By Luke Gelman
1. an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.
2. “team sports such as baseball and soccer”
1. (competitive) game(s), physical recreation, physical activity, physical exercise, athletics;
3. “we did a lot of sports”
Yeah, I looked it up because BBQ is a sport. I just got home from a grueling competition between almost 60 teams of professional athletes. They compete on TV, they win money, they are on teams, there is a first place and a D.A.L… dead ass last. I’ve competed for 5 years and I can tell you I am more physically beat down after a BBQ comp than I ever am after a day of golfing.
Like I said, I just got home. I spent last night and today at the Westmont Red White and BBQ competition. Its one of the most serious BBQ competitions for a number of reasons. A big one is that it’s what you call a double comp meaning that there are 2 competitions back to back in one weekend. Its like a BBQ endurance marathon lasting more than 48 straight hours with little sleep and sitting next to hot fires and bathing in smoke for endless hours. My buddy calls competition BBQ extreme camping. He’s not all wrong.
What makes Competition BBQ so challenging are the variables. You have to cook 4 different meats that range from a few hours to cook like chicken to over twelve hours with pork and brisket and turn them into judges thirty minutes apart in 10 minute windows. So my pork for example would go on the pit at around 11pm and be turned in at 1pm the next day meaning 12:55pm-1:05pm. Then you factor in things like weather because if it’s cold or raining it will take longer, hot it might be a little shorter. Also factor in meat quality because if you get bad meat (like a brisket with an odd fat line) it will effect your cook. Or you have something like my buddy Chris did where your downhill from a leaky garden hose and your entire cook area is wet and muddy making everything uncomfortable. The good news is that after practicing a ton you gain a rhythm that makes competitions easier but no two cooks go exactly the same way.
I wanted to visit a number of friends I’ve made over the years at various BBQ competitions. I typically do about 5 per year and I would say over half of the people there I see every time. There are about 6 competitions within a two hour drive from Chicago each year and mine always start in Westmont ending the year in Libertyville. Westmont is the hardest because it draws the best teams. Part of the reason is the double comp I mentioned earlier. Double “KCBS Qualifying Comp” means that a team going for KCBS Team of The Year can set up once and cook twice, get two chances to win and get double the points in one weekend. You don’t get that many opportunities per year to do this. Its the only double comp I know of and overall most people seemed to like it. KCBS BBQ comps have a Nascar style scoring system for team of the year. Because BBQ is a sport.
One of the coolest things about a BBQ competition is the smell, it’s like a million backyard BBQ’s all happening at once. Westmont smelled amazing. The first person I ran into was a great BBQ guy and friend named Duane from Hot Racks BBQ. He owns Hot Racks catering and he comes to compete. Very serious, very good BBQ Pitmaster. He had a sweet new trailer with a sleeping area, air conditioned kitchen and a new Rebel gravity fed smoker hanging off the back with a kimono grill sitting next to it. Its an awesome setup, just like cooking at home. The elements have zero effect on a setup like this.
After saying hi to Duane and his wife I walk past Scottie and his Jambo pit smoker which looks like a hot rod next to his RV. Scottie runs CancerSucksChicago.com and he’s from Westmont but has competed in almost every state. Not only does Scottie kick ass but he has hair like NFL Head Coach Rob Ryan. The biggest difference is that Scottie wins championships and does great cancer fundraising, he is a big name in the local BBQ scene.
The next person I ran into was Brian from Designated Smoking Area. BBQ teams have great names. Believe it or not but i met Brian at Baconfest because I noticed he had a KCBS tattoo. Brian and his better half Laurie are BOTH KCBS master judges and Brian has been competing for a few years. I joke that my BBQ is better but I hear his name called out at comps a lot more than I hear mine. He has a cool RV that used to haul motorcycles but has been converted for BBQ.
After Brian I walk past two giant RV trailers, one was Tim’s Full Belly Deli and next to him is IBQin. Both could be the two tougher BBQ competitors at the competition. Both are amazingly nice and Tim is extremely generous with his BBQ, and I tried both of their BBQ and of course, it was amazing. Tim just won a Grand Championship and I hear his name a ton even though he hasn’t competed that long. His story is that he basically criticized Myron “The Winningest Man in BBQ” for not having a phone number on his website. Next thing you know Myron calls him, makes a bet with him, wins that bet, then takes Tim, dips him in BBQ magic turning him into a BBQ Jedi and now Tim wins, a lot. He had a giant Myron Mixon smoker which actually steams and smokes meat simultaneously. It’s wild.
Richard from IBQin is no slouch either. He just won the Sams Club BBQ comp which is kinda like the NCAA of BBQ comps. You have to do well in a local and regional comp which is close to impossible, then make it into the final competition. There you have to beat the best to win that. Richard won that plus a ton of other comps so if you are competing here, you are competing against those guys so good luck with that.
Finally I met up with Chris from Mr. B’s BBQ. He has a new BBQ joint on the north side of Chicago. He was sporting a new giant stick burner (its a big smoker that uses whole logs as its fuel). It burns sticks. I admire Chris a lot because he is a trained chef and he wanted to own a BBQ restaurant and he did that. Its been open a month and it’s on the Yelp “Hot and New” restaurant list. He was there with his brother Greg and a buddy who was kinda drunk hitting on a carnival worker.
