Last weekend was crammed full of BBQ stuff and I feel like I learned so much in such a short time, and met so many awesome people. Last summer when I built my drum smoker, I also came across the Facebook page for Heavy D BBQ – the competition BBQ team that a friend from high school and his father started. They got in touch with me when they found out I was getting into BBQ, and I went over there to check out their custom built reverse flow smoker and to talk shop. They taught me a lot about how things work, and left me with an open invitation to join them whenever they do a pro competition.
Fast forward to this year – I had planned on entering more amateur competitions, and was curious to see what the difference between pro and amateur competitions was. I got in touch with David, and he invited me to come down with them to Crossborder Blues, Brews & Que in Wilson, NY. This was a Kansas City BBQ Society sanctioned event – and was the biggest one I’ve ever seen (and it would be considered a smaller event!).
Amateur/Pro Difference #1 – Pro competitions are multi-day events – at least 2, sometimes 3 if there are other side competitions, and for big events, even longer.
I made the drive down to Wilson (just over an hour from where I live in Hamilton – so actually pretty close), and met David, Donavan, and Pat where Heavy D had set up camp. He hadn’t started to prep any meat yet, and gave me a quick summary of what was going to be prepped, the order, and what times everything would be going on the smoker.
Amateur/Pro Difference #2 – CSBBQA/KCBS pro competitions have 4 meats: Brisket, Pork (shoulder/butt), Pork Ribs, and Chicken
Amateur/Pro Difference #3 – There are more strict requirements on sanitation – you need to have 3 wash bins for washing, rinsing, and sanitizing, and the ability to heat water.
One of the first things I noticed was all the different handmade rubs and sauces that David had brought. This stuck out to me, as I have one rub that I made that I use for both ribs and chicken, and 2 sauce variations that I use on them. David gave me a quick summary of the flavour profiles he uses, and had me taste the different rubs to learn the differences.
Amateur/Pro Difference #4 – More meats = more space needed to prep, more rubs/sauces to bring, more cooler space, more cooking capacity – noticing a theme?
Amateur/Pro Difference #5 – You provide your own meats – which must be held in a cooler at the proper temperature, which is verified during a meat inspection before any cooking can be done
The next thing I was introduced to was parsley. In amateur competitions we’re not allowed to place garnish in our turn in boxes, so there’s no worrying about decorating the boxes with parsley or lettuce. In CSBBQA/KCBS, garnish is allowed, and if not used will cost you points on your appearance scores. I watched as Pat painstakingly and carefully cut each individual sprig of parsley and arranged it. Definitely something to do ahead of time and worth practising. Also a good idea to know where you can find parsley close by – you never know what will happen between when you prep it and when you use it.
Amateur/Pro Difference #6 – Garnish – decorating your turn in box is allowed, and the rules on what can be used are very particular. (edit: I’ve been corrected since that garnish, while allowed, is not mandatory, and a box is not to be marked down if it doesn’t have garnish)
After the cook’s meeting, it was time for some dinner – prepared by the hosts of the competition, and then starting up on meat prep. David walked me through each step of the prep – how the meats are trimmed, rubs, sauces, injections, rest times, cooking times, and more importantly, the thought process behind everything. I was probably really annoying with all of my questions, but he was very patient with me and was great at explaining everything.
Amateur/Pro Difference #7 – Brisket and Pork take a long time to cook, and have to be started the day before turn ins
That night we walked around and chatted with a lot of the other teams. I met a lot of awesome people, talked a lot of BBQ and meat, and tried some interesting drinks. Everyone was really friendly and I really enjoyed the camaraderie and friendly competitive spirit of the whole thing. It was also really interesting to see the variation in the types of smokers being used. I saw everything there, from DIY pits to pellet fed cookers, to ugly drums, to vertical cabinet smokers. There were also a lot of Weber Smokey Mountains. A lot of teams had campers or trailers as well.
Amateur/Pro Difference #8 – There’s a lot more stuff to haul around, meaning a minivan is needed at minimum to move everything
Then, it was time to start cooking. David showed me how he lights and maintains temperatures in his smoker, and then the brisket and pork butts went on. Eventually I passed out, and learned another valuable lesson: folding camp chairs do not make for a good night of sleep. I slept on and off, and tried to pay as much attention as my sleep-deprived state would allow me. Later in the morning I claimed a spot on one of the zero gravity chairs, and got a little bit more decent sleep in.
Amateur/Pro Difference #9 – Sleep is at a premium when there are temperatures to be maintained in your cookers. A lot of people had BBQ Gurus that would automatically maintain the temperatures and would sound an alarm if they went too far off. That’d definitely be handy for an overnight cook. Also – zero gravity chairs are actually really comfortable for sleeping in.
The next morning, it was time to get the brisket and pork off and rested, and to put the chicken and ribs on. Again, I mostly watched, and held the occasional pan or opened the cooker door. I mostly just tried to help when I could and stay out of the way otherwise.
Everything seemed to be smooth sailing (other than a rolled ankle!), and David made sure to tell me that it usually isn’t like this. But at least on that day, all the meats finished when they were supposed to, and they were able to focus on getting one turn in done at a time. I learned about preparing a turn-in box, and sampled a bit of each category, and everything was delicious, especially the brisket.
Once everything was turned in, it was time to clean up, then wait for the award ceremony. Out of 31 teams there, Heavy D finished 5th overall, with a 2nd place call for pork, and a 7th place call for ribs! Pretty good results!
Amateur/Pro Difference #10 - There were calls for 1st-10th in each category, and trophies/ribbons/cash for 6th and up. This varies based on the # of teams entered. With amateur from what I have seen so far, there are calls for 1st-3rd overall, and prizes/trophies for 1st. Again, this varies from competition to competition.
Once everything was cleaned up, it was time to head home, with a quick stop to get some beer that’s not available in Canada (Blue Moon sampler pack!). I had an amateur competition the next morning, and I still had to finish prepping and packing the car.
Overall, it was a great experience, and a fantastic learning opportunity. I am very thankful to David, Donavan, and Pat from Heavy D for their hospitality and for sharing all their BBQ knowledge with me, and it was really fun to hang out with them for the weekend along with all the other teams.
I went out there to learn, and to see if it would be feasible for us to make the step up to pro next year. If anyone is thinking about the same thing, I highly recommend speaking to one of the pro teams to see if you can volunteer to help out at a competition to see what it’s like. We still have a lot of amateur competitions to do this year, so we’ll see how it goes, but if everything lines up right and we can manage, we just might give it a shot next year, hopefully joining the pros at Smoked to the Bone!