Tue Mar 27, 2012
The is it folks, the day has come that you can now add the words "Award Winning" in front of "Meatwave BBQ." This is a journey nearly nine years in the making, and the road was not without its challenges, but I'm incredibly proud that we've made it and forever grateful for all the people who helped me get here. Ok, enough with generalizations, you wanna know how it all went down—with all of the highs and lows? I'm ready to share all (which I warn, may be a little overshare for some).
Let's start with a little backstory for the uninitiated. As I've honed my barbecue and grilling skills in the backyard for the past eight years, I always considered myself a bit of an amateur and thought competitions were left to the big boys. It was only after my first visit to a competition at Grillin' on the Bay last year that I realized I was at least on par with my brethren, and started to consider a Meatwave entry into the scene. Later in the summer I hooked up with Clint from Smoke in Da Eye at The Battle of the BBQ Brethren to further learn the ropes and see what I would need to get myself started.
Over the winter I decided to take the plunge, but needed some help with start-up funds, so I began a fundraising campaign that achieved this goal thanks to many family, friends, and fans. With the required capital, I started investing in all the gear needed and sent off applications for the first three competitions I saw open up in the NYC area. This entire process spanned over three months and there was hardly a day I wasn't doing something towards the goal of building a the team.
It seemed surreal, but finally the week of the first competition came—that would be Grillin' on the Bay in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, run by the great Robert Fernandez. I slowly spent every night over the week doing some sort of prep, whether that be making sauces, cooking chili, skinning ribs, or trimming two beautiful beef tenderloins. By Thursday night I had everything done, all that was left was to pick up the van Friday, load her up, and get some shut eye. Oh how I wished it had gone that easy.
Thursday night I was hit with a bought of insomnia, which I get time to time, no big deal. I went to work with about 2 hours of sleep, made it through the day, then went straight to pick up my cargo van with the wife. We got home with surprisingly no traffic, packed in everything I had meticulously organized beforehand, then it was off to dinner and to sleep. This is where shit gets nasty (a warning in case you want to skip ahead).
At dinner I felt an uneasiness in my stomach, but brushed it off as nerves and went forth with some edamame followed by gyoza. By the time my katsu don arrived, I felt the unease grow and ceased further consumption. Still thinking it was nerves, I just wanted to get home and get to bed as soon as possible, but halfway home, my stomach spontaneously combusted in a way I did not know was possible.
Having steered clear of the awfulness of public vomiting for all 15 years I've been a New Yorker, I felt like this was payback for that good luck all in one night. The walk home continued at slow pace, with my body dead set on leaving it's mark on just about every storefront on 31st St between Ditmars and 21st Ave. Finally at home, the anguish didn't stop, keeping me from my precious sleep.
When I was pretty sure not one piece of food or liquid was left in my stomach, I made it into bed, only to quickly develop a fever that kept me from achieving any resemblance of comfort required for sleep. After ingesting just about every drug in the cabinet that might bring relief, I finally found myself asleep at 2am, only to be woken up at by my alarm a mere two hours later.
Fever down and with some rest under my belt, I was actually quick out of bed, showered, loaded up the coolers, and was on the road to Sheepshead Bay just before 5:30am.
We unloaded the van and got our space all set-up by the time sun rose around 7. This was the first time we ever put everything together, and I took a step back to take in this accomplishment alone, but not for long, because there was mad prep to be done.
Feeling more awake with the sun shining and and oddly warm March air providing a nice working environment, I started my prep only to be quickly interrupted by a disturbance that was equal, yet opposite, of the previous night's problem. I came prepared and popped some Imodium, but it didn't kick in until it was time to get the fire started for the first grill at 10:30, which left only about half the morning's time able to be dedicated to prep
Luckily this was exactly when Meatwaver Nick showed up to give us a hand through the madness of turn-ins. At this point, we had a pretty well oiled machine and all the craziness of my personal illness faded and things took a turn in the right direction.
The first category was vegetable, which was the one I has the most trouble deciding on what to do—this is The Meatwave after all—settling on a simple corn with chili lime butter that was a big hit at previous Meatwaves. While I am grateful that I picked something easy that particular morning, this was the weak link of the day, scoring high in presentation, but very mixed in flavor and texture. Watching other teams devise much more thought out dishes, I knew I should have gone with a more universal crowd pleaser, perhaps these incredible potato skins.
