Yaks Melbourne BBQ Festival
What’s involved in competing in a BBQ Competition?
February 6th was the 2nd Melbourne BBQ Festival run by the KCBS (Kansas City Barbecue Society). Last year the event was held at the Queen Victoria Market, with only 15 teams and a handful of vendors, the event was so popular it was swamped, taking a couple of hours to be served food. This year the organisers had learned from the previous year and moved the event to the Nursery at Flemington Racecourse. This time it was a pay to enter event, it had plenty of fantastic food, had lots of vendors, had entertainment for children and had the largest prize BBQ Competition ever in Australia. The event had a total of $25,000 in cash and prizes. This was a fantastic event, loved by patrons, with beautiful weather. The reviews were all incredibly positive, it is amazing how ‘low and slow’ BBQ has grown in popularity over the past 2-3 years.
For Competitors the preparation for an event such as this, starts many months before. For me, I wanted a new Stumps Gravity Fed Smoker for the event and had to order from the USA in November 2015. It arrived 7 days before the Competition, I had a chance to season it but the first time it was cooked on was at Flemington.
Two weeks before, I spend a lot of time sourcing the meat. We smoke Chicken Thighs, Pork Shoulder, Pork Ribs and Brisket, these 4 meats are cooked at every KCBS contest. Finding the right meat is essential, I like it to be the right breed and more importantly it has to be cut to suit the contest. This is difficult because the USA has different cuts to us and much larger animals. Luckily, I have a couple of sponsors that try to source me the right meat and right cuts but this is still difficult to achieve.
As I move into the week before the contest, I prepare a fully detailed excel spreadsheet with all of my times work out. However this is sometimes difficult to follow, due to low and slow being ready, when it is ready. During this week I trim all of my meat and vacuum seal it ready to go, I also get my rubs and sauces together. Some of these are made fresh and some are commercially available. I normally take 2 smokers, a marquee, tool boxes with BBQ equipment, a huge esky with the meat, lights, tables, etc. This is enough to fill the back of a Grand Cherokee and a 3m x 2m, dual axle trailer. It is a huge logistical challenge to make sure you have everything with you. This normally involves taking a minimum of one day off of work but this can be more.
We arrived at the Competition on the Friday lunchtime, this year ‘bump in’ was a dream. We had time to set up, enjoy the atmosphere before our preparation starts at around 9pm on the Friday night. Our larger meats (Brisket and Pork Butt) can take upto 13 hours and need to be injected and rubbed a couple of hours before they go on. Our first meats go on at midnight, they need to be spritzed and wrapped during the night. I cooked with a friend so this allowed me to go to the SUV at 1am for a couple of hours sleep. When I got back my partner was in his chair, guarding the pit, snoring loudly. We then swapped and he grabbed a couple of hours sleep in the car, before the ‘fun’ of the following day.
Championship Pork Butts
Walking around the other teams at 3am is fun. You can smell sweet BBQ smoke everywhere you walk. A mist of smoke hung about The Nursery. People were laid on the grass in sleeping bags, some were asleep in seats and others were still preparing meat in the dim light of their marquees. My favourite part is watching the sun come up, warming up my cold legs, after not bringing long pants to change into.
During the morning the pressure starts to mount. We have the normal 4 proteins and for this Competition, we also have Lamb. So we have 5 meats smoking at the same time. We have to prepare hand in boxes lined with parsley, each meat is then handed in, in these boxes. This commences at 1.30pm and then every half hour until all hand ins are complete. Before the hand ins, you have time to talk to the General Public, this is the fun time. I really enjoy sharing my sport with others, knowing in the past I have managed to inspire people to start smoking meat. Once you get to within an hour of the first turn in, you get the ‘game face’ on and concentrate on the cook but unfortunately this means you have little time to stop and chat.
The pressure during this time is enormous, as you have been cooking for 12-13 hours and now have a 10 minute window to make sure your meat is perfectly cooked. I thought that I’d had a reasonable turn in, not a good one. Friends and competitors were asking how I’d gone and I told them it was a pretty average cook. It seems I am highly critical of what I cook, as you will read later. Once the hand ins are complete, you have to wait 4 hours for the results ceremony. I must admit once the pressure was over, I crashed out. I was physically and emotionally drained. I sat in zero gravity chair and just watched the world go by, I was absolutely shattered.
I truly thought I’d had a poor cook. I had a clean polo shirt but didn’t bother to get changed because I was convinced that I wouldn’t be called to go onstage. At this event you get a prize/trophy from 5th to 1st place in each meat category and there were 34 teams. You also get called up as the Grand Champion and Reserve Grand Champion.
I went to the award ceremony with a massive headache, all I wanted to do was to go through the awards and go home. Lamb and Chicken were the first 2 categories and as expected we didn’t get a call. Next was Pork Ribs, I thought ours were a little tight so didn’t expect anything. As they did the countdown, I wasn’t really listening, so when they called Hectors Smoke House in 1st place we were in total disbelief. We went up and received our prizes from USA BBQ Pitmaster Chris Lilley. It was incredibly strange, I didn’t feel as though I could really enjoy it, as it had come as such a surprise.
Chicken Turn In
Next was Pork Butt. Again I didn’t expect anything. We were still in a state of shock, laughing at ourselves and again not listening to the results, when we heard 1st place Pork – Hectors Smoke House. Wow, I had never placed in Pork before, this was unbelievable. We went up and once again were in total shock. I later found we were one point away from a perfect score, 14 – 9’s and one 8. Again we sat down and this time listened to Brisket and sure enough our name wasn’t called.
Near perfect Pork Butt
So we came to the big event – Grand Champion. I thought we might have a slight chance as we had had two 1st’s and our main competition hadn’t had too many calls. They quickly counted down from 5th to 3rd and we hadn’t been mentioned but one of our main competitors had. So I thought we must have a chance. Next they called the Reserve Champions and it was the other major competitor, so I’m thinking the impossible, it could be us. They then announced the Grand Champions – Hectors Smoke House. I was numb, this was our 3rd Competition, the largest prize pool ever in Australia and I never ever expected we would win a Grand Championship. All my partner could do was to swear in total disbelief. It then became a whirlwind, a mist achieving something that I never thought was possible. At that point we didn’t even know what we had won. Overall we took out $13k in cash and prizes and invites to some of the most prestigious BBQ Competitions in the USA, The American Royal and The Jack Daniels. Its now 2 weeks later, I am writing this article and am still in a state of disbelief. Nothing will ever come close to winning this. My wife and son were supposed to be cooking with me and my son had been rushed to hospital to have his appendix removed, we had had a really bad week and maybe this was some good karma coming back our way.