Thursday, November 29, 2012

The 2012 Season In Review

Since I took a sabbatical from blogging for most of the 2012 season, I wanted to give a recap of the season, which was by far Q Haven's best since entering the competition circuit in 2006.

We kicked off the year with the New England Barbecue Society sanctioned Snowshoe Grilling Challenge on March tenth, which is the annual beginning of the competition season in New England.  We started the season off by scoring second place in the burger category, ninth in strip steak and eighth overall.

Next up was Grilling on the Bay in Brooklyn, New York two Saturdays later, which was also a NEBS event and ended up being Q Haven's first grand championship of any kind since 2006.  We took first place in the vegetable category with stuffed jalapenos, and also got calls for sixth place chicken wings and ribs and eighth place chef's choice to win grand championship honors.  It was awesome to finally win a contest, after cooking over 50 events between wins.

First Place Vegetables

We had more than a month off after Brooklyn, with our next event coming in May and Smoke in the Valley in Green Lane, Pennsylvania.  This was our first KCBS cook of the season, and our first since reworking the entire cooking program over the winter.  While we did not get any calls, our brisket was 13th and all four categories were in the top 23 in a field of 54 strong teams.  We finished 17th overall.  The bad news was that I forget that my slicing knife was in the dish water and I got a nasty cut, which required five stitches to close.  However, this was a great event, and we will certainly return again in 2013.

War Wound
This was followed by an unusual event we decided to cook, which was a people's choice contest at the Greenwich Town Party in our home state of Connecticut.  The categories were chicken and pork, and the format called for teams cooking as much food as they wish, but it all must be cooked on site and served in tandem on a single plate.  We finished third in pork and fourth in chicken, and did not miss winning either category by much, although we did win enough money to make it more than worth our while.  However, our good friends at JC's Wicked BBQ won both categories and a cool six grand, so it was not a disappointment at all.

Greenwich Set Up

It was another few weeks before we cooked again, making the annual trip to the New Hampshire Rock-n-Ribfest in late June.  We collected calls for third place brisket and ninth place ribs, finishing tenth overall.  It was also the first contest I used a new chicken process, and at 27th place it didn't work out too well.  But I learned a few things that served us extremely well in the next four contests.  We finished fifth overall in grilling in New Hampshire, including first place in the burger category.

Turn your head sideways
Then it all come together.

We cooked the Troy Pig Out in Troy, NY and took first place in chicken and brisket, fourth place pork and fifth place ribs to win our first KCBS grand championship since 2006.  We also took custody of Victor, the large plastic pig that serves as the Troy traveling trophy.  It was the first time Victor had not been owned by a Massachusetts team, and we were excited to bring him to Connecticut!

That's 2,257 days between KCBS victories for those of you scoring at home.

After a week off we headed to the Harpoon Championship of New England BBQ at their brewery in Windsor, VT.  Q Haven's roll continued with another first place chicken, second place pork ribs, fourth place pork and sixth in brisket, and once again we were grand champions.  Combined with a fourth place overall finish in grilling, strong vending sales and a great time with friends and family, this was by far the highlight of our season.  It also guaranteed us an automatic invitation to the Jack Daniel's World Invitational BBQ in October.  We finally made it back to the Jack!
The Harpoon Team
Decided to try and ride the wave, and quickly signed up to cook the Battle of the BBQ Brethren in Manorville, Long Island NY.  For the third straight event, we took first place in chicken.  Also for the the third straight event, we took fourth place in pork.  Also got called for third place brisket, but it was not quite enough to take out Matt Ragusa and Jacked Up BBQ, who took grand championship honors and we had to settle for reserve grand.

Two weeks later it was back to Long Island for the first round of the Sam's Club National BBQ Tour event. The top six teams would move on to the regional final in Virginia, and we made it with a fifth place overall finish.  Also, we took first place chicken for the fourth straight contest.

We made it to the Sam's Club regional final in Chesapeake VA, but might as well had stayed home.  We finished 25th overall out of 30 teams, including a dismal 29th place brisket.  The only bright spot was a call for 7th place chicken.  The other bright spot was that we had a really good time.  It was just myself and my brother Cristiaan, and we had a nice trip.  Enjoyed a beautiful late summer day in Rehoboth, Delaware on the drive down, then had fun hanging out with some of the teams.  We had an especially interesting dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant with Tim Rohrs of Stubborn Bull BBQ, then got to watch him celebrate a strong 3rd place finish.

