Barbecue Shape

by Donna Fong, Butchers Daughter BBQ, Alameda, CA

It’s been four months since my last barbecue competition. And it’ll be another month and a half before my next one. It’s enough time to tune up my chicken before Harry and I hit the road to the Santa Anita racetrack for our first contest of the year.

After four months, my barbecue soul begins to yearn for the brisk outside air, the heat of a smoldering fire and the smell of roasting meat. It’s been too long.

By the middle of December, my daughter looked at me one Saturday morning and said, “Mommy, the color of your face doesn’t match the rest of your body.” I looked into the mirror and she was right. The makeup base I used during the summer to cover up my freckles was now too dark. My body was now pale but my face dark. The lack of sun exposure was catching up with me.


I kept the color on and drove to the closest Sephora. I explained my situation with a woman who had a lot of makeup on and pointed to my face. She said, “It’s not that bad. It just looks like you recently got back from vacation. That’s all.” I grabbed a lighter shade and walked out of the store, with $40 less in my checking account.

The fact that I hadn’t barbecued in months was starting to scare me. So this weekend, when Harry was teaching his class, I took my job very seriously. When I help out at his classes, my role is to ensure that the meat is cooked properly while he gives his lesson. I also try to point out key steps during the cooking process so students know what to look for and how the meat should feel.

When I suddenly realized I was out of barbecue shape, I mentioned it to our class assistant, Kevin, who asked what that was. I told him when you’re in barbecue shape, you can lift heavy things, stand for long periods of time, think clearly even when sleep deprived, and cook with confidence. Barbecue shape is a combination of physical strength, mental acuity and emotional maturity. You don’t lie to yourself when your food is no good. You make yourself go right back out there and try it again until it gets better.

For me personally, I also try to produce barbecue that reflects me as person. Some say that you can’t win a contest if you cook what you like. That may be true, if you don’t like what judges like. But as a master judge, I think what I like can win a contest. So sincerity is important. As a judge, I know that garnish doesn’t matter but as a cook, I can’t turn in a box with sloppy garnish. It just isn’t me. So I fuss over what products I’ll buy and trim each meat as if my own father, a butcher, is watching over my shoulder.

What I want to turn in is something that I’d be proud to serve my harshest critic, and that happens to be me. It sometimes takes a few contests to get back into barbecue shape. And even if it does, the joy of seeing my barbecue family again will still make it worth the effort. I’m counting down the days to Santa Anita on April 2nd.