Barbecue Shape

February 26th, 20167 Comments

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.




7 comments... read them below or add one

  1. Johnny Olivas says:

    Looking forward to seeing you and Harry out there competing in Santa Anita; it will be my first time to experience a bbq comp. Kenny Tran and Harry started me along this journey and has been a blast thus far. Best of luck to you both and hope you place well. I can’t wait for the tastings.

  2. I love that first image of you. You look like a female James Bond Secret BBQ Agent. Your bbq is shaken not stirred. We plan to attend Santa Anita. I am looking forward to going to the Derby restaurant as much as the contest. This contest has a magical feel to it with all the excitement going around the grounds. I hope you can get in bbq shape by then. We expect only the best from you. See you soon.

    • Donna Fong says:

      Absolutely Chilebrown. I smoked 10 racks of ribs for the Coast Guard last week and practiced this weekend too. I am excited to see you and Ms. Goofy.

  3. Hi Donna it was nice talking to you the other day about the BBQ they had in Lancaster in conjunction with the rodio last year i am the one that called you i am Ironhorse BBQ in Littlerock CA. my web site is if you would like to look at it you can see a couple of my smokers i am building, parts i manufacture and my sauces hope to meet you soon.

    Best regards
    Marvin Raissner

    • Donna Fong says:

      Hi Marvin,
      I did see it! Building your own smoker is a labor of love. Hopefully, you can make it out to Santa Anita and see what one is like. Lancaster was a great contest. It’s too bad it can’t happen again this year.

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