Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Turn Out The Lights........

Yep, the party's over for this year. With the American Royal in the rear view mirror, I now can look back on our 2010 barbecue season. There were some great finishes and some not so hot ones. It was a season where our results let me fly high and roll in the dumpster at the same time. A dove in the hands of judges that could be set free or crushed.

Our 2010 preseason was terrific. The team was very excited for the upcoming season after coming off of our 3rd place Chicken finish at the 2009 American Royal Open. In early January, we appeared on episode 5 of the first season of "BBQ Pitmasters" on TLC. It was great to have our 2009 American Royal experience chronicled for us and to have the cameras there when we received our 3rd place call! It really got our juices flowing.

Our team met in January and planned out some initial competition dates for the first part of the 2010 season and also to lay out our cooking methods for each category. This enabled us to get some dates on the calendar, have more time to prepare for those events and to have a single methodology as to how we would cook each category. Now chicken, ribs, pork and brisket would be cooked one way so each member would know all the time lines and procedures to each category to follow.

Everyone was now on the same page with our cooking process. To insure everyone was comfortable with the cooking methods, we conducted a practice cook in February that followed a contest timeline. Prepping and cooking all four categories, as well as, working out the presentation bugs. It was something we had never done before and was a great tool for us. Armed with all this knowledge, we were ready for the competition season to start!

The decision had been made to start our season in March at the Smoke On The Water contest in North Little Rock, AR. It was not an easy decision to come to. It was the first time that we had argued over something as a team but we worked it out and came to an agreement. The entry fee was steep but the prize money was high. It was the first time we had traveled out of the Kansas City metro area to compete so there would be higher travel costs for us as well. It was also an opportunity for us to get out there with the big boys and show them that we could hang with them. The contest mood was very serious amongst the teams. No partying or carrying on late into the night. With all the top teams there from across the country, this was no ordinary contest but rather an elite invitational. That gnawing pit in my stomach was telling me that we would have to be perfect in order to have a good showing. The cook itself went well. None of the meat gave us any trouble. However, for the first time, some tempers flared up and hung like a dark shadow over the cook. We worked through it and thought all 4 categories had come out well. When the awards ceremony started the rain came with it. It was an ominous foreshadow for what was coming for us. Getting a call in chicken for 12th place gave us hope for good things to come but we sat through the rest of the categories and we were not called again. After waiting for seemed like an hour to get the judging sheets, my heart sank when I saw that we finished 155th out of 225 teams. Dejected, we piled into our vehicles for the long drive home and had our finish to think about each torturous mile. What the hell happened?! On top of this, as the weather on the way home severely deteriorated from rain to sleet to a full blown snow storm, so did our team along with it. The BBQ gods were laying down a severe punishment on us! Why? What had become excitement before the event turned sour after. "What a waste of money!" " It wasn't worth our time!" Looking back, all I can say is hindsight is always an unforgiving bitch! It is so easy to second guess yourself. What I took away from this experience was sometimes you have to get hit in the face to realize who you are and to bring you back to reality (television be damned!) It was a valuable lesson learned, and as it turns out, it wasn't going to be the last time we get KO'd in 2010.

April brought us Spring and also the second stop on our barbecue tour at the Springfield, MO Rockin' Rib Fest. Our team was now a man light and we adjusted accordingly. This was also the second contest we cooked outside of the Kansas City area. Fifty-nine teams showed up to do battle on the grounds of the iconic Bass Pro Shop. This was a great event. We met so many nice folks there who wanted to talk barbecue. Our cook went excellent. It was the most productive and efficient cook we had ever had. Everything went perfect. Our presentation boxes went together so effortlessly and looked terrific. We felt great after the last turn-in and for the first time that great feeling translated into great results. We ended up 6th overall! It was the polar opposite of Little Rock. What a great feeling! However, these results were dampened with the announcement by our 3rd teammate that he would be leaving the team for personal reasons after this contest. It was bittersweet for me. Everyone on the team brings a unique set of abilities that combines to create who we are. Those abilities would be missed as the 2 of us work to fill in the those missing gaps. We would learn that at our next cook.