We made the first turn-in with time to spare, which gave me extra time to focus my attention to the chicken wings. Rubbed, rested, then smoked on a hot grill, as soon as I first looked at them finished, I knew they were going to be awesome. I had to turn to my excellent assistants to verify this though, since I was not risking putting any food in my body throughout the entire day. They confirmed what I thought, these were killer wings. In the box they went and off to the judges.
Next up was chef's choice, which was the only category I physically struggled with. First, I decided to trim my tenderloins too far in advance and they had gone from bright red to nasty gray in the two days before the comp. Then I didn't do the best job butterflying them or stuffing them. Add on top of that, with less than 30 minutes before turn-in, they were no where near temp, so I had to change technique from slow roasting followed by a quick sear to slamming them with as much heat as possible to reach medium-rare in time. Slicing into them, I did not have the consistent rosy color or stuffing swirl I wanted, but there's no turning back in the competition, so I picked the six best slices, loaded them in the box and was done with it.
At the same time as the chef's choice, the people's choice chili contest was also starting. Having safely made the chili on Thursday night, prior to getting sick, it was the only thing I had tried that I turned in that day. I knew this chili was off the hook—whole chunks of beef chuck, seared in bacon fat, then simmered in a mixture of 5 different chilies for 3 hours. What I didn't realize was how much the chili contest is getting people to come out to vote for you, plus having someone to stand with your chili and talk it up is key, neither which I had. Needless to say, my awesome chili did not come close to taking the first place I think it deserved.
Ribs were next, which worked out on the exact schedule I had for them—in at 8am, ready to be sauced a little before 1pm, smoker staying nearly 225 the entire time. I've been learning the tricks to competition-style ribs, but I really wanted to try to win it with my regular backyard deliciousness of nothing more than an excellent rub and perfectly matched sauce. I was incredibly happy with how the ribs turned out—although I learned I need a lot of practice slicing—and as we put them in the box, we all felt these were a standout of the day for us.
Finally was the Nance Gell Memorial category, whose only requirement was the use of crab meat. Knowing this didn't count for my final score, I kinda dialed it in, making standard jalapeno poppers with crab meat mixed into the cream cheese filling. Not thrilled, but not unhappy either, with the final dish, I was mainly glad that the most intense part of the contest was done and it was time to relax.
After the final turn-in was the best time of the day—I got to relax, talk to, and feed everyone who came out to support me, including my Aunt and Uncle, sister and her friends, the rest of Nick's family unit, and some fellow brethren. While I still didn't chance eating or drinking, this was the most pleasurable part of the entire competition.
As people started to trickle out in the long three hour wait between final turn-in and the awards, the good feeling started to wear off and I became aware of a feverish state that was returning. My thoughts slowly began to wander more to getting home and sleeping than awards, so I chose to close-up shop in hopes to get home as soon as possible. Of course, it was exactly when I decided to go get the van that all teams were called into the gym, but I rushed back and got in just as the ceremony was beginning.
Now feeling almost completely drained and ill, I was balancing an apathy brought on by sickness with a eagerness to see if we had actually won anything.
First category was vegetable; no surprise my name wasn't called. Second was chicken wings, which I felt certain I would at least make the top ten. As Robert made his way through the list and we came up to third and second place with no calls for me, I resigned myself to the fact that my wings just weren't what I thought they were. Then, all of sudden, "First place: popping their competition cherry, The Meatwave!"
Whatever self-loathing I had started to wallow in quickly disappeared and I was riding high. Then came the complete surprise of a second first place in Chef's Choice*—amazing. It wasn't long until The Meatwave was back on stage again with a solid 9th place in ribs, followed by 6th place overall. Excitement started to mix with my odd neurotic thought that I never considered a place to house trophies of this size in my tiny Astoria apartment.
Ceremony over, I was still set on getting home quickly to get to bed, so much so my wife had to remind me to stay back and congratulate my fellow brethren, which I regretfully ended up doing mainly while already seated in the van.
On the road, stuck in traffic on the BQE, I contemplated the oddity of the previous twenty-four hours. In terms of how I wanted to spend my first competition, unable to eat, half the day in the bathroom, and mainly keeping to myself, was not what I had hoped for. On the other hand, I never imagined coming home with the prizes I did, so that bolstered my spirits and has me looking brightly toward the future, where you can find the Meatwave next at the NYC BBQ Cook-Off in Staten Island. Will I see you there?
*Both first place prices came with monetary winnings, half of which will be donated to local NYC food charity City Harvest. This donation will help feed 16 New Yorkers for an entire month.