Competition barbecue is two part skill and one part luck. Cooks are reminded of this again and again during a season. Skills are honed through hours and hours of practice, but no matter how hard we work, no matter how much of our blood, sweat, and tears we pour into it, we still need lady luck to smile on us. This past weekend her smile was stunning and she was gazing upon Pellet Envy. Winning three categories, and finishing second in the fourth and final category, we were named the Grand Champions. With some serious hardware back at our site, the relative of our cook site neighbor, a first time competitor, came over to say how she’d wished she’d had a big plate of our barbecue. Thanking her for the compliment, I didn’t think much more about it. Later I realized she might have been in for a surprised. Competition barbecue is so very different from the barbecue I serve to my friends and family. It’s heavily seasoned, it’s cooked to competition tenderness standards, and it’s always sauced, at least in my camp it is. And I know I couldn’t eat a plate of it.
My contest meats are aggressively seasoned. Having taught nearly 2000 students, many are amazed at the amount of rub I apply. My goal is to achieve “one bite barbecue”, giving the judges a mouthful of flavor in a single bite. After all, that’s what they are taught. If a judge ate everything presented for evaluation, they’d consume upwards of three pounds of protein. Talk about a case of the meat sweats. So, one bite is the standard by which most entries are judged. For a meal, the average serving is a quarter pound. That’s probably a little light for big eaters loading a plate to the point of near structural failure. Either way, competition barbecue would be considered over seasoned to someone sitting down to enjoy a feast of succulent, slow smoked barbecue. When cooking for a crowd, I apply only about a third of the seasoning I’d use on the same meat in competition. After all, I don’t want to bombard their tastebuds and overwhelm their palates.
Because taste is so subjective, barbecue judges are taught standards for appearance and tenderness, two of the three criteria for judging the meats. It’s said that anyone can cook a rib until if falls off the bone or brisket until it falls apart. Competition cooks prepare their categories to a doneness just short of this level of tenderness, something much easier said than achieved. In my backyard, my guests love falling off the bone tender and as the host, I intend to please. After all, the only prize is the admiration of those in attendance and that’s as good or better than a trophy almost any day.
As with most any pitmaster who spends long hours tending fire, watching over a smoker full of different cuts, I am proud of my finished product and I want my guests to know it. I serve my brisket, ribs, pulled pork and chicken only one way, with sauce on the side. My guests decide if they’ll add sauce to their barbecue meats, a little, a lot, or at all. Not the case for my competition submissions. Every category delivered to the judges is sauced, sometimes heavier than many might expect. It goes back to the idea of giving the judges everything in a single bit. It’s almost universally expected on the Kansas City Barbeque Society circuit. Some cooks are too proud to sauce their competition meats The rest of us gesture tot them from the stage.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard someone say at a contest they’d like to eat a plate of my barbecue. Competition barbecue can be mind blowingly the best barbecue you have ever tasted. Pitmasters fuss over small quantities of meat, taking great care to achieve perfect color, incredible moisture, and exacting tenderness. However, it’s not the barbecue I want for my guests. That barbecue is still some of the best my guests will ever eat, but it’s just different, and different in a good way. It’s seasoned, cooked, and presented for my guests to enjoy until their collective hearts are content. There is room for both of these types in the world of barbecue, as long as we know there places.
More about Rod: It is only natural that one of the country’s top barbecue competitors hails from Kansas City – the city best known for barbecue. Competing since 2001, Rod Gray, Pitmaster for Pellet Envy, has participated in over 450 events from coast to coast. In that time, Pellet Envy has won fifty-seven championships and has ended fourteen straight seasons as a top nationally ranked team. Pellet Envy is one of the winningest teams in America. Undefeated in four episodes, Rod was crowned 2013 Kingford’s BBQ Pitmasters Grand Champion on national television. National Champion in 2009, Rod Gray of Pellet Envy was the runner-up National Champion in 2010 and has been named the best pork ribs and brisket cook in the entire country. Additionally, Rod has competed in the Jack Daniel’s World Invitational Championship seven times in his short career. All while educating the public and promoting his line of EAT Barbecue competition rubs and sauces, Rod continues to compete and win on the contest circuit.