Monday, August 22, 2011

Saratoga Springs

As soon as I pulled out of the Harpoon parking lot I began thinking about what to do next. I knew there was a Friday-Saturday contest five days later in Saratoga Springs, with a relatively small field and $12,000 in prize money. Decided, why not make the drive up there and throw a dart at the dartboard? Figured that even on a bad day we could win enough of the prize money to cover fuel costs. Unfortunately, all we won was gas money.

Since my work days off are Friday-Saturday, didn't have to worry about getting time off, which is helpful. I can get Sundays off but don't like to dump that on my bosses on short notice.

Got to the site, which was a harness racing track and casino. Looked like a nice place, although I didn't explore at all.

As soon as I got the trailer unpacked and the basic set up done, the skies opened up. Naturally. Fortunately it poured for 15 minutes and and was great the rest of the two days.

The contest site itself was great. It was the first time I have ever met the organizer Arlie Bragg, but I knew going in that he runs some serious events. I wish more organizers had come up to see how he runs things, as the guy clearly knows how to take care of the teams. There was awesome power, as my air conditioner was on from the moment we arrived until I pulled out to leave and we had no problems. He also built a fenced in area with a full restaurant dish washing station, a commercial ice cooler filled with bags and bags of ice, and ash dump exclusively for the teams. As contest setups went this guy is first class.

Our site.

We were set up with Meat@Slims next to us and Sean Keever and Big Guns BBQ behind us. Couldn't have asked for better neighbors.

Sheila had to work all weekend and did not make the trip, but we made some basic garnish boxes and I brought them to the site, where they were transferred to the actual boxes. This was our first time trying this method and we will definitely do this again. On turn in day, my sisters Jenny and Kathleen fine tuned the boxes, including doing touch up with parsley I have been growing on my patio. The home grown stuff is really nice, next year I will be raising an entire parsley garden.

But our turn in boxes looked great. Best appearance scores we have ever had, all but three scores on the entire sheet were 8 or 9. A lot of that had to do with the overall massive scores that were being handed out at the event, but I feel we deserved the high scores.

Anyway, on to the meat. Chicken I thought came out decent, but was a little on the salty side. It took 7th place call out of 16 teams. Ribs were next, I thought they were good, but they were also 7th place. With such a small field I knew I was screwed as far as winning the contest and the $3,000 first place. Bummer.

Anyway, pork was a disaster at Harpoon, and I was determined not to let that happen again. Another call, this time 6th place.

Final category was brisket, and while it was decent, I just wasn't happy with the results, but it was good enough for 4th place. Although the category score was a 173, which at most contests is good enough to win the category. But this was a weekend of massive scores, the trademark of upstate New York contests.

So in the end we were 5th overall, and walked away with a mere $325 of the $12,000 prize purse. It's ok though, sometimes you go to an event just to have fun and wind up winning some dough, other times you go with the goal of trying and win money and end up having a great time. That's what happened here.

Was the first time that I was able to get a massage after turn ins. Was a nice way to end what was a a fun weekend of BBQ.

Monday, August 08, 2011


The weekend of July 23rd and 24th brought the Harpoon New England Championship BBQ in Windsor, VT, one of our favorite weekends of the year. We always have a great time at Harpoon, and this year was no different.

Arrived around noon after an uneventful drive. Usually the drive up to Harpoon is relatively easy, a clear shot up Interstate-91, but the states of Massachusetts and Vermont decided to add a layer of challenge this year. Numerous bridges are being repaired, and they have them closed down to one narrow lane, with around an inch clearance on each side of the trailer. Amazed I did not clip the trailer at least once, it was really close.

Cristiaan and I got on site around noon Friday. Went to lunch at the brewery with Mike and Kris of Lakeside Smokers, was great to see them again as always. Great lunch, and afterwards members of our team for the weekend started to trickle in. Some of pour longtime friends were coming up for the weekend, including John Kozub, who introduced me to my wife and was in our wedding. Also there were Bill Bonato and his wife Sue, who we have been friends with for a long time. They were coming to enjoy the event for the first time and help us with vending.

My Mom came out too, her first contest since my father passed away last October. It was great to have her at a contest again.

KCBS is Saturday at Harpoon, and NEBS grilling is Sunday. Teams are also allowed to sell their food at Harpoon, which is good and bad. The good is that you can make money, the bad is that it can distract you from the reason you are there in the first place, which is to try and win the contest.

