Every home cook likes to think their food is pretty good. This is usually reinforced by friends and family telling you how great your food is or even hint that you should open a restaurant. This is certainly an ego booster, but how do you know if your food is really that good or if they are just being nice because they know you?
The easiest method for obtaining objective feedback is to enter a cooking contest. There are barbecue competitions, chili cook-offs, backyard chef contests, and a number of opportunities to put your best food forward and get judged by people who don’t know you or your food. Scoring well and receiving positive comments here will provide validation that you really can cook. But walk away with a poor finish and you’ll begin taking your friend’s and family’s comments with a grain of salt going forward.
There aren’t very many open cooking competitions in the Michiana area, but the Backyard Chef Contest held at the Cass (MI) County Fair was in its third installment this year. Unlike some competitions that require you to cook a specific dish or something with a specific method, this contest has many different categories allowing you to come and make what you know best. Living in Cass County myself, I figured this would be the best opportunity to try my hand at competitive cooking. Other than a few chili cook-offs a long time ago, I’ve never done anything like this before. So, I had a chance to try competing and figure I can share my experience here so that anybody else who has thought about competing or was simply looking for a new competition to enter would have a better understanding of what this event is like.
2012 Backyard Chef Contest at the Cass County Fair
This event is held on the final Saturday of the Cass County Fair, which typically falls in early August. One of the nice things about this contest is that the entry fee is very low at just 10 dollars per category. When you compare this to some barbecue competitions that can charge 100 dollars or more just for entry, this makes it a great event for a first-timer. But don’t let the low entry fee make you think there’s nothing to win. In fact, the first place entry for each category wins $100. All second place entries win $50. Grand Champion (the chef/team with the highest two meat scores) wins $500, and Reserve Champion gets $250. While the money is nice, there are some huge trophies to take home. The Grand, Reserve, and 1st place side dish get trophies that are 2-3 feet tall. As an added bonus, the Grand Champion gets invited to be a judge at next year’s contest.
Speaking of categories, you have many options:
- Charcoal Beef
- Charcoal Poultry
- Charcoal Pork
- Propane Beef
- Propane Poultry
- Propane Pork
- Side Dish
As you can see, you can cook any or all of the three main proteins over your choice of heat source. If you’re comfortable on charcoal or wood, you can enter those. If all you’ve got is a propane grill at home that’s fine as well. It’s up to you and you could just enter one category, or enter them all. In fact, some teams brought both propane and charcoal grills/smokers and entered all six meat categories plus the side dish.
As far as cooking contests go, the rules are fairly standard. You must bring the meat to the competition in its original packaging. This means no advanced preparation of the meat is allowed so it maintains a level playing field. You are allowed to bring sauces, rubs, spices, and other ingredients. You must also bring a trash can and cleaning supplies and are required to maintain a clean cooking area at all times. Unlike some competitions, there is no electricity available on the site so make sure your dish doesn’t require things such as a blender or food processor unless you have your own portable power source.
Judging is blind and they roughly adhere to the KCBS scoring system that ranks appearance, taste, and tenderness on a 9-point scale. There are five judges and the lowest score is dropped, although that score is used to break a tie. Other than in the side dish category, the component being judged is the meat, so your goal should be to make the best looking and tasting piece of meat possible rather than making a complete entree.
Registration begins as early as 8 am, but cooking does not begin until 10. The turn-in times for each category are staggered so not everything needs to be done at the same time. Poultry turn-in is from 3:00-3:30 pm. Beef is from 3:30-4:00, and pork is 4:00-4:30. Side dishes can be turned in at any point between 3:00 and 4:30.
Outline of the Day
If you’re thinking about doing this event or any like it, be prepared for a long day. Getting up early and loading your equipment, checking in and setting up, cooking, judging, viewing awards, tearing the site down, and packing up to head home will mean you’re in store for a good 10-12 hour day. And when most of that time is spent outside in the 95 degree heat and humidity, it will wear you down.