Our final event before the Jack was again in our home state of Connecticut, an event on the New London pier.  We again had a great time, and again got to watch Stubborn Bull have a great day, as they were grand champions.  We had a decent tune up before the Jack, getting calls for third place ribs and fifth place in both pork and brisket to finish 5th overall.

Then there was the Jack, where we got two calls and finished 18th overall, but I recently posted all about it and don't need to cover it further.

So what happened to turn the ship around?

Well, a few things.  First and foremost, sponsorship.  My brother Cristiaan's restaurant Le Jardin du Roi in Chappaqua NY stepped up as our sponsor in 2012.  They have covered the cost of much of our meats, rubs and other supplies, which has been a huge help.  It also helped to take Chris Hart's class, where I picked up a few tricks that certainly helped us take it to the next level.  It also helped that Sheila changed jobs, and now has a lot more time and flexibility in the summer, allowing her to be there and to be focused a lot more than in years past.

So now what?  Practicing in the cold, getting ready for 2013 is the winter plan.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Big Bubba's BBQ Closed

Learned over the weekend that Big Bubba's BBQ at Mohegan Sun Casino is now closed.  The sign at the entrance and on their web site says temporary, but my sources say this is because of financial reasons and is permanent.  I reviewed Big Bubba's a couple times in this space and had a love-hate relationship with the place.  It was decent BBQ in an area of Connecticut where there were no other decent BBQ options.

I hope the location stays as a BBQ restaurant when it reopens.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Jack 2012

Q Haven qualified for the Jack Daniels World Invitational BBQ in 2006 by winning our second contest we had ever cooked. Our fifth contest was the Jack. It all seemed too easy. This would be an annual journey for us.

 Not so fast.

 In 2007 we didn't win any contests. Almost won Harpoon in 2008, settled for reserve grand champion. Nothing in 2009. Nearly won the Connecticut auto-qualifier in 2010. Had a really tough year in 2011. After a particularly bad contest at Harvard in late 2011, I seriously contemplated quitting competition BBQ altogether. You can only work so hard without gaining the desired results for so long before deciding to find some other ways to spend weekends.

 So I decided to take a different approach to things. After a lot of soul searching and hours of conversations with Sheila, I decided to stop being so stubborn and unwilling to make any changes and started to look at things differently. Between 2011 and 2012 we made a lot of life changes. Sheila got a new job that gives her much more flexibility in the summer. We moved back to the New Haven area, and I started doing a lot more cooking and catering with my brother's restaurant, Le Jardin du Roi in Chappaqua NY. They agreed to sponsor us in 2012, covering much of of our meat costs and providing a good deal of our supplies. I also took the Chris Hart class in February, as I wanted to open my mind to new ideas and processes. All of these things really set us up to have a better year.

 We cooked Green Lane and New Hampshire and did ok, finishing 15th in Green Lane with no calls and tenth in Merrimack with a call for third place brisket. Then it all came together and we won the Troy Pig Out, and two weeks later we won Harpoon. Harpoon is an auto-qualifier as the only Vermont contest, so we knew that we were finally going back to the Jack!

 All you need to do is go back in this blog to 2006 to see how wrong my approach was to the Jack that year. I had no clue what I was doing. So I immediately began planning to do it the right way. Put new tires on the truck and got it all tuned up. Shopped like crazy to find the best possible meat. Didn't worry about decorations, giving samples to the public, etc. Just wanted to cook the best possible food that I could and hope for the best. In the end, all we wanted really was a call.

 I decided that the only ones who would be coming down with the team were myself, Sheila, my brother Cristiaan and Max, who is now four. For weeks before we left, every day he would ask me "are we leaving for Tennessee today Daddy?" He as excited to be making the trip and any of us.
The drive down was perfect, well nearly perfect. At one point we were stopped at a light somewhere in Tennessee and a woman opened her window and told me that the side door of the camper was open. Oops! It had apparently just happened, no damage, nothing lost. Aside from that, the weather was great and it was an easy, enjoyable ride. Arrived in Tullahoma Wednesday night. Arrived on site in Lynchburg Thursday morning, got some setup done, then took the Jack Daniel's distillery tour, which was great.