Overall the KCBS contest cook went ok. I have been working on some changes to my chicken recipe, as it has always scored decently but has never been first place. Clearly my changes have gone the other way, as chicken was 20th place out of 40. Back to the drawing board.

I was determined to cook better ribs than our last time out at New Hampshire, where they were 33rd out of 39. That was completely unacceptable to me. Harpoon ribs came out much better, and were 5th.

Pork was where I really screwed up. Distracted by the vending and overall zoo around me, I neglected the pork. It was done too early and all I really had to turn in was mush. It finished 24th, and I was shocked that it finished that high.

Brisket was another story. I normally only cook one brisket at contests but at Harpoon I cooked two, knowing I could sell it all. I cut into the first one and it just wasn't exactly where I had hoped, so I tried the second one and it was right on. The judges confirmed this, and it was second place.

Overall, we were 6th for the contest. Our good friends at Lakeside Smokers won, which was awesome. If we are not going to win I want them to, and they nailed it. Nailed the whole weekend, as they also won the grilling contest the next day.

Think I am going to leave the discussion about the grilling contest out completely. No calls, and a pedestrian finish of 15th overall. I did not put my best foot forward here and it showed. I think the food was ok but you really need to take it to the next level when it is open garnish and such a strong field of teams. Also, I stubbornly refuse to cook a dessert for chef's choice, even though I know that it what has been hitting.

12th place wings.

Cooked ABT's for chef's choice. A disappointing 16th place.

But overall it was a great time, especially cooling off in the river after a long day Saturday. Truly a highlight of the weekend for me.

Harpoon was great as always. While we did not win the ultimate prize, we got a couple of good calls and had a blast with some great friends. To me, that's what it is all about.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Really falling behind with my blogging these days. I'll catch up eventually.

Made a last minute decision to cook Grill-n-Daze, a one day grilling event in Southwick, Massachusetts on July 17th. I originally was just going to go up and vend, but when the organizer told me that I wouldn't have to pay the vending fee if I competed, I decided why not just enter the contest as well.

I originally thought the contest was on Saturday. However, a few days before I was informed that the event was actually Sunday. This would not have been a problem if I did not have to work that Sunday, and would never be able to get it off on such short notice. It just meant that I had to cook all day and write all night. Needless to say it was an extremely long night.

Mostly this event is cooked by locals. I arrived Saturday afternoon, just me and Max. At first I was a little confused about the contest location, because there was not a sole there. But I was in the right place. Bob of Smokey O's came down and we went to lunch at one of the local spots, it was a nice afternoon.

I had heard there were huge crowds at this event in years past, but it was extremely hot and that kept some of the people away. But we sold all of our ribs and had a good time there.

The contest had me a little worried. It was one of those deals for an established team that many consider a no win situation. If we do well, people would say that we are just beating up on the backyard teams. If we don't do well, people would say "haha, you lost to a bunch of backyarders." But I decided that I really don't care what people say any more, and I'm just going to do what I want to do and have fun doing it. So we entered three of the four categories, chicken, beef and pork.

I viewed this as a tune up for Harpoon, cooking my competition chicken and pork recipes, and beef short ribs for the beef category. I quickly found out that I would not be able to practice presentation, because the turn in boxes we got were literally half the size of the usual ones we get at KCBS contests. I literally crammed six pieces of each category into the box and turned them in with no garnish.

Awards came, and no call for chicken. Here we go...not a good sign. Then came pork, first place. Beef, first place. Really cool trophies, mini-Weber grills. Overall we had a good time, very different than most contests we cook, and we met some great people. That's what its all about.

I'll try to get the Harpoon post up soon. In the meantime, I am heading up to Saratoga Springs, NY Friday to cook the Taste of BBQ Nationals event at the raceway.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

New Hampshire

Had a great time at the New Hampshire Rock-n-Ribfest last weekend. This was our first KCBS contest since Norwalk in September, so I was anxious to see where we would stack up after such a long layoff. Overall I was happy with the results, with a few major exceptions.

Arrived on site at around noon Friday. It was just me and Max, with Sheila coming up later in the day. We were a little concerned because it would be just the three of us, with nobody to help out with Max. Since he is almost three, he obviously requires a lot of attention. But he was just great all weekend, especially KCBS Sunday when he kept himself occupied and just did his own thing right through turn-ins.

Anyway as I started to get the setup going, it began to rain pretty hard. So I scrambled to get the pop up tent open, so I could unload everything from the trailer and put it all under there to stay dry. Unfortunately, it is somewhat difficult to open one of those EZ-ups solo, and I snapped it. "Hello Sheila, can you stop by the house and pick up the backup tent before you come up?"

