Lessons for Novice BBQers, Part 1

Gary Park
Gary Park (left) says temperature control is a simple, yet sometime troublesome obstacle for inexperienced teams.

by Cole Pepper

I’ve tapped into my network of BBQ chefs to ask them about some of the common mistakes that they made when just starting out cooking in competitions. If you are a novice contest cooker, some of this advice might help you avoid some of the pitfalls that can frustrate BBQ chefs as they hone their craft.

This is the first of a three part series. Today’s question:

What is the most common mistake that you see inexperienced BBQ teams make at contests?

“Overcooking the food,” says Paul Herring, captain of Big Bad BBQ. “I recommend an empty cooler to store cooked meat to keep it warm until turn in time.”

There are probably a dozen techniques to keep your entries at the proper temperature until turn in time. If you try to time it just right, you are asking for trouble. Some, like Paul recommend a cooler, others will utilize an insulated pizza bag and some will try to keep the entry warm wrapped in towels or other insulation. Experiment and see which works best. If you target 20-30 minutes before the start of turn in to have your meat off the heat, you have time to choose the best pieces and to arrange them in the turn-in box properly.

Gary Park, competitive barbecuer and owner of G’s Slow Smoked BBQ in Middleburg, FL preaches temperature control.

“I know it sounds like a simple tip, but I’ve seen many a team struggle with their temperatures going up and down through the whole cook,” Park said. “Practice cooking and practice more while cooking/smoking different meats, preferably the ones being used in a contest. Don’t wait until the week before a contest and start trying to figure out a particular grill/smoker! Be consistent!”

One competition chef who wished to remain anonymous warned against going overboard.

“Over spice, over sauce, over smoke. It’s a BBQ competition where the meat needs to do the talking. Every judge who is willing to take part in this competition is there because they love the meat flavor. How will anyone know what spice, sauce, smoke combination a group of judges will love?”

That’s a common theme. There is virtually no way to tell what the judges preference will be. Some prefer a little more spice, others like it sweeter. While judges are charged with trying to establish a consistent baseline from which to judge, one tip that can help is to see if the judges are largely older or younger. If the average age seems to be toward retirement age, tend toward the sweeter side. If the average age of judges is in the 40s, spicier can score well. This is only a rule of thumb.

Two words most commonly used by our panel? Practice and preparation.

“Plan your cook and practice it at least once before the contest to have your timing down,” said Brian Shell. “It is way different than doing it in YOUR backyard for family and friends.”

In all, though, keep it simple, says Palm Valley BBQ captain John Rowan.

“[Novice teams] make their recipes too complicated,” Rowan said.  ”They try things they have never done before. Keep it simple because that is what BBQ is.”

How Companies Can Make A Difference

Elkins Check
Joe Newell (right) presents a check to Daniel Foundation Executive Director Kellie Ann Kelleher and Jacksonville Backyard BBQ Championships chairman Cole Pepper.

by Cole Pepper

This post is a little bit off the beaten track of what you might expect from this site, but I think there is a good point to make.

I had the pleasure of attending a check presentation on behalf of Daniel (I’m the Vice Chairman of the Board of the Daniel Foundation). This event took place in the clubhouse near the top of the Berkman Plaza and was hosted by the folks from Elkins Constructors.

Elkins has participated in the Jacksonville Backyard BBQ Championships each of the last three years and they really adopted the Glyn Cook Memorial Scholarship for Daniel kids as their pet cause. This year, they not only competed in the BBQ contest as a team (two teams actually, one that won the Grand Championship), but they also sold tickets to the event and held several mini-fundraisers throughout the year. All told, Elkins donated over $8,000 to the scholarship fund and to Daniel.

And they tell me that they get more out of it than Daniel does.

How do they do it?

First, they have a strong team leader. If a business is going to adopt a cause (or several causes) you really have to have someone on the inside, driving the efforts. This creates motivation, accountability, even someone for the employees to go to for simple questions. For Elkins, Joe Newell is that guy. He’s not only a passionate BBQ chef, but he’s passionate about Daniel’s cause. Daniel, for those of you unaware, is Florida oldest child-service agency and the oldest charity in Jacksonville (founded in 1884).

The Glyn Cook Memorial Scholarship helps pay the cost of college for formerly homeless kids who have gone through the programs at Daniel. It’s named for my late father-in-law, a former Chairman of the Board at Daniel.

In addition to strong internal leadership, its essential for a company to have buy-in from the top. If management doesn’t support a cause, they may not look favorably on employees spending time on it. At Elkins, they believe in active participation in charitable fundraising and it shows.

Third, Elkins has fun with it! Okay, so forming a barbecue team isn’t the toughest thing to enjoy, but it does take time, energy, planning and resources to do it well. Elkins cooked over 1,000 pounds of meat over the past year in preparation for the Jacksonville Backyard BBQ Championships. The crown they won as the Amateur BBQ Kings of Jacksonville is being handled like the Stanley Cup. Each team member gets the crown for a week and can take it anywhere.

The Crown is awarded to the winning Backyard Division Team each year at the Jacksonville Backyard BBQ Championships.
The Crown is awarded to the winning Backyard Division Team each year at the Jacksonville Backyard BBQ Championships.

Here are a few of the ways Elkins raised money:

  • Selling BBQ dinners to employees, business neighbors and groups.
  • Bake sale
  • Drawing for an Elkins truck
  • Selling tickets to the BBQ contest to vendors, clients and partners

Here’s the wild part about this: Newell told me that its one of the best team building activities they’ve ever done. It’s not just the barbecuing. Truthfully, only a few people really have an influence on how the chicken, ribs and pork come out. But they have people in charge of games for the area, some handle handing out the BBQ to the patrons, others are there to help when needed and generally enjoy the contest. But as much of that team building comes in the months leading up to the contest as on the actual day of the contest. That’s what makes the Elkins story such a great one for companies. Build team morale, get positive attention in the community, make a difference for those in need and be a part of a great community event.

If you know of a company who would like to get involved, like Elkins has, email info@jaxbbqchampionships.com.