My connection with Chris and Greg was that we were next to each other at our first BBQ competitions. He had seven mis matched Weber kettles grills and I had an 18” Weber Smokey Mountain and a 22” Weber kettle. He was there with his brother, I was there with my brother. It was a big part of why I decided to keep competing after my first competition and after coming in second to last place. A common trait among BBQ competitors, not letting failure hold you back.
I was there to find out why people get into BBQ competitions. I knew my story, I was into Competition BBQ because I saw it on TV. I was blown away so I looked it up and there was a BBQ competition 45 minutes from my house so I called my brother and we decided to go. Chris’s story was pretty similar.
I have eaten BBQ from almost all of these guys and I can tell you their food is among the best BBQ you could eat. Its funny because I ask them what they think of their own BBQ and all of them say it’s ok. Competition BBQ is different than BBQ you would eat at a restaurant. Its so meticulously cooked to the point where every bit is an explosion of flavor. Its cooked so that when a judge bites into it they have the ultimate BBQ experience. These guys are the professionals of this sport and the practice extensively.
I asked each of them why they got into competition BBQ. No one grows up dreaming of becoming a Professional Competitor on the BBQ trail. It made me think of basketball players and when they decided to go pro… highschool? College? It doesn’t happen like that with professional BBQ competitors. Most of these guys started cooking in their back yards and at some point they caught that BBQ bug. It then turns into smoke in your veins and you can never ever get it out.
Each of them all started similarly. They all liked grilling, a few of them grew up around restaurant people, some of them had a passion for cooking but not all of them. And then through different means they all acquired a smoker. The only one who said they didn’t really cook before catching the BBQ bug was Shawn from Mac Attack BBQ (a serious BBQ competitor from Michigan). he was asked by a friend to be a part of his BBQ team. After that he was hooked.
An interesting thing was hearing from these world class professional BBQ athletes was their beginnings in BBQ. Two of them used to boil their ribs. I asked both when the last time they boiled ribs and they both disgustingly laughed because NO ONE SHOULD BOIL RIBS. You’re making rib stock if you do. Ugh.
Some of these guys got smokers as gifts, A few took BBQ cooking classes. Dylan said his family cookouts were a big influence on his BBQ upbringings. Dylan is a mac daddy player on the BBQ scene and will probably be BBQ famous one day. By day he’s the Executive chef at Blackwood BBQ in Chicago and Food and Wine just did a write up on him for having the best hangover food with a burnt end, biscuit, sausage and gravy breakfast. It looked amazing. All of these Pitmasters started with a cheap little smoker and used it to blow away their friends and families minds with amazing BBQ. One thing I thought was cool was that Richard built his first pits from oil drums.
From there each and every one ended up at a BBQ competition one way or another and discovered what they already knew, that meat and grills attract very cool people. Every BBQ competitor will tell you that it’s the people that keep them coming back. It’s the same thing that Michael Jordan said when he retired from basketball… he would miss the people. BBQ people are the nicest people you will ever meet. Don’t believe me? Ok…
Heard of Operation BBQ relief? Its a charity that BBQ competitors dreamt up where when a natural disaster like a tornado destroys a town leaving people with nothing, these guys go out and give away award winning BBQ to nice people at one of their lowest points in their lives. They have no homes, maybe a car, everything they own is lost. It would make you cry. BBQ competitors figured that these towns didn’t have electricity or food and water and they can cook BBQ without electricity. Makes sense right?
Nowadays these guys have spent thousands and thousands of dollars and more hours of their lives practicing BBQ than they can recall. Just like any athlete. Some of their rigs were amazing. They were like homes away from home. The serious competitors do 10-20 competitions a year. A lot of guys will do 5-10. But they are all in, pot committed putting it all on the line all summer long. They are out there to win for their pride and bragging rights but for almost all of them, it’s not about the money. They all have real jobs to go back to next week but today they were weekend warriors. The best of the best.
That’s the thing about competition BBQ that’s so cool. You bond with people who love hanging around smokers eating, drinking and making friends. Every competition I go to my BBQ gets better. I pick up a tip or idea and try it out. Each one of these guys is easily the best BBQ chef in their neighborhood and this is just a sampling of the handful of guys I know fairly well. It didn’t take much to send them on a wild fun path that lead them to become professional BBQ competitors. If you’re reading this thinking about BBQ this article might be the thing that gives you that itch, but be warned, it’s addictive.
As I say to them, good luck.
Oh yeah, here are the results from the mentioned teams…
58 total teams
3rd place, Tim’s Full Belly Deli (1st place pork plus a call)
7th place, Rackmasters with 2 calls
8th Place, Mac Attack (1st place Chicken)
11th place, IBQin with a call
17th place CancersucksChicago.com
36th place, Dueces Wild
40th, Heritage Smoke
43rd, Mr. B’s BBQ
If you tried any of these guys BBQ you would have thought it was amazing. Oh, and you’ve gotta have a sense of humor.