My day started out early since it involved packing the meat into the coolers, loading the grill and smoker into the truck, and double and triple checking to be sure I had all of my cooking tools and ingredients. Whatever you do, be sure to get as much of this done the night before as you can. This means packing all of your non-perishables and tools into boxes or totes so they are ready to go in the morning. The last thing you want to be doing at six or seven in the morning is rushing around trying to find everything you need. Getting to registration early is also another good idea. You’ll have first dibs on choosing your site and getting everything set up before things start to get really busy.
We got there right at 8 am and after some initial confusion with fairground staff not knowing exactly where we were supposed to go, we got to the site and began unpacking the truck and setting up. I packed relatively light, but it was still quite a chore. We had to put up the 10′x10′ patio tent up, set up the tables and unpack all the boxes, assemble the cooking units, and set up the washing station. I’d make sure you give yourself at least an hour to get set up. Otherwise, my setup was probably the least elaborate of all the cooks in the competition. I simply brought my 18.5″ Weber Smokey Mountain smoker and a 22.5″ Weber charcoal kettle. Many teams had big gas grills, fancy smokers, and the whole nine yards. Don’t let that intimidate you.
Once the cooking area is set up and the fires are going, you’ll have a quick meeting with the event organizers to go over the rules and you’ll have an opportunity to ask questions. Once everybody is clear on the rules, it’s time to get cooking. Depending on what you’re making, you may need to get started right away, or you may not need to get anything on the fire for a while. In my case, I was cooking spare ribs for the pork category so I had to hustle so that I could get those on quickly because they usually take between five and six hours, so with a turn-in time of 4:00-4:30, that didn’t leave much time. So we got to work on those first by trimming them into a nice St. Louis cut and applied the rub so it could soak into the meat for a little bit before going on the smoker at 10:30.
With the ribs on, they needed little attention for a few hours, so the focus then switched to preparing the chicken, which had the earliest turn-in time. I was sticking to a true BBQ competition style preparation and was smoking bone-in chicken thighs. In hindsight, given the open nature of the category I probably would have scored better by doing something else, but this was good practice in the event I ever do a true sanctioned BBQ event. Once the chicken was prepped (fat scraped off the back of the skin, trimmed, and seasoned) they went back into the cooler since there was still plenty of time before they needed to be put on the smoker.
With the ribs on and the chicken prepared, we turned our focus to the side dishes. I was making two side dishes and while they weren’t complicated, all the prep work should get done ahead of time so that once turn-in times begin to roll around we aren’t frantically trying to do too many things at once. So all the onions, garlic, herbs, and tomatoes got chopped and sliced and tossed back into the cooler until they were needed.
When about 1 o’clock rolled around it was time to check on the ribs, and if they were progressing properly, time to wrap them in foil. While the smoker was open and being just two hours away from the chicken turn-in, it was time to get the chicken thighs on so they could get a good hour or so of smoke. While the chicken and ribs continue to cook, it was then time to fire up the grill to begin working on the side dishes. I needed to grill some portobello mushrooms and get a pot of water boiling to cook some green beans. My first big mistake was not practicing how long it would take to bring a 3-quart pot of water up to a boil on a grill. It took about an hour and I had to add more coals halfway through just to make sure it would get to a boil. Lesson learned. Unfortunately, this setback meant the grill had to do double duty while boiling water and finishing the chicken that was about to come out of the smoker.
While we managed to get the beans and chicken finished up, it was approaching 3 o’clock and that meant it was time to turn in the chicken. This is when things get chaotic. The chicken needs to be boxed, the rest of the bean recipe needs to come together, the mushrooms need to get on the grill for the second side, the ribs need to come out of foil soon, and oh no, beef needs to be sent to the judges starting in thirty minutes and I haven’t even pulled the steaks out of the cooler yet! All the walkthroughs you’ve done in your head can’t prepare you for the part of the competition where food needs to actually start getting turned in. Time goes so quickly and you’ve got so many different things going on at once it’s quite a challenge.
