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!

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