Wed Aug 22, 2012
After successfully fundraising to get The Meatwave on the competition circuit, I took a look at the sea of competitions out there and decided to take a pragmatic approach to the contests we'd enter.
Taking the jump from backyard to comps is an uphill battle—grilling for friends and family doesn't really prepare you much for the challenges of dealing with tight deadlines and cooking to a judge's taste and not your own. So I started small, with the closest contest to home, the one day Grillin' on the Bay in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, which pitted us against 17 teams. Then I upped our game slightly for our second comp, with a true barbecue competition only slightly further away at the NYC BBQ Cookoff in Staten Island, which had 20 teams and required an overnight stay. Then I gave myself a buffer of a few months for recipe development before I took on the big time with the established festival that is the Hudson Valley Ribfest, two hours north of the city in New Paltz.
In its eighth year, this comp attracts a full house of fifty teams (actually scaled down from 70 last year) and attracts some of the best competitors in the New York region and beyond. It's three days and two separate competitions, which I thought would put a nice bookend for our first year of competition.
I quickly learned that preparation is key, and the more rubs, sauces, mops, and injections you make beforehand, the less likely you'll be to forget something come competition time (plus it affords more time to hang out and drink). So in the weeks leading up to New Paltz, I took an hour or two each night and got everything ready for each of the eight different categories I'd be turning in.
By the time the competition day arrived, I was so well organized, all we had to do was pack up the van and drive up. Without owning a car, I've been reliant on the cheapest van rental I could find. This ended up being a curse for Staten Island, as the rickety old van sputtered along in a downpour, and with bad sight-lines already, each change of a lane was like a hail mary. This time around I asked for a more quality vehicle, which I got, and it delivered us to New Paltz with ease.
While other teams still seem to smoke us in set-up, we're getting quicker. Unloading the van and getting everything in order took just under an hour. Afterwards, we rewarded our hard work with our first, well deserved, cold beer of the weekend.
Ribfest is actually two separate competitions. Saturday is a NEBS grilling contest, while Sunday is the KCBS barbecue event. Coming in Friday night gave us extra time to prep, and in return, made the early portion of Saturday fairly stress free—I actually got a decent seven hour sleep in. When I woke up, I started to leisurely prep for the upcoming shit storm that is turn-ins.
The first turn-in was pizza. The Meatwave is no stranger to pizza, but that also doesn't mean I'm any type of pizza genius either. I'm confident in my ability to put together a killer topping combo, but my skills in stretching dough and making it all pretty are severely lacking.
This translated to a spat of obscenities and overall spazziness while I struggled with the dough about 45 minutes prior to turn-in. My wife (and number one teammate) quickly stepped in and made things all good. I then grilled the dough and we worked together to top it as artfully as possible.
The final pie consisted of a special barbecue pizza sauce, smoked and fresh mozzarella, grilled and pulled chicken, sauteed onions, and cilantro. All seemed to be going swimmingly until I pulled the pie off the grill to find a gaping hole that was engulfing precious cheese and toppings. With no time to start over, we did our best to slice the pizza in a manner that hid this glaring mistake, boxed it, and got it in.
As I expected, we faltered in appearance, but were solid in taste and tenderness, landing this pie a respectable 6th place, which was our best showing in the NEBS contest.
Next up were chicken wings. Scoring an amazing 1st place at Grillin' on the Bay in wings, I saw no reason to change a thing. So I ventured forth with the exact same recipe, and in the end I thought these wings came out even better than before.
So what a shock when they tanked, coming in 16th place. Seriously, I still don't get it, but I guess it's all part of the learning curve of competition. Well, maybe it's not so much a curve as you just can't always predict what a set of judges will like on any given day.
Next in was apple dessert. I thought we'd be smoked in this category as I watched other teams assemble elaborate baked tarts, pies, and the like. I took a more simple direct grilling approach with my apples.
First they were brushed with brown sugar and butter, grilled, then stuffed with a brown sugar and pecan mixture. They then went back on the grill until slightly softened, and were finished with a drizzle of caramel sauce. I shouldn't have sold myself short, as these turned out to be our second best entry of the day, getting up a call at 9th place.
