It’s one thing to perfect your smoking and grilling skills at home. There comes a time when you want to see how you rank in the world of live fire cooking. Enter competition barbecue—where camaraderie meets cutthroat. We asked John Kennington of PitmasterIQ BBQ to describe his efforts to bring home the bacon (literally) at the World Food Championships in Las Vegas, Nevada. At stake? Bragging rights, not to mention a grand prize of $100,000! Do YOU compete in barbecue competitions? Tell us about your triumphs and tribulations.
My name is John Kennington and “pitmasterIQ BBQ” is my competition BBQ team. I, the pitmaster, my wife Barb, son Matt, and daughter-in-law Kristen form the team. We started competing in 2011, mostly in Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) sanctioned events, and have won a fair number of awards. In the past two seasons, we have outright won three contests, taken second place twice, and finished in the top ten 13 times.
A KCBS contest requires turning in chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder, and beef brisket. Some contests also have “ancillary” categories, mostly for fun and a little money. One contest we attended, Smokin’ On Big Creek, in Pleasant Hill, Missouri, had a Bacon ancillary that was actually a qualifier for entry into the World Food Championship bacon category. Matt and Kristen wanted to enter it.
They decided on a Bacon Brownie. After several iterations, they perfected a recipe made from Godiva chocolate morsels, butter, bacon, pecan pralines, and homemade salted caramel—amazing. Well, they entered it and got a score of 179, only one point from perfect, and won it! Off to the World Food Championships we went!
The World Food Championships is basically a TV show produced by A&E and recorded in Las Vegas. I suppose we’ll be in the bacon episode to be aired in 2015, though I don’t know for sure. The thing that differentiates the WFC from other TV cooking shows is that it is made up of average joes like me. You don’t have to be a chef, have a brother that works at Food Network, or even be Alton Brown’s neighbor. You only have to turn in a kick-ass brownie!
By October 18 of last year, we had just completed our final BBQ contest for 2014, and now the pressure was on. We had to formulate three bacon-centric dishes that would take us to the top. (by the way, top = $100,000.) We had only three weeks to develop, perfect, and practice recipes and timelines.
(You know what recipes are, but timelines are equally important in food competitions. Usually they are dry erase boards showing major steps like “2:30 – Cooks’ Meeting; 3:45 – Cook Bacon; and 4:20 – Turn In.” Being an electrical engineer and detail-oriented, mine are written in an Excel spreadsheet and look more like a NASA launch schedule.)
Three weeks is a ton of time to develop, test, and perfect three recipes, right? Well, no. We first had to test and eliminate a half dozen before finding the three to actually perfect and practice. Barb purchased over 35 pounds of bacon during our three weeks of testing, and if you could see me, you would have guessed it.
Our first entry would be our Signature dish—anything we wanted (with bacon—it is a bacon contest!). Our second had to incorporate eggs and satisfy a “brunch” theme. Finally, our third had to incorporate fresh corn or cornmeal. We chose “BLT Sliders,” “Quiche Lorraine,” and “Bacon-Corn Muffins” as our three entries.
At this point I must apologize and come clean. The aforementioned recipe titles are not the actual ones used, and I made them sound boring on purpose. You see, we worked hard on them, and intend to leverage them again in 2015. You yourself may read this and use them against me!
The WFC has nine categories of which bacon is one. The others are seafood, pasta, dessert, burger, sandwich, BBQ, chili, and recipe. Each category has three rounds: Signature, Structured (or theme), and Infused (or required ingredient). The top three teams from each category take home money: $2,500 for third, $5,000 for second, and a whopping $10,000 for first. The best part: The first-place team from each category meets at the Final Table, where the nine competitors go head-to-head for $100,000! Homer Simpson and I think that bacon would win every time, but last year, a carrot cake won.
Our first cook was Thursday, November 13, and we had from 3:15 PM through 5:30 PM to produce and turn in our Signature and Structured dishes. The entries are judged according to the “EAT” method, which means your score is based on Execution (35%), Appearance (15%), and Taste (50%). We felt our Taste and Execution scores would be high, but due to a lack of time, our Appearance score would suffer.
That night at the awards ceremony, we were delighted to learn that we would move on to the Top Ten round along with nine of our bacon-cooking peers with our 4th place finish!
Our Top Ten round was Saturday the 15th. There we produced our Infused dish, the bacon-corn muffin thingy. Of the 35 pounds of practice bacon, I think 34 pounds or so was devoted to practicing the first two dishes, clearly the most important. Unless you succeed and get to the Top Ten round. Then suddenly the third dish is obviously the most important. See where this is going? We had cooked the third dish only once, and not even up against the timeline. We knew it had amazing flavor, but the timeline was untested. So, we tested the timeline in Vegas.
Sometimes competition cooks go smoothly and you feel good about what you turned in, and sometimes not so much. But the bad feelings can sometimes mask the fact that, despite the execution difficulties, the final product was very good. Such was the case here. Our dish was the highest scoring of all our top-ten peers!
But the final category score is based upon all three dishes, not just the Infused. The first two dishes were averaged to produce our first round score. This score was then combined with the second round to produce our final score, which dragged us down just below returning champion Ricardo Heredia by just over one point. We missed a $10K payout, but got a $5K payout, so not a bad day!
Ricardo moved on to the final table to go up against carrot cake and whatever, and won the whole shebang, all $100,000.
Now this is the part of food competitions that drives you nuts, the “what ifs”: What if we had practiced our third entry against the timeline just once? We almost certainly would have turned in a product worthy of another point or two, which may have won us first place in bacon. Clearly this year’s panel of judges preferred bacon to carrot cake or whatever, so they most likely would have liked ours? Were we really that close to winning the WFC and $100K? We’ll never know.
Now get out there and find a qualifying event in your neighborhood! In anything except bacon, that is. Good luck, and see you at the Final Table in 2015!
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