Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Hudson Valley Rib Festival

We had a lot of success early on in Q Haven’s competition barbeque career. We won grand champion in our second competition, and it seemed like the sky was the limit. This past weekend at the Hudson Valley Rib Festival in New Paltz, New York, it became abundantly clear that we are a rookie team with a great deal to learn.

In the barbeque competition, Q Haven finished 13th overall out of 42 teams. While that looks pretty good on the surface, a deeper look at the numbers shows that without a couple of major mistakes, we could have had a banner weekend. Instead, we sat and watched as nearly 40 trophies and envelopes of prize money were passed out Saturday and Sunday, and we received none of them.

Let’s start with the ribs. I made a few minor adjustments to the recipe, which worked out extremely well. I feel the flavor is excellent, and most of the judges agreed. However, I made a serious rookie mistake. The ribs were very tender, and were very close to “falling off the bone” tenderness. While this would be great for most of the general public, BBQ judges are trained that falling off the bone tenderness is an overcooked rib. This caused two judges to punish us with low tenderness scores (one was a 5) and that cost us a call. In ribs we finished 8th.

Chicken. I just can’t figure these little things out. We took a big step backwards in chicken, even though we all thought this was our best effort yet once the box was turned in. However, it’s clear to me that I cannot figure out how to get the skin either tender or crispy enough to satisfy the judges. Our chicken finished in 31st place.

Brisket, however, was by far the biggest disappointment for me, as we had taken two second places in our first three competitions in this category. The problem started before we even arrived at the contest site. When I arrived at my butcher to pick up the brisket, he had two Certified Angus Beef briskets for me, but both were much smaller that I had asked for. My best briskets have been between 13 and 15 pounds, but these were barely eleven pounds each. Naturally, I overcooked them too, and the meat was dry.

An experienced pit boss would have changed strategy at this point, and sauced the brisket before turn in to try and mask the dryness. I turned the brisket in dry, and two judges really hammered it. The KCBS scoring system throws out the lowest score, but you cannot afford to get low scores from two of them and expect to get a call. The brisket finished in 19th place.

The real positive from the event was our improvement in pork shoulder. We came in next to last in pork in Lake Placid, so it was clear that major changes were needed. These changes were effective, and pork finished 12th out of 41 entries. That’s a big improvement, something to build on in the future.

So overall, 13th out of 42 is pretty good. But it could have been so much better without the rookie mistakes.

Our turn-in boxes have looked better, too. Overall, it’s hard to point to the boxes as a reason for our mediocre showing. Most of the appearances scores were 7’s and 8’s, with a few 9’s and only one 6. Our average appearance score was 7.6. However, the lettuce looked shoddy in several of the boxes, and we clearly left some appearance points on the table that could have helped us overall.

Without getting into too much detail, several rookie mistakes were made in the grilling competition on Saturday as well. We made swordfish with a spice rub, and I thought it tasted great, but apparently it was not the type of fish the judges were looking for. Our pork chop entry ended up being a disaster. The sausage was delicious, and it took 8th, our best finish in the event.

The steak was 100 percent my fault. I decided we should do a strip steak, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. However, many teams turned in rib eyes and prime rib, and our entry must have seemed very tough against those much more tender cuts of meat. Live and learn. We finished 13th overall out of 24 in the grilling event.

So now what?

I’m definitely bummed about our showing, and so is Sheila. I’m sure Cristiaan and Kim are not happy about it either. As pit boss, I made most of the calls that led to the low scores, and I take full responsibility for our scores. I have done a lot of soul searching in the last day and have a newfound motivation to get better.

Every competition, I learn a thing or two. This one shows me that I need to avoid the distractions that can pop up and react better to adversity on the fly.

I got really frustrated by the torrential rain Saturday night, more because we had planned to have a big feast, and it completely disrupted the evening. But now that I look back, we are there to compete, not to cook up big feasts or drink to excess. There is plenty of time for fun, but I have to keep my focus.

Now, the next competition for us might be the Jack Daniel’s World Championships at the end of October, if we are lucky enough to get our name drawn. If we do go, we will have to be a lot better than we are right now. I will not go down to Tennessee and embarrass myself at the Super Bowl of competition barbeque. While I’m sure it will be fun, it will really be a business trip and I will make sure we bring our A-game.

If we are not invited to the Jack, then our next competition will be in 2007. That will give me a lot of time to practice.

No comments: