that month, my brother and I decided to visit a pro BBQ competition and see what it’s all about. We found that Harry Soo’s philosophy was well adhered to. We saw almost half the team’s competing were using backyard type equipment like WSM’s, kettles grills, backyard pellet smokers and drum smokers. I first saw all these smokers in Harry Soo’s class. I guess I wasn’t the only one out there that took his class.

I started my own pro BBQ team COOL GRILLING in March 2013. The name I wanted for my team (Packing Heat) was rejected by KCBS because they said it was too similar to an existing name. So I sent them a list of team names and ask which one I could use and to my surprise, I received my confirmation notice with COOL GRILLING on the paperwork as my team name, so I just went with it.

I took a certified BBQ judging class and became a CBJ a few weeks later. I judge my first pro BBQ contest later that month in Wildomar, CA. Judging is harder than it looks. A judge must judge only what is in the box and must leave out any preconceived notions or personal preferences.


My brother, Dan, and I competed in 6 events in 2013. We finished near the bottom in all. I have learned that competition BBQ in much like life, it’s full of ups and downs. For example, this year I competed at The Guinea Pig contest in Coachella Valley. I finished 42nd out of 49 teams. I did not have a good cook. I felt pretty bad about what I was doing, and I wasn’t sure what to do about it. I was signed up to compete the next weekend in Lake Havasu, AZ. But I really didn’t want to drive all the way to Arizona by myself just to get my butt kicked again. I talked to some of my BBQ friends about buying my entry and all suggested that I go. Just dust yourself off and get back on that horse. As it turned out they were right. I finished 1st in pork with a 180. I drove home with money in my pocket a 180 pin on my hat and a nice trophy.

Towards the end of 2013, we competed in the 1st Annual Harry Soo Groovin Backyard Cook-off. We finished 14th out of 23 teams. By this time, I was thinking of changing my team name to (Endeavor to Persevere).

Not being one to give up after a slow start, in January 2014, I attended a competition BBQ Class sponsored by the CBBQA in Santa Barbara, CA. I saw a lot of fellow competitors including Harry Soo and Donna Fong. I asked Harry why he was attending this class. He simply said, “because I am a student of BBQ”, and before the class was finished, he was in front of the class helping out one of the instructors.

In 2014 we entered 12 contests and finished most events in the top half of the field. Having a team mate sure helps but sometimes my brother can’t make an event. I learned to do everything myself and once I got that down, it made working with other teammates much easier. I have friends help when my brother can’t make it. They help unload and load my trailer, make and run my boxes and wash dishes. Every little bit helps.



We started out using my old fifth wheel travel trailer pulled by my old ford truck. But that old trailer just wasn’t working out and that old ford truck just had too many miles on it. So In April 2014 I purchased a new Dodge 1500 and a new Weekend Warrior Toy Hauler. We may not win every contest, but we sure look good. It’s comfy too! The new trailer offers us plenty of comfortable sleeping room with 3 queen sized beds, 150 gallons of fresh water for daily showers and dishwashing, A/C for those hot days and heat for the cold ones.

Our collection of ribbons, 180 pins and trophies continues to grow. We have competed in 8 contests so far this year with 8 more on the calendar. We are meeting new people each time we compete and enjoy visiting with people we have befriended over the last few years. We have yet to RGC or GC but I am sure it’s coming.

My wife, Pam, keeps asking me, “Why you do it?” Why do you subject yourself to this torture called BBQ competition? Sometimes I find myself asking the same question. Why do I do it? I guess it’s the thrill of winning. There is just something about winning a small plastic trophy that’s hard to explain. The money, if any, helps too.

The competitive BBQ flame is still burning bright and strong. Thinking back on it now, all this started with a small spark of interest from watching a TV program with some guy holding on to his canopy during a violent rainstorm yelling, “We are all going to die!”