Tue Apr 24, 2012
I wonder if other competition teams out there are thinking, "Why the hell did I get myself into this, and why can't I stop?"
This was the arc of my weekend at The Meatwave's first Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) competition, where a combination disorganization, rain, cold, and a poor cook should have been a complete spirit killer, but in the end, all I could think about was the next competition couldn't come soon enough.
When planning my three budgeted competitions for the summer, this event wasn't even on my radar, no surprise as this was the first ever NYC BBQ Cookoff. As soon as I saw it posted, it seemed too good to be true—only 20 teams, big prize money, and relatively close to home. Looked like there was potential for me to walk here, so I jumped right on and sent my application in the day after it was posted. Of course, those characteristics didn't go unnoticed, and some high hopes were put into check as most of the roster was filled with fierce competitors with the likes of Smoke in Da Eye and Chris Hart—the man who literally wrote the book on current competition barbecue.
So I started to think of this competition more as trial run for future KCBS comps—where the categories are consistently chicken, ribs, pork shoulder, and brisket—and just hoped not to come in dead last.
As time went on before the comp, I began to get a little nervous about the organization, as there seemed to be more questions than answers about the event. For a moment I even considered dropping out and picking up a different one, but ultimately decided not to, and before I knew it, the week of the event was here.
As I did previously, I spent each night leading up to competition doing prep—making rubs and sauces, trimming all the meats, and putting together a timeline for the cook.
Finally, the day of the comp arrived. We loaded up our battered rental van, and headed down to Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island.
Once there, I quickly found my fears of disorder come into clear focus. We arrived at a staging area as the Chili Cookoff folks were still inhabiting our barbecue space. This was expected to some extent, but the over three hour wait to get into our site was not. Still, it was a beautiful warm day, I was feeling good, and the wait gave me time to talk to other teams and have a beer—things that illness prevented me from doing at my last comp.
As we finally drove into the town to get our site at 8:00pm, there was confusion over spaces, as I was told I could have two different spots, only to find them occupied by other teams. Finally we settled into a somewhat small nook next to Rocco's Rubs. No sooner than we started unloading the van, the cook's meeting was called, hampering our ability to stick to my cooking timeline.
It wasn't until 10pm that we finally had our space set-up, just in time for some heavy rain heavy to engulf the Island. As the temperature took a sudden dive, the heat of fires starting kept me warm, and I was able to get my brisket and pork on only an hour later than my schedule (I had a lot of buffer time built in, so this was no big deal).
With smokers running well at 225, we finally had time to cook up some hot dogs and sit back with a few beers around 1am, followed directly with making camp inside the van.
Surprisingly comfortable, I found some sleep, waking up at 6am to the beautiful site of the smokers still running at the perfect temp. I foiled my briskets, got the ribs on, and then came the magical part that was sorely missed at Grillin' on the Bay—hours upon hours with little to do.
I spent this time walking around, talking to people who weren't busy, and taking in the fun that a barbecue competition should be. Here we have Clint from Smoke in Da Eye, who helped show me the ropes last summer at The Battle of the BBQ Brethern.
These are the boys of Island Smoke Ring, who get the award for least distance traveled. As with us, they were new to KCBS competition, so we had a lot to talk about and it was great getting to know them.
The Smoke'n Pit doing what pitmasters do best.
The good times thought, they cannot last. As soon as the soaking rain started to set in, I was told I had to move my van, but was disallowed to park it in the lot just feet from our site.
This added to what seemed to be a growing list of grips that made this comp not super team friendly, but there's little time for loathing when there's work to be done. The time had come to start prepping the boxes in anticipation of the hectic turn-ins that were about to creep up.
And creep up they did, one minute I was sharing some good times with friends, the next I was hurriedly trying to find six pieces of chicken whose skin had not torn or shrunk too much. This ended up being an impossible task, so I just picked the best of the lot and had them in right before 2pm.
I wasn't super excited or super disappointed with the chicken, they were just kind-of middle of the road, but ribs I thought I had right on. That was until I cut into them and noticed how dried out they had become. This is not a problem I've had with my ribs in the past, so I'm not quite sure what happened, but there was no time to ponder that. Showing off some improved slicing skills, I got six somewhat unformed ribs into the box and made 2:30pm turn-in.
Next came pork, which presented a whole different problem. While I did test runs of chicken and ribs, I didn't for pork. I've become pretty proficient on excellent pulled pork, so I thought I had this one, but when turn-in time came, I realized I've never cut off and sliced the money muscle before, or considered presentation of pork in a box. As I was putting it all together, I knew I made mistakes here, ones that transformed what should have been killer pork into something less than. Still, got it in by the 3pm turn-in, and that's an accomplishment in itself.
Last was brisket, which I admittedly am the least skilled at, and never did a recipe close to what I tried at this comp. Turns out this was huge blunder. While I cooked the brisket to its usual 195 degrees, the braise I put in about halfway through seemed to had rendered it so soft that I could not slice it. Not only that, but the flat was so incredibly dry, I figured this was going to be close to a last place entry. To try to add some moisture back in, I dipped the brisket into its braising liquid, which added some unsightly noise to the flat. The point was actually spot on in flavor and moisture, but still so soft that trying to get six burnt ends was a challenge. The closest I've come to the cut-off time, I got this sad brisket in with one minute to spare.
Since I didn't have a handy box carrier like I saw many people using, I employed my teammates as my own personal Fonzworth Bentley to carry an umbrella over my head to keep the boxes as free of rain as possible. Felt super awkward, but it worked!
Despite a disappointing cook, I still had a great time thanks to my dedicated teammates and everyone I met. I have to give big props to Peter and Mike who braved the cold, rain, and SI public transit to be with me and help out—true friends and excellent Meatwavers. Then to my loving wife, who I automatically enlisted as my second hand for this competitive barbecue career, and even through this challenging weekend, still seems to be up for more.
While sitting around and chatting is great, I found myself so incredibly cold an hour after the last turn-in, that I put myself on clean-up get myself moving again. Based on the previous night, I feared it would take us forever to pack-up and get out, but luckily once the public was out at 5pm, we were able to get the site broken down and loaded into the car before the awards ceremony at 6pm. Of course, a quick awards ceremony was too much to ask for.
We waited nearly half an hour for the awards to start, since the checks were still being written. As with everything before it though, frustration seemed to disappear once the first name was finally called.
At this point, I had resigned myself to lowest tier based upon what I ended up turning in against who I was competing against. So it was an utter surprise when just three names in I heard "The Meatwave" called for 7th place chicken. Then came a second call for us for 6th place ribs—that's 3 notches higher than we did previously, just one place more and we'd have come home with some money and hardware. Then pork and brisket went with no calls, not unexpected.
As the heat of the defroster was bringing me close to sleep while driving home, I was feeling a sense of pride with our two calls and 13th overall. Quickly all bad things from the day were fading and I was figuring how I can improve and rock the next competition. That's going to be a doozy: 50 teams, 3 days, and more barbecue than I've probably ever seen in my life. Hudson Valley, I cannot wait! Who else is in?