Secrets from inside the Judge's tent
Last weekend, I got a chance to loose my judging cherry and officiate at the 2nd Annual Connecticut Barbeque Contest. Podunk Bluegrass & Barbeqye Contest
This was my first KCBS sanctioned contest and I was really looking forward to it. To be completely honest, I was a bit nervous too. The winners of this contest would qualify for the Jack Daniel's Invitational - a really big deal. Jack Daniels Bar-B-Q Contest I didn't want to screw up.
I got to the contest early and walked around the competitors sites. This contest had some heavy hitters, includingThe Smoke Ring, I Smell Smoke, Zak's BBQ and a lot of other winners. Of course, my friends The BBQ-Brethren were there. All in all there were 22 teams competing.
I got there around 9:30, judging of food would be at noon, so all of the teams were beginning to ramp up for the contests. I got to check out some cookers I've never seen before. There were a few Klose Pits, some homemade, Weber Smokey Mountains, New Braunfels and Langs. I had never seen a Lang smoker before. They seemed to be the most popular units there. People were proudly showing off there equipment. (easy now!) Anyone I asked showed me how to their unit worked.
I got to ask lots of questions, what type of wood, how long did you cook it, what spices, do you mop, baste, inject? Anything and everything I could think of. Everyone I spoke with answered all of my questions and didn't make me feel like an idiot. And I didn't once hear, "sorry, that's a secret."
Again, and I can't emphasize this enough, EVERYONE I spoke with was friendly, humble, and open. Not one team said that they had the best food. Almost everyone pointed to another team and said, you should talk to them, they have more experience, or they have great brisket. No one was singing their own praises. BBQ folks are a pretty humble bunch.
So at 10:45 I head over to the judging tent for our pre-judging meeting. I got to meet a lot of new people. I was really surprised to meet a judge from Manhattan. (Forgive me folks, I don't remember any of your names.) I was really surprised to meet a woman judge who lives about 6 blocks from me in Brooklyn. What a small world.
We were called to order and a CD was played explaining the rules of judging the contest. Most, if not all of the judges at this event were Certified BBQ judges, CBJs. We were sworn in and pledged to be honest and then had a break before the food would begin to flow. At this contest, we judged Chicken, Ribs, Pulled Shoulder/Butt, and Beef Brisket. Each judge, judges 6 different samples in each category. These are the standard KCBS foods.
At noon, you could see the competitors begin to drop off their food. Man, those folks looked tired. The judges are kept away from the drop off tables, close enough to see, but not close enough to make contact with the cookers. KCBS sanctioned contests are blind judging. Once the food is submitted, the team numbers are changed so that the judges never know whose food we are judging.
The first category was chicken. The table captain opened each box of food and showed it to us to judge appearance. Once Jamie, our table captain said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, this is box number...." we all fell silent and started judging. Judges are not allowed to speak to each other while the food is being judged. We are not allowed to motion to each other or make faces either. Game face on! Just like a poker game.
I was impressed on how professional everyone was and how seriously we all took out duties.
Chicken being the first category, I probably ate too much of each sample. The majority of samples were chicken thighs, one was skinless and one sample was a mix of skinless chicken breast and chicken legs and thighs. Each contestant must submit at least 6 identifiable pieces of food, but there's nothing stopping a cook form submitting more, in fact, it's encouraged. (You need to feed the table captains!)
There was complete silence while we judged. I think we spent about 15 minutes eating and rating our each food category before we were all ready to discuss our decisions. Once all the score cards were submitted we'd critique each category asking, which one was best and which was worse, but no one compared scores.
Next came ribs. One submission was challenged on its presentation because the ribs were so perfectly aligned and glazed that it looked like one solid piece of meat. The official KCBS rep was called and he said that he could see the cut marks and we were allowed to judge it. Every cook is given "the benefit of the doubt" when it comes to judging.
Two of the ribs stuck together when they were removed from the box, but luckily the cook had placed extra ribs below the slab. However, these ribs underneath were both burnt and dry. Were they only in the box to prop up the slab? To make it look good? Unfortunately, one of the judges had to eat the bad ribs and the score reflected this. I learned here, don't put anything in the box that's not the best.
One other submission, in brisket, when we were taking our samples, what should have been two pieces came out of the box as one. Luckily, the cook had included more that six slices in his/her box, otherwise it would have disqualified. If you can, always put extra food in the box!
The pork was probably the hardest for me to judge. It's not a food that is native to NYC. Each sample here was unique. Some were pulled, others chopped and some sliced. Some where sauced with a red BBQ sauce, some dry and some with a vinegar/pepper sauce. Very interesting. The experienced judges seemed to prefer pulled pork to the other samples, but if a box contained pulled and sliced, we all tried it both ways. I guess the cooks were trying to please the judges by giving them what they liked best, but I think it worked against them. If the pulled pork was good, the slices weren't. And vice versa. As a judge you need to judge it all, so I know people lost points here. Don't try to give the judges everything, find a way that works best for you and ONLY do that.
To me, and to most of the judges at my table, the best tasting pork had the vinegar/pepper sauce. Talking with cooks afterwards, I was told that they all felt that it was risky to use that sauce in a contest in the Northeast. I guess regional tastes do matter.
By the time the brisket came around I was feeling pretty full. To be honest with you, the brisket at my table of six judges was awful. Every one was bad. I hate to say that because I know how hard everyone worked on their food, but it was my job to judge. Every piece I had was over cooked and dried out. Some had no flavor at all. In a way I was glad that this category had bad food, because by the end of it, I really didn't want to eat anymore. But, I did my best to be fair and gave, what I think are honest scores.
After each category is judged, all left over food is given to the table captains and volunteers to eat. You want to see who's winning, check out which box of food gets eaten by them. They get to try everything, and they get to pick the best. Of course, there's no way to know who's food it is since the boxes are identical.
Once the judging was complete, I got to go back out amongst the competitors and ask them how they felt they did. Everyone was very hopeful and felt they had submitted their best. It may not have been the best they ever cooked, but it was the best they cooked this contest.
Some of my friends asked me to try their food now, to see how it compared to what I ate inside the tent. I was really full, but tried to he nice and took some bites. I got caught by one team chucking the food out after one bite. It wasn't a reflection of their food, which was great, but the simple fact that I was STUFFED. I hope they weren't offended. They came in in the top 5 so they know their food was good.
I stayed around for the awards ceremony. It was great watching as every team cheered for all the winners. Some of those trophies were pretty heavy. I can't wait till I get my chance to claim one.
So, now I've been a judge and a spectator. I have to say that being a spectator is more fun, and more educational. As a spectator, I got to roam around and bullshit with all of the cooks. I got to try a lot of the food and I could pick who the winners should be. I could put a face with each piece of meat.
As a judge, I got to eat a lot of good and not so good food, but there was no way for me to know who the winners would be. When the winners were announced I was surprised as they were.
My next BBQ contest will be at Asbury Park, New Jersey. Check it out here: Guitarbeque Yes folks, this time I will be joining Phil and the rest of the BBQ-Brethren and COOKING. Phil is an incredibly generous guy allowing me to join his team. He's done really well in his past contests. I hope I don't screw up his winning record!
If you want to know what the rules are for Kansas City Barbeque Society sanctioned contest, check out this link... http://www.kcbs.us/contents/conjoinrr.htm