 We had a hotel room in Tullahoma Thursday night as well. I made the decision early on to hotel it Wednesday and Thursday night, as our camper is very small and I felt that we all might kill each other if we had to live out of it four straight nights. There was a lot of partying going on Thursday night on site, but I decided that it was much better for us to be rested and fresh heading into the world championship event so I stuck to the script.

 Friday, the real festivities got underway. Lunch at Miss Mary Bobo's, meat inspection, trimming and injecting. Then the parade came. The parade of teams is part of the tradition of the Jack. This is where the emotion of the whole journey finally caught up with me. I know it's just BBQ, but when you work so hard at a goal and it is finally realized, it's easy for the emotions to get the better of you. But I didn't cry.

 Sheila and I had planned to go up to BBQ Hill for the cook's dinner after the parade, but I still had prep to do so we decided to skip it. I regret not making it up there, even though it is a pain to get a bus up to the hill, it is always overcrowded and nearly impossible to get a seat or a drink. It's part of the Jack experience, but in the end I decided that the cook was more important.

 I have been doing pretty much the same thing all year when it comes to the cooking process, so overall things went smoothly. The brisket was looking great, as was the pork. Got a few hours of sleep, and got the ribs and chicken into the cooker on time in the morning.

 BBQ day on Saturday was cold. That actually helped us because Max pretty much stayed in the camper all day watching DVDs, allowing us to really focus on the task at hand. I don't really care about the cold, living in the Northeast you get used to it.

 The Jack Daniel's sauce category was first. I had practiced a few things in the weeks leading up to the contest, and overall I was pretty happy with the sauce I had mixed up. Next was cook's choice, where I decided to do beef short ribs with bacon cheddar potatoes. I had done well with short ribs in the past and decided to give them a shot. The dish looked great and got all 9's in appearance, but on a couple of the tasters I felt the meat was dry. The judges agreed, and it finished 30th.

 I was worried about the chicken category from the start. Having to cook both white and dark meat is something different, and I didn't like how the wings I cooked came out at all. Chicken was 57th. Bummer. I wasn't totally thrilled with the ribs either, and they finished in the middle of the road in 36th. Brought eight racks of ribs with us and cooked four. Should have cooked the other four instead. Pork and brisket, I was much happier with. It was definitely the best pork I have ever cooked. The brisket burnt ends came out great.

 Sheila handled the dessert category, and did chocolate chipolte cheesecake. I thought it looked and tasted great, and it came in 20th place. I am so proud of Sheila and the effort she put into it, she really wanted to do well for the team and did not disappoint.

 As awards approached, it got colder and colder. We decided to get inside near one of the heaters, knowing the awards would take over an hour. Naturally, as the awards were starting Max had to use the bathroom so I scooped him up and ran for the port-o-potties. Made it back in time for the sauce category. Good thing, because we got what we were looking for. A call for 5th place sauce. A Jack trophy! Awesome.

No calls in chicken and ribs, then we were called again for tenth place pork. It was the greatest feeling to get called twice at the Jack. The announcer even introduced Max and he waved to the crowd, it was a great moment for us that I won't soon forget. We just missed a third call, as brisket was 11th place. In the end, we finished 18th overall. At most contests this would not be an acceptable result for me, but for the Jack I was thrilled. In 2006 we finished 44th and the Jack, and all I really wanted was to finish a lot higher than that. Mission accomplished.

 Saturday night was fun, but with news of a hurricane bearing down on our home state of Connecticut there was not a whole lot of time to relax. We rolled out of Lynchburg Sunday morning and drove straight home, stopping for gas and for lunch at the Waffle House (Sheila and Cristiaan had never been). Got home at around seven Monday morning, woke up at around 2PM, lost power 45 minutes later. It was out for more than four days. Welcome home.

 Looking back, the Jack was a great reward for what has been by far Q Haven's best year on the competition circuit. I hope it is an annual trip for us, but I know first hand how hard it is to get there and will not take anything for granted. Who knows, it may take another six years to get back, but I will keep trying. The trip leaves me more excited than ever about cooking competition BBQ, and the Snowshoe cannot come soon enough.