Friday night was a great time. I always love Friday nights at a Saturday-Sunday contest. There is no pressure to be up early Saturday, so we can hang out and have a good time. I don't get out a whole lot in my day to day, as I work at home now, so I really like being able to visit with people and have fun on nights like these.

As usual, we had a blast hanging out with the Lakesides. We spent a lot of time under a tent city, as several teams had pooled their pop up tents and created this huge space. Charlie Cicero of Mighty Swine Dining shared a proscuitto with us that had been curing in his walk in refrigerator for a year and a half, it was outstanding. Some fine tequila and Gentleman Jack was also shared. We had a great time with old friends and made a few new ones along the way.

Saturday was grilling. I was feeling good about the sausage and pizza categories going in, but as documented in a previous post I was not thrilled with the salt water fish fillet category. It sure did show, as I put together a horrible entry that came in dead ass last. It was fish tacos, and the fish was blah, the tortillas were too doughy, the salsa too watery and it just bombed, rightfully.

The good news was that the pizza took second place and the sausage was third. Sheila made shrimp wraps for the shrimp category, and they finished in the middle of the pack somewhere. I liked the entry though.

So we were 13th overall for grilling. I was able to laugh the fish entry off for the most part publicly, but in reality I am upset at myself about it. I could have just grilled up some salmon and dumped butter all over it and finished much better than dead ass last. Why I decided to do fish tacos I have no idea. And if I am going to do something outside my comfort zone, it might help to practice it first.

Anyway, it was on to the BBQ contest. It was just me, Sheila and Max at this contest. We had no visitors, no guests and really were able to focus on prep. Everything went well heading into the overnight.

Woke up Sunday morning and the smokers were chugging along just fine. However, when I temped my pork it was ahead of schedule. I had to nurse it to the finish line, and did not like the finished product. Shows what I know, as the judges scored it third place. I chalk this one up to being able to make last minute adjustments, something that was never my strength but I have been working on it. I used to just put the meat in the box and just turn it in. But I have learned subtle adjustments can be made that make a big difference.

Unfortunately there were no such adjustments that could save my ribs. For some reason they just tasted off. I can't really put my finger on it, but something wasn't right. Judges confirmed it for me, 33rd out of 39th. Ouch, I would have to go back and check but I think this was my worst ever rib finish. I thought the box looked atrocious too, although the appearance scores were not too bad.

Chicken was ok, 16th place.

I was a little concerned about brisket going in. I had not cooked a brisket since the Norwalk contest (although we took first place brisket there). Also, the current trend has many teams using these fancy, waygu briskets from cows that are hand fed by virgins and massaged daily. I still buy my briskets at Restaurant Depot, but I have gotten better at picking them out. But there is always the concern that using a lesser meat will eventually hurt me in the end.

Usually you have a good idea what you have with brisket when you make that first cut. I liked it, and as I cut further I felt pretty good about it. The box looked great, and the brisket was 3rd.

The low rib score dragged us down, and we were 8th overall. Overall, I came away happy, eight categories over two days, and four of them in the top three. Could have been a lot worse.

The bummer is that it looks like our next KCBS contest will be at Harpoon. That's a month away. I wish it was tomorrow.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Cape Cod, New Hampshire

Well the Cape Cod BBQ Championship is in the books. This was the second year I organized it and it seemed like more work this time around. But it's over, and I am relieved. I haven't cooked a KCBS contest since September, but I have organized or helped organize two events since then. These experiences have reminded me that I enjoy cooking contests a lot more than organizing them. But I will be running Cape Cod again next year, but I plan on keeping things a lot simpler.

The good news is that the cooking starts this weekend in Merrimack, New Hampshire at the New Hampshire Rock-n-Ribfest. This was our second ever contest in 2006, and we won it that year. It is not the best contest in the world, with huge crowds and small prize money, but we keep going back. I like looking across the field at the spot where we cooked that year, it seems like so long ago. Especially since we have not won a contest since then.

Looking at the forecast I am beginning to worry that we may be dealing with more of the mud that made that 2006 contest such a mess for everyone. Hopefully I'm wrong.

So I am excited about getting up there for the weekend. I have been packing, unpacking, cleaning, trimming, and planning all week as we get ready to cook this one. The grilling will be a little screwy, with shrimp and salt water fish fillet as two of the categories, and pizza and sausage as the others. I was tempted to just say "screw grilling" and skip it but we are just going to give it a shot. As of this writing I have no clue at all what I am doing for that fish fillet category. I'll come up with something and let you know how it goes.