Below you’ll see the end result for chicken. It tasted great, but I’d be embarrassed to submit these in a true BBQ competition. The pieces were not uniform, and worst of all, the skin shrunk way too much. I was quite disappointed at the quality of the chicken when I opened the packages, but at that point you don’t have much of a choice other than to make the best of what you have.
With chicken out of the way it was time to turn my attention to getting the sides wrapped up and get the beef prepped. With a few helping hands the side dishes came together and were ready to be assembled while I was seasoning the steaks. Since the steaks only needed to be cooked to about medium-rare, I knew they wouldn’t need much time on the grill so even though the turn-in deadline was only 20 minutes away, I knew there was plenty of time. The red pepper and onion salsa to go on top of the steaks had already been prepared, so all I needed to do was get the steaks cooked perfectly, let them rest, and then slice and put the box together. So we rushed to get the sides assembled and boxed while the steaks were on the grill and got those out of the way.
Finally, steaks are done and resting on the cutting board, so with just thirty minutes to go for the pork deadline, we begin saucing the ribs. They need enough time for the sauce to set and will require a few coats. Once the beef is sliced and garnished, they are boxed up and sent off for judging. Here is the final beef product.
At this point, relief finally starts to set in. Everything has been turned in except for the ribs, and there’s still plenty of time to put the finishing touches on. After they come off the smoker we focus on cutting some thick double-cut ribs, hoping to get equal sized portions. Unfortunately, I was as unsatisfied with the ribs as I was with the chicken. One rack was really thick and meaty while the other was very thin. This meant uneven cooking and presentation. Not much you can do since you can’t open the package before the day of the competition so it is what it is. They sure tasted great, but it was not a competition quality box.
With the final entry turned in, it was a time to finally breathe. The last 90 minutes went by so quickly that I didn’t even remember to take pictures of the two side dishes. Oops. Now it was time to wait. The judges had to finish their duties, so the long cleanup process began. As if being on your feet and standing over a fire in 90+ degree heat all day wasn’t bad enough, now you’ve got to clean up the mess and start packing up when all you want is a cold beer and a comfortable chair. But knowing that the results were only minutes away, it was enough motivation to get the job done.
Waiting for the judges to compile the results seemed like it took forever even though it was little more than a half hour. But after putting in nearly nine hours of work you’re anxious to learn how you did. After a short wait they announced that the results were in and ushered us into the room where the judging took place. All of the entries (if there was anything left after judging) were sitting out on tables and we were invited to check them out and even taste the other entries. It was fun going around and chatting with other participants and exchanging bites of food, and there was plenty of good food out there. I couldn’t imagine being a judge and having to go through nearly 50 meat dishes and countless sides.
Finally, it was time to hear the results:
- Mark Vantobbergen, first
- Chris Archer, second
- Amy Archer, third
- Ryan Little, first
- Chris Archer, second
- Cherie Reeves, third
- Mark Vantobbergen, first
- Cherie Reeves, second
- Ken Ramsey, third
- Amy Archer, first
- Jeremy Vohwinkle, second
- Mark Vantobbergen, third
- Jerry Reeves, first
- Bill Brown, second
- Mark Vantobbergen, third
- Mark Vantobbergen, first
- Ken Ramsey, second
- Chris Archer, third
- Jeremy Vohwinkle
Reserve grand champion — Mark Vantobbergen
Grand champion — Chris Archer
Obviously, I’m quite happy to get a first and second place in my first time out competing. And let’s be honest, the nice trophy and prize money is pretty nice as well. It was a lot of work, but in the end it was fun and it was a challenge to put food up against some of the best amateur cooks in the area. If you’re looking for a local competition and don’t want to spend a ton of money or travel very far, this event is worth entering.
You may be wondering why I didn’t include pictures the winning side dish, but as I mentioned above, things got hectic and it was an oversight. But don’t worry, I’ve had so many requests for the winning recipe that I’ll be recreating it and posting it here on the site, so stay tuned! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got 11 months to perfect some new recipes. Hopefully I’ll see you there next year.