Thu Aug 8, 2013
It's been nearly a year since The Meatwave last hit the road and competed in the Hudson Valley Ribfest. Looking back, there were many highs and lows being a first year team, and throughout the three contests we went to, we learned a whole lot on what I needed to do to up my barbecue game and become a serious contender. So I took that knowledge and turned it into practice over of the off season, then found a couple different competitions this summer that I thought would challenge me even more than the before. While I fundraised to get The Meatwave to competitions last year, I was on my own this time around, and with the combo of physical effort and the investment made, I set off to The Battle of the BBQ Brethren in Manorville, NY with the need to prove to myself that I'm at least on the right path to becoming a true barbecue champion.
With a year's time past, I almost forgot the rigor it takes to prep for a competition. Working a day job and living without a car, my entire free time the week leading up to the event was made making meat runs, cooking sauces, mixing rubs, and just getting all items organized and in order. The night before the competition my fridge looked like it was bursting at the seams with all the pork, chicken, beef, and sauces needed to compete. Its overstuffed clutter mirrored my overwhelming feelings that included excitement, anxiety, and exhaustion, even before the competition started.
Luckily when the day of the competition finally arrived, everything went pretty smoothly with getting our van, loading up, and taking the 65 mile drive out on Long Island (which took an insane 2 1/2 hours in Friday afternoon traffic). Arriving the night before left us in no rush to set-up or do much of anything. The evening ended up being quite pleasant, spent leisurely getting out camp in order, followed by quality time around the grill with a few hot dogs, armadillo eggs, and beer.
The brisk night air made for good sleeping weather, and I actually got a decent sleep—a rarity at competitions. I woke up at 7am feeling rested and ready for action. Even though I was set to start, I had about and hour and half wait for the reps to make the rounds and complete meat inspection first. Once that was done, I was off and running, working towards the first turn-in at 11:30am in the NEBS grilling contest.
While I love the grilling contest because it adds a dimension of creativity with broader categories, that same openness is also incredibly maddening. The first turn-in was simply "appetizer." For my money, chicken wings are one of the greatest appetizers out there, and seeing as my wings awarded me a first place last year, I figured there was no reason not to give them another go here.
Unfortunately I slipped up. I normally do the wings on the grill over high indirect heat, but needing the grill for the second category, I put them on the smoker instead with the the water pan removed to deliver the heat I wanted. I didn't quite consider all the implications of this move, and while the wings cooked up nicely, the direct heat burnt the sauce on the underside of the chicken. There was no time for second tries, so I just had to box up the least offensive wings and pray for the best.
The next category was chef's choice with an opening plating. I wanted to go simple, yet delicious here, so I cooked up a judge's favorite—beef tenderloin. I nailed the medium-rare doneness, and thanks to a rest in a garlic-butter bath, the usually bland meat was loaded with rich flavor. Despite some issues with jagged cuts, I was pretty happy with this and plated it in on a bed of chimichurri sauce. As the meat sat there while I snapped a few shots, the sauce separated, with the parsley settling at the bottom of the tray and the oil rising to the top. I realized this was yet another mistake that could have been avoided with prior testing. Still, appearance is the lowest weighted score, and I knew that tenderloin tasted amazing, so overall I wasn't that concerned.
Then to add an extra special torture to deciding what to cook, there was a second chef's choice category. I was kind of at a loss here, and decided to go for something out of left field—Italian meatballs. I've made these meatballs a couple times before, so I knew the addition of parmesan and pecorino cheese into the beef and pork mixture gives them a crazy amount of flavor. This intensity of flavor is what I'm looking for when the judges will likely only take one bite. They came out as well as they ever do, and I thought they also looked pretty nice boxed up in a bed of marinara with a sprinkling of basil and a shaving of parmesan.
Last up in grilling was dessert. I gave more thought to this category than any of the others, and I think it showed. I devised a simple, but delicious s'mores tartlet made with a graham cracker crust that's first blind baked on the grill. Then the crust is filled with a semi-sweet chocolate ganache, sprinkled with fleur de sel, and put in the cooler to set. Finally, right before turn-in, I toasted mini-marshmallows and arranged them on top to complete the s'more equation. These are pretty easy, but look nice and are universally appealing, so I thought they represented our best shot to make it into one of the top three spots (which awarded money and a trophy).
As the final turn-in left my hands, my body shut down. An extreme exhaustion came over me and I felt like doing nothing but collapsing into a deep nap. Before the awards ceremony, there was an Iron Chef challenge, where four top teams would compete against a special celebrity chef for the biggest trophy and cash prize of the day. Leading up to the competition, the idea of doing this kind of excited me, but when the time came, all I could hope for was that I didn't want to make on because I couldn't imagine having to go through another hour of cooking at that exact moment.
Luckily, or unluckily, I knew I didn't do that well in the competition, because I was not asked to prepare for the Iron Chef challenge. Instead I got to watch as the other teams scrambled to figure out what to do with a steak, green peppers, and yucca within an hour. Even just watching the hurried pace was making me feel more exhausted, so I didn't make it to the end of the challenge, and instead took a rest back at our spot.
By the time the awards ceremony came around at 5:30pm, my energy level was on the rise. The adrenaline of waiting to see if "The Meatwave" would get a decent call further brought me back to life. As each category was read out, I sat and hoped not to be dead ass last, and I got what I wish for. We garnered fifth place calls in appetizer, both chef's choices, and overall, with a fourth place in dessert. None were good enough to get us a trophy or money, but we were consistent, and I was pretty happy with that.