Finally there was salmon. If you follow this blog, you know I'm not a big seafood eater, so I'm admittedly woefully under-skilled in grilling fish. To avoid any nasty sticking complications that could destroy the filets, I took a planking approach and applied a standard barbecue procedure.
The salmon filets were first brushed with mustard and sprinkled with brown sugar. Then halfway through cooking, I brushed them with barbecue sauce and let it set during the remainder of the cook. The final salmon looked sad and pitiful to me, and my wife called them unremarkable. Still, until that morning, when I realized salmon burgers might have rocked it, it was all that I could think of, so it was done and off to the judges.
To my astonishment, this came in at 11th place. So maybe my instinct were on the right track, but just needed a little more work to get over that halfway hump.
All of these categories added up to final 9th place standing in the grilling competition, awarding us with three calls for the day.
With the final NEBS turn-in done, we sat back with some beers and also chatted with our neighbors, something we missed doing in the last two competitions. Still, there always seems to be work to be done.
This time around, I did not prep most of my meats at home—they stay better in their original cryovac packaging. So I spent the late afternoon and early evening on Saturday trimming, injecting, and rubbing down my briskets, pork, and ribs.
I took a brief interlude as a friend we made the night before, Dennis, returned to our camp to play us a little bluegrass on his banjo as we downed yet more beers.
As the sun set, the time to start smoking came. Around 8pm I prepped and started up the fires in the smokers. My plan was to get the brisket and butts on by 9, giving me a large buffer in case they weren't cooking quite right. If they were cooking on schedule, I figured holding those big pieces of meat in the Cambro for a couple hours seemed better than risking the meats being undercooked.
With the meats on relatively early, and the smokers running steady, I turned in before midnight while most others were still reveling in the good times of late night drinking.
This was probably for the best, as I awoke at 5am feeling rested and ready for action. This refreshed state only got better when I saw both smokers still holding steady at 225—what more can you ask for?
First turn-in came at noon, with chicken. My last effort in Staten Island garnered me a nice 6th place finish, but I thought I could do better. Naively, I figured I could drop the standard margarine bath procedure so many teams use and do my own brine and high-heat grilling method to better results.
Of course, the judges did not agree, and I dropped temendiously in chicken, coming in 41st place. Still, it wasn't all for naught, as I did feel like I strengthened my chicken presentation a lot, and the judges agreed there, even awarding me one 9.
Next came ribs, which I spent the most time working on after a disappointing entry in Staten Island. Improving my flavor profile and cooking method, these ribs were off the hook. A little sweet for my personal taste—but judges seem to like that—they were perfectly tender and the meat was nice and smoky. I had a good feeling, but as we got to the top five in awards with no calls, my hopes were dashed. Then it came...
"4th place, The Meatwave."
Fuck yeah! That feeling was great. 4th place against 50 teams, and coming home with another trophy and cash was definitely an incredible high.
Then we have pork. Oh what has happened to my pork? For so many years I've been churning out incredible pulled pork, but in both competitions my butts have come out a little dry, and I have yet to figure out what I need to do to be able to slice that damn money muscle. I really did no practice on competition pork this year, and our 42nd place just went to show that I really need to get on that in a big way.
Brisket is another tough one for me. After a horrible brisket in Staten Island, I did some practice and made a tremendous one just a month ago. Following the same procedure, the two briskets I cooked in New Paltz just did not come out in the same way. At least I was able to slice them this time—in Staten Island they just crumbled when touched with a knife. Even though this was still not very good, it was still an incremental improvement, finishing in 35th place.
After the final turn-in on Sunday, we sat back with our two special guests Treyci and Tito, who made the trek from the city to be with us and eat some great barbecue. Special thanks goes out to them for their dedication and support.
In the end, I feel short of my own expectations at New Paltz. I was hoping to finish between 20-30, but landed 36 overall. Still, as a first year contestant, I think it was a great start to what will hopefully be a bright future as a competition barbecuer. I'm ending the year with 5 trophies and some cash, which is actually more than I thought I would accomplish this season. Even better than that have been all the people I've met along the way, and now look forward to seeing again next summer when we (insanely) start it all over again.