Your first Cookoff

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How to Make the Jump From Backyard to Competition

This Great article Courtesy of Kansas City BBQ Society

By Elizabeth Lumpkin -

You're a good barbeque cook. You care about your craft. You've studied and practiced and learned. Your family and friends all love your barbeque. It's time to take the next step and enter your first competition! But you don't know how to go about it, and you don't want to do it the wrong way and end up wishing you'd gone golfing or fishing that weekend instead. You wonder what to expect, and you're unsure of the costs and the process.

How It Works-

Most cookoffs begin Friday afternoon, as teams begin arriving to set up their camp and get their meat checked in. There will be an official Cook's Meeting Friday evening; at many cookoffs there is music entertainment, a small fair, or other socializing opportunities. This is often the best part of the cookoff event! Most teams will light their smokers Friday evening, and put their brisket and pork butt on to smoke overnight. Some teams will have team members sleep in shifts so the smoker can be tended as needed throughout the night. Saturday morning, most teams will put their chicken and ribs in the smoker to cook. Preparing the entry boxes with lettuce and parsley can take place anytime on Friday or Saturday prior to turning in your entries. It's helpful to get your boxes ready with lettuce and parsley in advance so you aren't time pressured at 11:30 when everything goes into high gear. At 11:30 Saturday morning, it's crunch time as you begin to prepare your first entry, chicken, to be at the judging tent at noon. Ribs will follow with turn-in at 12:30. Pork Butt is next with a 1:00 turn-in, finishing up with brisket which is turned in last at 1:30. Some cookoffs will have additional categories, such as sauce, sausage, miscellaneous, etc. Some cookoffs will vary the turn-in times or the turn-in order of categories, but they are the exception. You can turn in your entry five minutes before or up to five minutes after the official turn-in time, but don't be late because that is a disqualification. The judging is normally completed by 2:00, and the judging cards are entered in the computer by the KCBS Representative. While teams are waiting for judging results, they will be packing up their gear and getting ready to leave. Generally, the awards ceremony takes place 1 to 2 hours after judging has been completed. When you attend the awards ceremony, you will have the opportunity to cheer on your fellow contestants. One of the hallmarks of competition barbeque is the way all contestants genuinely wish success for the other teams. The air is thick with anticipation, and there is a tremendous amount of suspense as teams wait with bated breath to hear the results of their efforts. Still, you will hear many heartfelt "congratulations" and "good job" from other teams as contestants go up to accept their awards. This is a sport of good sports, and win or lose, you will always have the well-wishes of the other teams, and will be able to extend your good wishes to them in return. After the awards ceremony Saturday afternoon, most teams head home to get a well-deserved hot shower, a pint of ice cream, and a chance to hash over the results of the cookoff with their teammates. Then it's out to the garage to start cleaning your equipment and begin planning your next cookoff. Sunday, you'll sleep better than you have since you were three. Monday, it's back to the real world where you earn your living and dream your competition dreams when you're sure no one is looking. After all, you're no longer a serious hobbyist: you've become a real competition cook.

What To Do Before Your First Competition

It's very helpful to attend at least one cookoff as a spectator before you actually enter one. Friday night is an excellent time to meet the teams and ask questions about cookoff participation. You'll find most teams more than willing to share the ins and outs of competition participation, especially on Friday night when they won't be as busy as they are on Saturday. Saturday morning you'll find the teams are often too busy to stop and talk, but if you walk around and keep your eyes open, you will see many exciting smokers and cooking techniques that you can use. Be particularly attentive to the times when the teams are taking their entry boxes up to the judging tent. It never hurts to hang around the judging tent and ask the KCBS rep if there's anything you can volunteer to do. Often you will be put to work and get a lot of information in the bargain. Another excellent preparation activity is to volunteer to be a judge. This will teach you as much about competition barbeque as any other preparation. There is no qualification required other than loving barbeque, but you may want to take one of the judging classes offered by the KCBS. Don't just show up expecting to judge; call the contest coordinator and express your interest in judging beforehand. Read and understand the KCBS Rules before you go to the cookoff. The KCBS office can provide you with a KCBS Cook's Handbook that has the rules in it. Study it; know it backward and forward. You will have questions about the rules and the KCBS office will be happy to provide clarification. Consider only entering one or two categories at your first cookoff. You won't be in the running for Grand Champion and Reserve Champion this way, but you will be able to relax and focus on the one or two categories you've chosen, and it's often more rewarding to ease your way into the rhythm and schedule of competition cooking if you take it slow the first time or two. If there are any "fun" categories offered, do participate in those because they often give a new team its best opportunity for a ribbon.

