By: Chef John Cox
The idea was simple enough; take three fine dining chefs from California and enter them blindly into a Texas Barbecue Championship. To be fair, two of us were born in Texas, but other than having enjoyed the occasional plate of brisket, we knew next to nothing about the art of smoking meats.
Just filling out the online application was exciting; thoughts of the camaraderie that can only be achieved huddled around the warmth of the smoker on a cool Texas morning, of eating mounds of ribs and brisket off butcher-paper lined trays, of slicing that perfect piece of brisket with its cherry-red smoke ring and cascade of glistening fat. I could hear the judges applauding our innovative use of Koji and Balinese pepper and other contestants asking for our secret recipes.
Reality began to set in somewhere around Amarillo, looking at the tow functions on the dashboard of the Ford F250 while passing cattle trailers on a stretch of lonely highway. Forget about the brisket, I didn’t even know how to haul a trailer, let alone pull one through traffic on Central Expressway in Dallas!
Twenty four hours of cramming in every barbecue related podcast and stopping at every “award winning” bbq pit, did little to allay my fears. My only consolation was that at least we had a few days to work with our brand new custom smoker before we had to jump into the deep end of competition. I was scheduled to pick the smoker up the next morning in Ennis and hoped I would feel better once everything was hitched up and battle ready.
Ten minutes later my phone rang; the smoker was behind schedule and wouldn’t be ready for pickup until the day before the competition! Feeling helpless and mournfully unprepared for the embarrassment and ridicule that would now inevitably summarize the competition, I purchased a backyard smoker on clearance from Home Depot so at least we could practice one brisket.
When the day to pick up the smoker finally arrived, I had become comfortably numb with our predicament. I practiced backing the thirty-foot monster along the country road a few times, and then headed toward Central Expressway, merging lanes and exiting with a mix of profanity and prayers. Under the cloak of nightfall, late into the evening when the freeways were empty, we made our way to San Angelo.
Once our trailer was parked and we began to unpack our ingredients, we regained a certain level of confidence. After all, all forms of cooking share a similar set of rules and techniques, so whether you are smoking a brisket or making classic Beef Wellington, a competent cook can usually extrapolate recipes based on prior experience (or so we told ourselves at the time).
At 4 a.m. everything was inside the smoker and only required the occasional turn and probe with a thermometer. We talked with neighboring teams and were grateful for both their advice and Texas hospitality. As the sun came up and the last bottles of apple-pie moonshine were being drained, we were feeling pretty good. Exhausted, we hoped to blend into the crowd for judging and simply celebrate the fact that we made it to the competition in one piece and would hopefully have something edible to show for it.
Poppers were the first category and as expected, our team got no mention. Ribs were up next; again, no mention. Although one of our neighbors now called us the “kumquat boys” – a questionable reference to the tiny oranges we had used in our rib glaze.
Looking back up at the stage we heard…“and the Grand Champion Chicken is awarded to The Bear and Star!” We looked around the crowd before realizing he was talking about us! We jumped of our seats with joy and collected our championship buckles.
With the pressure officially off, we took a deep breath and began to relax, only to be called up to the stage a few moments later to be awarded 3rd place in brisket and 3rd place overall! It was in incredible feeling and whether earned by luck, skill or a mix of the two, our team couldn’t have been more elated.
In the end, the tour was more than I could have dreamed. Not only did it help bring together our culinary team, it also instilled in us a true admiration for the art of smoking and the warmth of Texas hospitality.