As the cloudy and slightly damp day turned into beautiful sunny evening, I took an opportunity to walk around and get a feel for the event as a whole. With the pressure of the grilling competition over, and the barbecue portion not yet upon us, there was a resounding jovial mood in the air. How can you not be happy when you have a beer in hand and neighbor who is roasting a suckling pig.
It wasn't too long until I needed to be back at work prepping my briskets, pork butts, and ribs. For all three, I was trying out new sauces, rubs, and cooking techniques that were tested and approved by me, but left me feeling anxious about whether or not these changes would pay off in the line of battle.
My prep brought me through sunset, and once done, I had time to grill up some more hot dogs and burgers for a quick dinner before getting the smokers up and running. I had my briskets on at 11pm, followed by the pork butts at midnight, and after seeing the smokers run steady at 225 degrees for an hour, I packed it in and called it night.
I awoke at 5am to the beautiful site of both smokers still holding steady right where I left them. I know some teams stay up and tend to the fires all night, but I've never seen a WSM go haywire on a calm and warm evening, so I have little qualms with trying to get at least four or five hours of uninterrupted sleep in—with the impending hurried pace and concentration needed, I think some sleep is a requirement.
As we finished our sausage, egg, and cheese sandwiches that were handed out for breakfast, I tended to the ribs, pork, brisket, and chicken while Kristin worked her magic on the blind boxes. I found a particularly good batch of parsley, which made the tedious prep work a bit easier on Kris—she had each box looking better than ever in much less time than it has taken in the past.
At noon the first turn-in, chicken, was due. This quickly ended the time of patiently waiting for meat to slowly cook and switched us over to a hurried rush to pick the best pieces of bird, followed by a struggle to get eight pieces to fit nicely in the box (unlike KCBS rules, which require six pieces of chicken, BBQ Brethren rules say you must have seven, and we did eight to create two even rows).
As I came back after dropping the box off at the judges tent, I had a few minutes to sit back and bite into one of my thighs and was blown away. I did a practice where I thought the chicken was spot on, but this was even better. I redeveloped my chicken rub to have a strong citrus flavor, and that really popped against the sweet and spice sauce, delivering one hell of a tasty thigh that was cooked to a perfect temperature with bite through skin. So far I was feeling pretty good.
Then that high took a bit of a dip when I realized my ribs that felt perfectly tender, were a bit dry, and the glossy, even glaze I achieved in New Paltz last year, was uneven and spotty this time around. We sliced all three racks I had cooked and picked the most tender of the lot, boxed them up with a little disagreement on the best way to arrange them, and turned them in hoping for the best, but pretty much expecting the worse.
At this point things started to get a bit crazier as we turned our attention to slicing and pulling the pork shoulders. It was at this exact moment, when pressure started to sink in the most, that my Aunt and Uncle arrived to lend a hand. The presence of more people and more help instantly calmed me, and I was put even further at ease as we sliced the money muscle—we've never gotten it a sliceable state before—and pulled the pork that came out in tender, juicy chunks. I did some major pork butt practice leading up to this event and it seemed to all pay off. This was my proudest box of the day, and I walked tall as I made the trek to turn it in.
Last, but not least, was the ever pesky brisket. The hardest of the meats to cook in my opinion, each previous competition found our brisket a dry and crumbly mess. This time I had so much more confidence though, since when I pulled those beefy beauties out of the smoker, they had the tell tale jiggle that indicates they were perfectly cooked. The point separated with ease from the flat, and held its shape as we cut off burnt ends for turn in. Then came the flat, which once again fell apart when slicing.
While I attributed previous failures in slicing to poor cooking, this one I would say was partly due to our knives being too dull (think I'll make the switch to an electric knife for brisket slicing next time around). The flat was tender and moist, and while not the best that can be done, was still pretty damn tasty. We cut this entry down to the wire, and I had no time to remove imperfections from our slices, but as it was dropped off, I was just happy it was all over and I could sit back with a drink and chat with my family.
Going into this competition, I knew I had my work cut out for me—there was a large pool of competitors, many being seasoned pros with multiple grand championships under their belt. This was a big reason I chose the Battle of the BBQ Brethren, in order to test my skills against these teams I hope to one day be able to take head on. It's also the same reason that I tried to set reasonable expectations. I didn't go in thinking I'd win awards and money, but just wanted to fall at least in the middle of pack, bringing me up from where I found myself last year.
So what a surprise it was when the calls started for chicken and we managed a solid sixth place in the first category! I was one place shy of a trophy and moola, but it still felt pretty damn good. As the rest of the categories were read out, I hoped for a call, but wasn't surprised when they didn't come. So I figured that was that, I did well in one category and probably hit the middle for the rest.
But then came the overall scores, and low and behold, "The Meatwave" rang out in ninth place! As far as I'm concerned, this felt as good as winning, as I exceeded my expectations, placing in the top ten against stiff competition. With the exception of ribs, which we knew were lacking, we found a consistency across all categories, coming in eleventh in pork and ninetieth in brisket. This has boosted my confidence and left me thinking with just a little more practice, I could really start winning these things. With only one more competition on the schedule this season—Que by the Sea in Seaside Heights, NJ—I'm hoping to make that one count even more and see where this crazy journey can get us.