Deciding to strike while the iron was hot. We chose Belton, MO as stop 3 on our tour. This put us back in the Kansas City metro area to compete for the first time this season. Thirty-three teams showed up to participate that first weekend in May. We felt our chances of having another top 10 finish were very strong. We were now a team of 2 having to adjust to doing the work of a team of 4. For the most part, we were able to do this. The cook was normal with no issues. We felt good about the turn-ins but things were not as smooth as the last contest in Springfield. Our bubble was burst as we received no calls and a 16th overall finish. I was left scratching my head at what happened? How can what was the same tasting product do so well in Springfield but just be average here? As we would find out, this theme would pop up again later in the season. We survived and suffered a TKO for our efforts. It helped prepare us for the next contest in Raytown, MO.

Tour stop 4, Raytown, MO, took place in early June and it was considerably hotter and humid that weekend. After our TKO at Belton, we were eager to prove that we were better than those results. We learned a few things at Belton and didn't want to repeat them. The tone for us was a far more serious one with the emphasis of keeping our focus on the cook. Things went very well until 10:30 am on Saturday morning. A severe thunderstorm ripped through the area. It dumped a tremendous amount of rain for 1.5 hours along with strong winds, hale and lighting. It was all we could do to hold onto the Ez-ups to keep them from blowing away. Some how we made it through and miraculously the ribs and chicken we were cooking made it through too! We were wet and miserable when we showed up for the award ceremony but it had all paid off. We ended up 7th out of 65 teams overall with a call in Ribs and Brisket. What a great feeling that was! Everything had come together nicely and we had survived the fight.

We sat out the hot part of the summer, or so we thought, and picked up again in mid August at the Sertoma contest in Springfield, MO. This was our 2nd contest here and it was the hottest one too! After setting up on Friday, the temperature was at a cool 111 degrees in the shade. I was already spent and we had not even started prepping yet! Fortunately, we had pre-trimmed the meat before arriving so that helped ease the amount of work we had to do on site. Thirty-two teams were there to battle the heat and eventual rain that rolled in Saturday morning. Once again we had to battle mother nature! Our cook went well except for the brisket. It just would not finish like we wanted it to. By the time it was ready to turn in, it was done but it just didn't have the wow factor we wanted it to have. When the awards ceremony started we felt like we had delivered good product and thought we should hear our name called. Boy did we ever! We were 1st in Chicken, 6th in Ribs and 7th in Pork. It was going to come down to the brisket if we were going to win this thing! Sadly, it let us down and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. We did finish with 5th overall and it was our 3rd top ten finish this season. Had the worm finally turned for us? We were going to find out at the American Royal.

The 6th, and more than likely last stop this season, was last weekend at the American Royal. In a way, it was the closing of this barbecue odyssey circle we have been on this past year. A lot of things have changed in that year's time. We had gone from being a team no one had really heard of to one that got a little publicity from the Pitmasters program. It was a humbling experience and we are thankful for the publicity generated by the show. It has allowed us to meet a lot of great folks this year while competing. It also is an experience that changed us. In a way, it made us turn up the fire to be more serious about competing and wanting to win. Did it take some of the fun away? To me, the answer is no because part of the fun I get out of competing is winning.

Our experience this year was a much quieter one as there were no cameras filming our every move and also that there were only 2 of us instead of 4. The cook went flawlessly. We even entered in the sausage category for the first time. Our boxes looked great and we both thought everything tasted excellent. We were very excited for the award ceremony. When the awards started I had that nervous/excited feeling come over me. As the top 20 was announced by the emcee in each category, I hung on every word waiting to hear our name called. When he called us for 6th in Sausage, I was elated! Our first time out with that category and we make the top 10! I thought that was a good omen as to what was coming. Once again, I was wrong! The ceremony went by without our name being called. We looked at each other and said maybe we were just outside the top 20 on each category. When we got the overall results and finally found our team name at 212th place overall, I was disappointed. What happened? Were we that bad? What were the judges thinking or not thinking? Myron Mixon was right when he said that this event is a total "crap shoot!" Our Chicken entry was spot on and was no different than last years 3rd place entry but this year it was a paltry 285th! What a dagger to the heart. I know our product is better than what it was scored at! Just like at the beginning of the season, we are KO'd at the end too! I'm off the canvas and I'm ready for next year!