Monday, May 30, 2011

OK, Let The Season Begin

My season, anyway.

This past week I finally addressed a major problem of my BBQ team, my tow vehicle. I have been using a Ford Explorer to tow our BBQ camper for the last four years, and it was never powerful enough. Honestly, I am amazed that the truck didn't die on me, and that I was able to get a decent trade amount on it. This allowed us to buy a new to us Ford Expedition with a bigger engine and factory tow package. It is rated to tow a trailer twice the weight of my fully packed camper, so I should be fine for a while.

The USS Lorson....

While we cooked the Snowshoe, I was unable to cook Lexington and couldn't get the time off to go to Rochester, so I really am chomping at the bit to cook. But for the next two weeks, my focus will be on Cape Cod. The planning this year has been easier than last year, when organizing was completely new to me. But it is still a challenge.

Once Cape Cod is over, we start competing. The paid entries so far are New Hampshire, Harpoon and Norwalk CT. Battle of the BBQ Brethren on Long Island in early August is one I really want to cook, but Sheila cannot travel that weekend because of work. That event is appealing to me because the New London Ferry to Long Island makes getting there and back a snap. Only 50 miles of actual driving, and most of it through the scenic wineries of Eastern Long Island. Going to try and make it.

Factor in a couple of vending events, a wedding in August and hopefully at least one more contest, and it's going to be a great summer of BBQ for Q Haven. Icing on the cake would be winning one of these things, it has been so long that I don't even remember what it feels like.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Latest Doings

It has really been a crazy few weeks, barbecue and otherwise. The Rose City BBQ Cook Off was last Saturday, and it ended up being a great day. The weather held out for the most part, and the people in our adopted hometown of Norwich came out and supported the effort. In the end, the event raised more than three thousand dollars for charities that serve the homeless of Norwich.

This was my first time as a vendor at this kind of event. I have vended at Harpoon several times, but most of the other teams vend too so there is little pressure.

I was disappointed with how the vending went, although the response from the public was generally favorable. I was involved in the event planning, and was so busy with work and otherwise that I did not get as much pre event prep done. Also, I agreed to help with meat inspections for the contest teams, and that hour and a half I really should have been focused on my vending.

It just wasn't my best food. But I learned a lot for next time. And I also passed my first true health inspection, and the guy didn't just rubber stamp me, he was temping all my food and my coolers.

Had a catering job yesterday, a 50 person shower in Sprague. Unlike the vending, the food came out great. The people who booked me had our food at Harpoon and remembered us when they decided to do a BBQ themed shower. I still need to work on my amounts but was very happy overall with the job.

Now, I have a few weeks where I can focus on finalizing the details of the Cape Cod BBQ Championship. Then, I can finally turn my attention to the fun part of all this, which is actually cooking BBQ contests!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Hello Again

Hi again. It has been way too long between posts, I know. I don't really have an excuse, except that I have been writing so much for work that by the time I am finished really the last thing I want to do is write more. It's a little depressing because I always enjoy writing about BBQ, but hopefully the warmer weather will motivate me to write more.

Also contributing is the fact that I have not really been doing a whole lot of cooking. I cooked a few pork butts yesterday, and that was the first time I lit my Backwoods since Christmas Eve. It felt good to be cooking again.

Meanwhile, the planning for the Norwich Rotary Rose City BBQ Cook-Off is going great. A month ago, the contest was stuck at seven teams and morale was low. However, as of this writing there are 18 teams and our secondary goal of 20 teams is now a possibility. However, 18 is great, and we really appreciate the support of every single one of them.

I know as a cook, choosing which contests to cook is not always easy. And sometimes teams are hesitant to sign on to cook a first year event, as they don't really know what to expect. But Sheila and a few of her Rotary Club members have worked awfully hard to pull this off, and the momentum seems to grow a little more each day.

As for Q Haven, the season is still a work in progress. I am vending at Norwich and organizing Cape Cod, so it looks like our first contest will be New Hampshire in mid June. We will also be going back to Harpoon in July, and to Norwalk in September. The rest, completely up in the air.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Snowshoe Grilling Challenge

Cooked the Snowshoe Grilling Challenge this past Saturday. We did really well at the contest, taking 1st place in Sausage fatty and finishing 4th overall. But the hardest part was pulling it all together and just getting there.

