Waking up on competition day was very odd. Breakfast was quiet, in the same way you’d imagine an SAS team sat quietly preparing for their next mission with every member of the team knowing what was at stake but no one actually wanting to discuss it. So, like 6 BBQ assassins we set of to the NRG Stadium bound to either prove ourselves or go home with our tails between our legs having had our asses handed to us on a plate by the world’s best!
The day before, the judges came over to inspect and tag our meats – they do this so there’s never any question over what you’re handing in. The tags are thin metal strips that are security sealed through each entrant’s submission prior to cooking. As we were smoking brisket, ours would be tagged through the thick end known as the ‘point’ – this would have to survive 12 hours of heat, inspection and basting. We’d have to slice each entry in front of the judges with no detail going without scrutiny; this is serious business! If the tag looks like its about to fall out, you have to notify the judges immediately as if it comes out before they get there, you’re out and your chances are over.
When you’re smoking for 12 hours, it certainly doesn’t start at 10am – it’s an all-night commitment. With that in mind, most of our team had been up all night tending the fires and making sure nothing happened to our precious meaty cargo. Our hand in time was high noon, so at 12 o’clock all the hard work was going to be over. If we qualified past the first round we’d have to hand in another sample for round two but this would come from the same brisket we’d already smoked… that means it would have to be held on temp for a few more nerve-wracking hours.
Midday loomed and with only 15 minutes to go the submission team arrived to help us get organised and ready to go. The brisket had been removed from the smoker a few hours beforehand so it could rest – it had been covered and wrapped to keep all those juices basting inside what could be the most important brisket we’d ever smoked. 6 judges means 6 slices, all the same size, all in a row, no splashes of sauce (you can’t just lather in it sauce before it goes or you forfeit your entry). Each slice had to have a good smoke ring, shouldn’t be falling apart, and certainly shouldn’t be dry – it’s not exactly what we’d do in the restaurant but it’s what these guys want so it’s what they were getting!
As each slice is lovingly and carefully placed inside the box, the judges watch over our shoulders to ensure all rules are followed and no cheating takes place – unless you do this for yourself you’ll never know the pressure. Once placed and ready, the box is closed and the tape is wrapped around the box a few times to stop anything getting out and more importantly anything else getting in. It’s then the short walk to the judges area before our entry is handed over, logged and with a big “good luck y’all” its over. Then it’s 6 hours of waiting to see how we’ve done, to see if we’re thorough to the next round.
6pm comes and the judges walk the 400 acres arena with the “final round flags” that are handed out to all those who’ve made the grade and are the finalists for the top prizes. As the judges walk towards our tent with the qualifier sign clearly visible in their hands, our hearts were in our mouths. Have we actually done it? Have we come here and shown the the Americans it’s not just fish & chips we do well?
The judges approached, coming closer and closer to our tent…then, with a few inches to go they continued to walk straight past us and onto a tent a little further down the road. Unfortunately we hadn’t qualified. A few seconds of disappointment then turned into an almighty scream as all our team hugged and high-fived – for us we’d competed in the World’s biggest BBQ competition, surrounded by the best of the best in authentic, American BBQ. We were winners in our own right – just being here was the award we’d wanted.
At 7pm the main event started with the announcement of all the winners and runners up, but before that we were lined up back stage and presented to the entire crowd by Robert the Chairman. His announcement that international teams were coming on stage was met with a huge roar from the crowds and as both English teams and the team from Japan walked out in front of the madding crowds the roar increased, the flashes flashed, the Texans waved, and we waved back! Then as quick as we were on, we were off, the real business was about to start – the following few minutes would change lives for those that hadn’t won before or would further cement the skills of those teams who’d won this event in the past!
All in all, we came 24th out of 144 in brisket, and 98th overall out of 430 teams entries in the competition… not bad for a set of drunk Brits hey!
Congratulations to all the winners – you threw down some mighty fine ‘cue! We’re stoked at how the week went and can’t wait to bring everything we’ve learned along the way back to the UK this week.