Monday, January 24, 2011

The cream rises to the top......

……the question is why?

Let me start out by saying, please don’t panic. I have not switched gears and am not going to write a column on baking or even the latest craze to sweep the Country, the cupcake. Unlike the Food Channel, which at times should call itself the baking channel, you will not hear me go on and on about how hard it is to move a giant cake that can’t be eaten from place to place. Speaking of the cupcake, since when did this little morsel become the latest hot lick? My guess is they needed something else to help support the sale of $5 coffees so they gussied up the cupcake and now charge you $4.50 for something we used to sell at Cub Scout bake sales for ten cents. I am guessing that raspberry scones just weren’t cutting it anymore, result, designer cupcakes.

But, I digress, what I am speaking of here is the cream at a BBQ contest, que cream so to speak. Now, what I am about to say is speaking in generalities at best. This is by no means scientific, accurate or proven. I have nothing to base it on and absolutely no evidence in support of what I about to say. In fact, it is pure conjecture, a fabrication on my part.

It is my contention if you take a walk around any of the numerous BBQ contests held each weekend around the Country and you know your BBQ teams from the region, you can pretty much, with a relative degree of certainty, pick out what eventually will be the top ten overall finishers. Keep in mind, these observations are not always dead on, but most times are pretty close. The nagging question is why? What follows are my theories as to the explanation for this particular phenomenon.

1)In general, the top flight teams are not hard partiers. I know I will get a good deal of argument here, so I will clarify. What I am saying is these guys are focused. They are at a contest to cook good competition quality que, not to drink and carry on. This does not mean that the good cooks are not social or like to have fun, on the contrary, most are very social and love a good time. They just know when to party and when to be serious. When they are in the “show time” window of a contest, most are working hard to reach their goals and are not drunk or hung over. Again, this is not an absolut. Pun intended.

2)Repetition, that’s the ticket. Many of the more successful pit masters are cooking more than a handful of events a season. These guys are cooking a lot, they know their equipment, how it performs and what to expect regardless of the weather conditions. They are very comfortable in their smoky surroundings is what I am trying to say here.

3)Timing is everything. Pick a first rate team, go by their site at 12:30 AM on Friday night, go by their site the following week at the same time and I guarantee you’ll see the same thing. These guys are on automatic pilot, they’re in the zone, again, focused, they know what they are doing and when they will do it before the fire is even lit. I even know of one very successful pit master that can be seen crawling into his truck at the exact same time on Friday night for his required siesta. To say these guys are on a fixed schedule is an understatement.

4)If something is not working, you need to fix it. One thing I learned from the guys I have met that are winning is they are constantly looking for an edge. They are never idle, if a category is not getting the job done, they are not afraid to make changes in the quest for improvement. Some times the change is subtle other times drastic but these fellows are not afraid of change. I have even known of guys that have changed what would be considered successful processes in the never ending quest for improvement.

5)Consistency is not only a good thing, it is a requirement. Again, not a hard fast rule, but most of the top scoring teams are doing well in all four categories. They may not be walking in every meat, although that surely wouldn’t hurt. The key is the team is not tanking in even one category and that is what is important. You need to be consistent across the board to hear your name called with any regularity.

6)Teams that are consistently in the top ten would be considered dedicated, in my humble opinion. Most would admit to having que on their mind for most of their waking hours. Where else could you find someone that is willing to engage in a 1.5 hour conversation as to the interactions of rub and or marinade to the eventual crunchiness of chicken skin. Find yourself one of these top ten pit masters and see if you can get them to talk a little que. The only problem is, trying to get them to stop.

7)Attention to detail. Most of the guys that are successful week in and week out are very detail oriented. As I stated above, they operate on a set schedule, their equipment is all in the right place, and their cook areas are neat and organized. They pay attention to even the smallest detail, always searching for a way to do it better or more efficiently.

Again, this is not meant to be a scientific study or report, it is merely the dimwitted observations of a slightly past middle-aged, half crazed, BBQ wannabe. I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked, “how can you continually cook a good product when at each contest you have different judges….it is so subjective, how can you be consistent?” My answer is always the same, “you’ve got teams out there that can win in California, Texas, New England, Florida, Kansas City and everywhere in between, they must be doing something right”. In our sport, as is the case in any competition ever held, the cream always rises to the top. Only in our case, the cream smells a bit like smoke, and that is a good thing!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Starting the New Year right…

....what are your Que resolutions?

As the smoke dissipates on the year 2010, the question that many of us ask is where did it go? It seems like just yesterday we anxiously awaited the start of the season watching the events move north from the southern locations that dominate the early season. When the season finally kicked off here in the northeast in April it seems I blinked my eyes and it was October.

