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BBQ competition is an addictive habit, masters say at The Taste

September 01, 2013|By Mary MacVean
  • Ryan Chester of Smoqued BBQ, Sylvie Curry of the Lady of Q barbecue competition team and Neil Strawder of Bigmista's Barbecue discuss techniques.
Ryan Chester of Smoqued BBQ, Sylvie Curry of the Lady of Q barbecue competition… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

When you fire up the backyard barbecue, friends come 'round and you're feeling pretty good at ribs or chicken. Maybe you are ready for the big time: competition barbecue?

For anyone who's tempted, the place to be Sunday was Paramount Studios for the Los Angeles Times' The Taste, where a panel of experts talked with Noelle Carter, The Times' Test Kitchen manager, about how they got their starts and what keeps them in the running.

For people who are great at one meat, listen up: Every competitor in most contests has to make chicken, ribs, pork shoulder and brisket. To win, pit masters have to be good at them all.

PHOTOS: Day 1 of The Taste

And this food is not necessarily the food you want to feed to friends.

You want your friends to "eat until they're leaning back patting their bellies," says Neil Strawder of Bigmista's Barbecue, which also caters and sells food at farmers markets. For competition, you want something else, to "snap that judge's head in one bite."

That usually means richer food.

And appearance counts.

PHOTOS: Food and fun on Day 2 of The Taste

Ryan Chester took up competition barbecue to promote his rub business, the Rub Co. First time out, in 2009, "we got our butts kicked," he says. Now he has Smoqued BBQ in Orange. 

To make the food look as good as it can, competitors will go to any length, he says, including picking flecks of pepper from a slice of meat to make it look perfect. "It's highly, highly competitive," he says.

In fact, Sylvie Curry, Lady of Q, says it's common to "deconstruct" a chicken thigh to slice out bits of fat that might make a judge wince. Cooks take off the skin, remove the fat and return the skin before cooking.

Carter asked the competitors what role their spouses play. Curry got enthusiastic applause when she revealed that her husband is her dishwasher. Strawder said his wife doesn't like competitions much, and Chester has small children, who are under his wife's care when he's competing.

Few people make a living at barbecue competitions, Chester said. Strawder said one way to help cover the costs is to get sponsors whose names might appear on his trailer and who might donate the meat. 

The meat can be costly, the panelists say. No one can expect to win without buying top-quality meats, paying as much as $200 for a brisket. Curry, who came to competition from her role as a food blogger when Strawder asked her to be on his team, competes once or twice a month.

Novices should consider taking a class in competition barbecue or becoming a judge for contests, the panelists said. The California Barbecue Assn. is a place to start.

They also discussed the merits of various smokers and other equipment, but Strawder put it best: "The perfect grill is the next one. This is such an addictive hobby." And an expensive one, they all said.

Carter, who was celebrating her birthday Sunday, took a question from a most familiar face in the audience: her father, Tom Carter of Newport Beach. He asked if his own barbecue made him competition-ready. Her answer: "As long as I'm not paying for it, yes, you are."

mary.macvean@latimes.com

Twitter: @mmacvean

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