Choosing Your First Cookoff

A small cookoff near your home is a good first choice. It doesn't have to be a sanctioned contest, but a small sanctioned contest is going to give you the best experience in real-world competition cooking. Look over the KCBS schedule in The Bullsheet, and contact the contest coordinator to see how many teams they had the year before. If you choose a contest with fewer than 20 teams, you won't feel as intimidated when you arrive, and the KCBS rep will have more time to give you the special "first time team" attention. Don't go to your first cookoff expecting to win a ribbon; it normally takes several cookoffs to be in the ribbons, but choosing a smaller cookoff for your first time out does increase your chances of winning one of the coveted rosettes that will hang proudly from your rearview mirror on your trip home.

How Many Team Members Do I Need?

Many teams operate successfully with only one or two people. Some teams have four or six or more. Teams can be one person working alone, two good friends, a married couple, a non-married couple, a nuclear family, several generations of a family, a work-group, or just a group of good friends. But the choice is up to you. There's no small amount of work and expense in competition barbeque, and spreading the work and expense over a larger group can definitely make getting started easier. Although disagreements among team members about which recipe to use or which technique to employ can make a larger group more difficult. "Too many cooks spoil the batter" can apply if teams aren't completely compatible. The pressure of cookoffs can make this a real problem, so choose your teammates carefully.

Choosing A Team Name

You'll need a team name, so get together with your teammates and agree on one. There are many team names already in use, so check on the internet at to be sure you aren't picking something already being used by someone else. Be creative and have fun in picking your team name, but be considerate of others who may be in attendance at the cookoff. There will be families and children there, so you probably don't want a team name that causes a child to turn to his parents and say "Mommy? What's a (blank)?"

How Much Will I Spend?

Most KCBS cookoffs have a $150-$250 entry fee. A few are lower and some are higher. You can expect to spend another $100 for your meat and ingredients, and generally another $100 for miscellaneous items like your own food to eat, lettuce and parsley for your presentation boxes, soft drinks, ice, rubber gloves, etc. While most teams work with a $400 total budget per cookoff, some teams spend much more as they pursue special meats from specialty butchers, spices from specialty spice vendors, and other fine tuning tools. There is a story about a team that bought an airline ticket for a brisket they needed flown in for a cookoff. Is that necessary for your first cookoff? No. You can do very well with meat and spices acquired at your local grocery store.

What Can I Win?

Most cookoffs award trophies and ribbons, along with some prize money and sometimes a free smoker or other fun prizes. One cookoff awards lottery tickets as a fun prize! You will probably begin to win a ribbon or two after you've gotten your feet wet at a few cookoffs. After a couple of years of competition and dedicated study of your hobby, you may begin to win some prize money too. This should be viewed as a way to offset some of your cookoff expenses. Focusing on prize money can get your priorities out of order. Instead, focus on cooking your best and learning as much as you can about barbeque and you are sure to win prize money along the way. Successful teams that have been on the circuit for a number of years report winnings of several thousand dollars per season, which just about covers their expenses for a full season of cookoffs. For the very serious competition cook, there are cookoffs paying up to $10,000 in prize money for the Grand Champion, and up to $50,000 in prize money overall. These are fun to enter as long as you keep in mind that it takes a lot of practice and cookoffs to win one of "The Big Ones".

What Do I Need To Bring?

Your smoker, 2 pork butts, 2 briskets, 12-16 pieces of chicken, and at least three racks of ribs. Bring enough barbeque sauce for all your entries, spice rubs and/or marinades to prepare your entries, charcoal and/or wood. You will need to pack all the kitchen utensils and cooking paraphernalia you would use for preparing your entries, such as knives, basting brushes, foil, plastic wrap, dishsoap, water, disposable gloves, etc. You must also bring one or two worktables that will become your portable kitchen counters. Don't forget food and beverages for you and your team. Plenty of ice is also a "must", as well as soap and water for washing hands and dishes.

What Kind of A Smoker Do I Need?

Many teams compete successfully using several small Weber Smokey Mountain cookers or other small backyard units. You will also hear Weber Smokey Mountains referred to as "bullets" or "WSMs". They are about $180 at most hardware stores. Some teams will have great big commercial cookers, but don't feel intimidated if you've brought a Weber Kettle and a homemade smoker. World Championships have been won by teams using just such equipment. As one T-Shirt so wisely announced, "It's not the size of your smoker, it's the taste of your meat that counts". It is very helpful to have thermometers mounted on your cooking equipment, and some teams will also use thermometers in the meat itself.

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