We cooked 6 contests in 2010 and are planning about that number for the year 2011. As I look ahead and make my plans the thought came to me about New Year resolutions. Each year in January we hear news stories and talking heads from every sort of media outlet pontificating on what resolutions are made and who makes them. I myself would like to see a follow up story somewhere to report how many of those stated resolutions actually made it past January 2nd.

It dawned on me there is no collection of resolutions made by the cooks, pit masters, and personalities in the BBQ world, at least that I was aware of. What a great idea, interview the top 10 or so BBQ folks and get their resolutions for the upcoming season, that would make great reading. Of course, I was one day away from my deadline when I came up with this brilliant idea. The time needed to reach out to the people to be interviewed, wait for their response, collect their thoughts, and then write the article might take a little longer than a day. It appears that this idea will have to wait until next year when I have a bit more time. For now, you will have to suffer through a compilation of my own Que resolutions for 2011. If it would make it any easier reading, you can pretend that I am in fact, a noted BBQ personality, at least for purposes of this particular article.

1)Be more focused- It seems like in the year 2010 I only thought about BBQ for 364 days. There were a few days that I did not check the forums or read an article or story relating to BBQ. I know there was a weekend or two when I cooked only seafood or pasta. I need to get back on track, get more focused, practice with the big 4 and work additionally on my whole hog and other ancillary submissions. I have two certified BBQ judges residing within walking distance of my home base. If I could just convince four more of my neighbors to take the judges class, (I would even pay their way), I could have a full table to submit my offerings to each weekend as a practiced my methods and flavor profiles. Now that sounds like a good idea.

2)Be More Prepared- As part of my routine at a contests or catering gigs I keep lists, notes and records. This year I vow to actually read those lists, notes and records more than one day ahead of my next event. My particular focus here would be the supply list. We keep a detailed list of items that need to be restocked in our trailer before the next event. If I were more prepared, I would actually read over that list a week or so ahead of the next event so that items that have to be ordered, can be handled BEFORE I am short on time and have to pay four times the shipping costs to have the items sent overnight.

3)Work neater- As I cleaned my equipment for the final time before stowing most of it away for the winter I was continually amazed at the places I found BBQ sauce and various other overspray and debris. I won’t even discuss my aprons, shirts, shorts and shoes after an event. Let’s just all agree, I certainly have room for improvement when it comes to ‘working neater’. In 2011, I will look like Mr. Clean, or at the very least, Mr. Not So Filthy.

4)Stay more sober- I am talking about while at a contest, not at home, why in the world would I want to remain more sober at home? This would fall under the ‘more focused’ section as well. While there is nothing wrong with having a cool drink or two in the contest setting, in my opinion there is a fine line between ‘enough’ and ‘too much’. I will admit, there has been the occasional time when I crossed that line, or at the very least, staggered over it. My plan in the upcoming year is to limit my alcohol consumption while at a contest which I believe will assist me with resolution number one. Besides, everyone needs to make at least one resolution that they KNOW they aren’t going to keep, this way, maybe the others will be more successful.

5)Take more pictures- I carry my camera to each and every event. Sometimes when I get home, I have less than a dozen pictures from the entire weekend, and four of them are of my turn-in boxes. I vow to take more and better quality pictures this year. I am even thinking of hiring a photographer to hang with us for the weekend to get some really great and candid shots. I wonder if I can find a cameraman that will work for Que? This entire premise is based on the assumption that everyone one on the team is in compliance with resolution number 4, if they are not, I surely don’t want any incriminating photographic evidence being collected.

6)Have more fun- I am not quite sure that this is a possibility. Not that we don’t like to have fun. But I believe, based on our past contest behavior, that we are having the maximum amount of fun allowable by law at each and every contest we attend. I also believe that there may be a certain amount of fun participated in by our squad that could very well be prohibited by law in some States in the Union. If we are not having funis maxiumis, I think we would hang it up. However, that being said, there is always room for improvement. We will work hard to maximize the reading on the fun-O-meter, even if it involves completely scraping item number four before the season opens.

So there you have it folks, six BBQ resolutions for the upcoming year 2011, five of which I might even try to comply with, I’ll keep you posted in next years column how successful I was, or wasn’t. I’ll toss number four in with my yearly personal New Years resolution that I am going to drop 10 pounds. That one usually flies out the window on New Years Day!

Anyway you look at it resolutions are a good thing, they cause you to pause, reflect, prioritize, and have a few laughs. If there is one thing that we all could use these days it would be a good laugh or two or three. In addition, I would like to wish everyone a fun-filled, safe and successful 2011 BBQ season. Hope to see you out on the trail.