I knew months ago that Sheila would be away the entire weekend for work. But I also knew that I was cooking the contest. So I had to first find someone to watch max for the day, and second find someone to help me. As usual, family came through in the clutch.

First, my sister Kathleen agreed to come up and watch Max for the day. I knew she would be happy to do it, but I also know that she works in a restaurant, and taking Saturdays off are usually not easy. But she pulled it off.

For the contest, my brother Cristiaan agreed to come help out. Again, he would love to be at every contest, but he is a manager/owner of a restaurant and getting off Saturdays are very hard. But he made it too.

So the planning and packing went fine. I really have the packing for these grilling contests down. I see some teams bringing these big elaborate setups to one day grilling contests and I just don't understand it. But that's just me.

So I got everything into the Explorer with plenty of room to spare.

We got to the site by 8:15 or so, which was plenty early for my plan. I needed to have the fatty on by 9:45, so I had plenty of time to do our minimalistic setup, get some fire going and start cooking.

The timing of everything went fine. Having strip steak and pork tenderloin as the first two categories helped with timing, as I was grilling both and they would be done quickly.

The strip steak, I cooked it as I would for myself, salt and fresh ground pepper, grilled to medium rare, rested in a butter bath for five minutes, sliced and finished with a veal demi glace. This one tasted better than it looked, and wound up 8th out of 24 teams.

The parsley really looks bad in the pictures in all of our boxes. I thought they looked a little better in person but pictures don't lie I guess.

We had trouble getting our hands on curly parsley, Cristiaan was going to pick up a case at the Restaurant Depot in Orange CT, but when he went the day before the contest they had none. So I hit two supermarkets near me and grabbed the crap they had, and Cristiaan grabbed some additional crap parsley at a store near him in NY, and we did the best we could. Sheila would have helped for sure, as she always does a great job with our parsley.

Next was pork tenderloin. This was the only category I really practiced leading up to the contest. I tried several recipes and none really satisfied me. I ended up doing a combination of flavors that I use in my competition pork and rib recipes. It came out pretty good, just missing a call at sixth.

Next was sausage fatty. I have developed this recipe over the last few years, and it has done pretty well. Nailed it this time, great flavor, great moisture, nice basic presentation, first place.

Final caregory was chef's choice. Last year I did bacon wrapped jalapeno ABT's and they came in 6th. I decided to do them a little differently this year, and they came out great. Moved up three spots from last year and came in third. Cristiaan really helped on this category, he pretty much assembled them and they looked better than I had envisioned.

So overall, we came in fourth out of 24 teams. A good showing, considering the impressive team list and the fact that I had not so much as lit a smoker since the day before Christmas. My practice has pretty much been on my cast iron grill pan on my electric stove, hardly where you want to replicate contest game day conditions. But I'm happy with the results.

Now what? I don't know, stay tuned.

Monday, February 07, 2011

New England BBQ and Catering Visit

Finally made it up to New England BBQ and Catering this past week. Steve Farrin of I Smell Smoke and Brendan Burek of Transformer BBQ opened the place in Canton, Massachusetts a few months ago. It is a great spot, with a large commercial kitchen and a store, where they are selling BBQ supplies. There are things for both the competition cook and backyard amateur, rubs, sauces, Wicked Good charcoal, wood chunks, etc.

Steve and Brendan are doing a little of everything in this new venture; catering, take out, supplies, cooking classes. I look forward to visiting often to load up on supplies as needed this season.

Meanwhile, I mailed out the first application of the season today, for the Snowshoe grilling challenge. I really like the Snowshoe, it is the perfect way to shake off the dust after a long, cold New England winter. Last year, we were reserve grand champions of the Snowshoe, which meant a lot to me. All of the big teams from the region cook the Snowshoe, and doing well is a good way to build momentum for the year.

The Snowshoe categories are strip steak, pork tenderloin, sausage fatty and chef's choice. While I haven't done any "official" Snowshoe practice, I have a pretty good idea what I will be cooking.

As far as the rest of the year goes, well, it's all pretty much in the air. The goal is to cook Grilling on the Bay and Rochester, vend at Norwich, organize Cape Cod, cook New Hampshire, cook Harpoon. The rest is up in the air.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

That's My WSM

My Weber Smokey Mountain blew over during the last snowstorm and is now entombed in snow. Over the last week here in Connecticut we have received around four feet of snow. That's not a typo, feet. Hopefully this stuff will melt soon and that patio can resume cranking out BBQ.

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