On becoming a pitmaster
Updated: Jul 31, 2020
July 10, 2016, is a day I’ll never forget: My first pro chicken cook at the Gold Ribbin’ BBQ Festival in Green Bay.
My memories of the 50-minute cook are kind of fuzzy, but the award ceremony will be etched in my mind forever. I scored 9th place out of 55 teams, including some of the best in the country.
Smoke Freaks were just getting started in competition BBQ back then, so we didn’t know too many people. If anyone recognized me at all, it was as “that weird chick in the wolf hat.” And certainly no one besides Mr. Freak knew I had anything to do with our success that day.
I kept at it, and over that season I learned a lot about cooking chicken. But I was certainly no pitmaster.
I could run my cook, but I didn’t fully understand all the factors that would result in (or ruin) the outcome I hoped for. Cooking BBQ was something I did, but I wasn’t ready to call myself a “BBQ cook.”
2017 was different.
Our BBQ family was growing, along with my BBQ knowledge and skill. I started to present myself as the “chicken cook,” and I was operating more and more independently in other aspects of our operation. Oh, and by the middle of the year, I’d also picked up the p❤️rk cook!
The net effect was that I started to believe in my BBQ skills a whole lot more. I was getting more comfortable talking shop with other cooks. We weren’t just exchanging pleasantries anymore … I was having serious conversations with legit BBQ cooks!
One day in particular stood out.
About a dozen of us were comparing notes after Day 1 turn-ins at a double competition. The conversation had been stuck on chicken for a while when suddenly another cook said, “Wait a minute. Are you telling me you don’t brine your chicken?”
The question was directly squarely at me, even though Mr. Freak was sitting right there with us. I was not only becoming a real BBQ cook in my own mind, but in other cooks’ minds too!
A few weeks later, we were back in Green Bay for the 2017 Gold Ribbin’ doubleheader, and Smoke Freaks were called Chicken champion out of 57 teams on Day 1. It was my first No. 1 finish, and it was on a big stage, at the top of a mountain of great competitors. Even if I had taken Mr. Freak with me on that long, gratifying walk to collect my 18-pound trophy (I didn’t), almost everyone there would have known that was MY cook.
The very next day I scored another top-3 chicken call, prompting one of my dearest BBQ friends (and a veritable BBQ god) to call me a “chicken expert.”
And he was right. In that year since my very first Pro chicken cook, I had run 100% of the show, from procurement to the moment the box is delivered to the judges tent. And on that particular weekend, all that hard work had come together to produce the best of the best.
I finally knew I had transformed into a bonafide BBQ cook
Fast forward to today -- 8 cooks into our 2018 season -- and I’ve noticed something else has changed, just over these last few weeks. Lots of other cooks now contact me directly, not just to talk chicken, but about other aspects of competitive BBQ as well:
Do you guys roll at 300° on everything?
When do you wrap your brisket?
Are you flipping the point?
What wood do you use on ribs?
Do you know what’s up with the comp next weekend?
I could talk about BBQ for hours. I love it.
It’s not all fun and games, though. It’s hard to win a BBQ comp without a solid Chicken call, and I own 100% of the outcome -- good, bad or horrific.
I started on shaky chicken ground this year with a 6-comp dry spell. It was starting to become an existential threat to our BBQ careers, so I had to figure it out fast.
I ended up deconstructing my entire cook and realized that over the course of a lot of minor adjustments, I had gradually made a big change to one aspect of my cook. Light bulbs went off and I understood why my chicken wasn’t working. More importantly, I knew what I needed to do to start getting calls again.
I feel like a real “pitmaster” wouldn’t have gotten off track to begin with, or at least would have known what was wrong without reverse-engineering the whole cook. So I know I’m not yet worthy of that lofty title. Besides, there are still MANY more things in BBQ left for me to master.
But I’m working on it. And I’m pretty sure my chicken is back on track.