How crazy is it that 5 or 6 words on a bright yellow card can be so devastating? At least that’s what I used to think, back when I would dread getting one of those bad boys tucked into our scores.
Turns out I had it all wrong. Comment cards are a gift, which I came to understand over the course of this season as we received three of those little presents so far.
Comment Card #1: Brisket, CCS Fest; Indianapolis, IN: Our first brisket turn-in of the year, and we were still experimenting. It came out terrible -- tough as leather and tasting like a salt lick. We salvaged burnt ends, which somehow still tasted kinda like beef, but the box was sub-par and we knew the judges were going to hate it.
And they did, to the tune of 139 points (which might actually have been generous). When I saw a little yellow slip sticking out in the score sheets, I knew it was about to get real.
It wasn’t easy seeing the words “almost impossible to chew.” If I’m being honest, we needed a few minutes to get past our initial reaction and shake off the sting.
But this was one of the best comment cards we’d ever seen because it was descriptive, clear and didn’t leave much to the imagination.
Our scores alone were perfectly clear on the fact that our brisket sucked, but what if we were new or just struggling to figure out what the judges were looking for? Was the texture weird? Was there an unfortunate glob of fat? Was it rubbery, chewy, tough or maybe dry?
This judge’s comments shed light on the situation. “Chewy,” “rubbery” and “fatty” gave us immediate hints on what went wrong. Sure sounds pretty gross.
I guarantee, we haven’t messed up a brisket like that again.
Comment Card #2: Ribs, Mankato Cookout; Mankato, MN: This one really ticked off Mr. Freak at first: “Remove the back membrane.” He’s thinking, “I bet you didn’t eat a rib all day without the membrane peeled, and you sure as heck didn’t get one from us!”
Comments that try to solve problems are especially loathsome to cooks. There was no membrane on those ribs, and none of the other judges beat us up. But instead of throwing our scores into the fire, we decided to diagnose what the judge was actually telling us: something was clearly unpleasant about our tenderness.
(Since then, we’ve figured out what it probably was and came up with a way to mitigate it.)
Comment Card #3: Chicken, Sam’s Club Pro BBQ Tour; Madison, WI: We needed to be in the top 10 to advance to finals. It was a great cook, but we only managed 19th out of 30.
My mind was drifting from, “What are we even doing here?” to “This is just too expensive, too time consuming, too physically taxing and too hard,” to “Is it even worth it?”
Deep, introspective, thought provoking questions that had been brewing for awhile. It was going to be a pretty miserable drive home.
That’s when I saw the comment card. Great, more insult to injury.
“Excellent smoke flavor. Thank you.”
And at that moment, it all changed. The struggle that felt futile just moments before was replaced with a reignited fire in my belly.
On an emotional level, Judge #1 helped me get my fighting spirit back.
On a rational level, Judge #1 had given me perspective to see that it was a stacked field of 29 other teams who had earned their way into the Regionals. 29 great teams. My chicken was on point and the field was tough. It happens. Maybe I’d forgotten that?
Judge #1 gave me something else. I’d had some great calls throughout the season, including 1st place at Green Bay against another stacked field of 58 teams. Getting 1st was great and all, but I didn’t really know why. What was working with my 1st place chicken and how so? What aspects contributed to our top score?
These comments gave me some insight to something I’d already been wondering, what were the components of our flavor profile beyond the obvious seasonings and sauces?
This is super helpful feedback.
Sure, the scores in and of themselves are incredibly helpful data points. But scores alone don’t answer the “why” or “how so” that’s needed to understand the judges’ reaction to your cook.
At The Neale Group, our consulting business, we would never let our clients make important decisions without taking the time to understand both the “quantitative” and “qualitative” side of the story.
Quantitative data is easy to come by for BBQ cooks. That’s our scores, and we get tons of this data every weekend. It’s incredible to be able to see how your individual score compares to a given judge’s average.
But how often do we get the qualitative kind … some indication from a judge to help us understand what they did or didn’t like? It doesn’t matter what I think about our food, or what our friends or even fellow competitors think about it. All that matters is what the 6 judges who evaluated it think about it.
Comment cards don’t need to be lengthy or complex. Just a few checked boxes and a couple of words can add immense context to the story compared to just scores alone.
Every weekend, virtually every cook gives their all to present judges with the very best and most impressive experience we can pull off under the rules.
Every weekend, each judge is on the receiving end of something to the tune of 12-18 full days worth of human effort, delivered to them via 9x9 boxes.
For all the judges who do take the time to write a card or two most of the time, thank you!
For all you judges who never or rarely write comment cards, please consider spending 30 seconds to check a few boxes and write just one or two cards every comp. Make it constructive or make it a compliment. Make it brutal for all we care, just tell us why you scored what scored.
And for all you cooks, keep an open mind when you get one of those "dreaded" yellow cards.
Feedback is a gift, and the right card at the right time might just make all the difference in the world to someone who is struggling or thinking about throwing in the towel out of frustration.
Ann is Co-Founder and Pitmaster for Smoke Freaks. She loves being the Head Cook and and has fallen head over heels in love with Pork.