Tip From the Pros by Mark Gibbs
by Mark Gibbs, Pitmaster of The Checkered Flag 500 BBQ
The Checkered Flag 500 BBQ has hit a nice stride this year. People have asked, “What has changed?” When are you going to have a class (self-serving plug my first class is September 2nd and 3rd and there are still spaces available!) But seriously, much of the success can be attributed to finding consistency from week-to-week and producing as close to the same product as possible as a result of simple, repeatable, proven processes. There is an old saying, “the cream always rises to the top”. I have heard that for years in both business and in sports. I really saw that saying in action in the BBQ world here in the Mid-Atlantic region. How is it that the same teams can always be found at the top of the results list week after week? 3 Eyz BBQ, winners of many contests and numerous MABA ToY honors are always right there every week. 4:20Q, Aporkalypse Now, Old Virginia Smoke, Lo & Slo and too many others to name are always right there even if they have taken a few weeks off. I wondered what they did to always produce winning results and here are my thoughts and observations that I have put in place in my own competition BBQ program.
- Repetition of a GOOD process results in consistency. When you find a process that works with a meat category, write it down! Put it in a spreadsheet and commit that process to memory. Successful teams did not start out cooking all 4 meats great. Most conquered one meat and repeated the process of finding that success with the other categories.
- Remember to do all of the “little things” consistently. Little things might be as simple as setting up your work area at the same time at each comp, loading your pit with fuel at the same time or lighting your pit at the same time. I noticed that successful pit masters could be in the midst of a conversation with me and just say out of the blue, “gotta run….I have to do something back at my site.” I realized I could set a clock to some of these guys doing the little steps each week. I try to do all of those things I mentioned above and more at the same time each week. That includes something as simple as tearing aluminum foil for everything on Friday after I trim meats. Consistent prep practices are your friend!
- Have you ever asked a top competition BBQ team how they did before awards and they respond with, “well, we hit all of our marks, so we will see”? Those guys just told you that they did everything according to a preset timeline that they repeat on a weekly basis. When a team can do that with a proven process, they will be successful more often than not. For me, hitting my marks is not like KCBS turn-in times. There is no five minutes before the mark and five minutes after that mark. If 3am is the time to put meat on the pit, that is my mark and I shoot for it every time. As a solo cook, you will rarely hear me say I hit my marks because it sounds self-serving, but teams with multiple members that are successful set and hit marks like a well-timed dance routine.
- Don’t be afraid to measure rubs, sauces and wrap ingredients (honey, sugar, agave, butter, etc.) until you find the process that works for you. I was a baker for a lot of years. Commercial baking uses formulas, not recipes to make breads and sweets. Recipes have room for change and are open to interpretation. Formulas are more precise. Competition BBQ results can hinge on a little bit of this or that in the wrong place making a big difference in your final product. Use shaker cups and measuring cups when measuring out sauces, injections and rubs. A sauce or rub mix is a formula, not a recipe! Be precise! Once you find the right combination, you may stick with those cups and bottles or you may be confident enough to shoot from the hip and measure by eye. I don’t recommend that, but I am guilty of it sometimes.
- Write down what processes worked or did not work on the back of the KCBS scoresheet that you get from a contest. Keep your contest results in a binder or folder and refer back to them when going to contests at those same venues or geographic areas. There is no substitute for experience at a contest and as the pit master, you have a wealth of information at your disposal after you have some contests under your belt. If the judges liked that hickory-habanero mint jelly combination on your chicken at the Sons of Italy Competition in New York City, write it down because you probably will not remember that next year!
- My final though is that looking back on my 76 competitions at the time I am writing this article I thought that my first GC would never happen. Three years into my competition BBQ career and no GC’s. I had category wins and a couple of RGC’s but I never saw my name at the top of the list. Well, financial advisor Dave Ramsey says, “Nothing happens without focus. Don’t try to do everything at once. Take it one step at a time!” Rarely does a new team or a team that does not compete much have a run of GC’s or top calls. It happens, but it is rare to see it. Focus on your competition program one step at a time. Build on successful processes, repeat them, learn from them and watch your competition program step up to new levels!
Most importantly have fun! That is what the sport of competition BBQ is about first and foremost. Success will follow if you keep it fun! I look forward to seeing you all on the BBQ trail soon!