What it’s like to cook and compete in the Memphis In May BBQ World Champion Cooking Contest
There are a lot of Competition BBQ contests across the country. And you could argue that the Royal has more BBQ teams and you can argue that the Jack is the most coveted BBQ contest to enter… but there is no other BBQ contest that comes close to Memphis In May BBQ.
It all got started back in 1978 over bragging right of who could cook the best BBQ in Memphis… and the entry fee for that first contest was $12.
Now Memphis In May BBQ has become the most prestigious Competition BBQ contest in the entire world… a sight you really have to see to believe.
I’m still amazed at how much time and money gets invested into the booths and the set-up of this event. The booth space at Memphis In May BBQ can be elaborate as you can imagine. Some teams spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on decorations, erecting multi-story structures, and transforming 1300 sq. ft. of park space into a full-blown dance club for one weekend.
If you show-up at Memphis In May BBQ as a spectator you will find over 300 competitive BBQ teams, vendors, cooking demonstrations, musical entertainment, and all sorts of events. But I got to warn you… unless you know someone on a BBQ team; you don’t just walk into the booths – you have to be invited.
One thing to understand about Memphis In May BBQ is that every separate booth is a private party, and there are tours that are given daily.
These “Cooker Caravans” are guided tours of team areas. You’ll learn about the contest, tour team sites, and here cooks give their take on the competition. It’s a great way to see what the Memphis In May BBQ contest is all about, and you may even be invited to come back and hang out with the team.
Also, there is a People’s Choice category where you can sample different entries for a set price. This is an excellent way to try some real competition BBQ.
Of course, there have been several times when we weren’t busy cooking and some spectator has stopped by to ask questions… so we invited them in, gave them a tour and offered them a plate of BBQ. And I’m sure that most teams will tell you the same story.
For a pitmaster at Memphis In May BBQ, the experience is like no other. After the acceptance letters go out usually in mid March, the excitement starts to build. The reality of the contest sets in and preparations have to be made.
A simple pop-up tent isn’t going to cut-it here like it will at all other BBQ contests. Memphis In May BBQ is also known as Memphis in Mud or simply “Mud Fest” and you absolutely have to have some type of flooring to stay out of the mud.
Next on the calendar is the cooks meeting which occurs in late April several weeks before the contest. This is usually on a Sunday and it takes the whole afternoon. You listen to a short presentation about the contest then you get your booth assignments, purchase extra admission tickets and pick up parking passes. After the cooks meeting it’s time to plan load in.
While most BBQ contests do load-in the day or two before the contest starts, with Memphis In May BBQ you have to load-in the weekend before. It’s normally a nightmare getting over 300 teams (and multiple truckloads of equipment, seating and decorations) in and out of the park, but the past couple of years the organizers have came up with a plan that helps with the controlled chaos.
Now teams have a designated time to arrive at the park and unload. This helps with traffic flow and prevents waiting in line for hours. After we drop out trailers and put-up our fencing, we spend the next week focused on nothing but this one contest.
The official first day of Memphis In May BBQ is Wednesday evening. The park is open for “friends & family” night and teams have a laid back day of socializing and entertaining. The meat contest starts Friday with ancillaries, so you have plenty of time to hang out and enjoy the environment.
Many of the teams host lunch/dinner parties for private companies on Wednesday, Thursday and sometimes Friday. We’ve had the same group book a private competition BBQ catered lunch for the past 5 years. We do a full spread and stocked bar for these guys and we love putting this event together. I think it’s just as much fun for us as it is for them. We just make sure we feed them the best BBQ and help them have the best time.
Thursday night is team night at our booth. There aren’t as many people in the park and it’s usually when all our friends show up and hang out with us. We really get loose and host a good size party,
But come Friday morning it’s business time… Friday brings about meat inspection first thing in the morning. After the reps come around and give you the green light on your meat inspection, it’s time to start trimming, rubbing and getting your meat ready to go on the smoker.
All the ancillary contests are turned-in on Friday afternoon. Over the years different team members have turned in hot wings, we’ve turned in our sauce and last year I entered the beef contest.
Now we come to Saturday…
The real reason I compete in the Memphis In May BBQ Cooking Contest is to win the title of World Champion. And there are about 300 other teams there for that reason too. All of our effort comes down to how we perform on Saturday.
The day starts early that morning. Since we only live a few miles away, I usually get a chance to go home, shower, and catch a couple of hours of much needed rest before heading back out to Tom Lee Park just before day light.
We usually have a couple of overnight people who watch the smoker and maintain temps throughout the night. When I get there, it’s time to jump into action.
First thing I monitor the internal temperature of the product we’re serving the judges that day. The meat is normally right on target and it’s time to start cleaning the area for the first of 3 on-site judges.
We always have guests on Friday night, so there’s garbage to be picked up, tables & bars to break down and get out of sight, and trailers, fencing, tents, etc… and they all have to be cleaned and spotless before on-site judging. We want to make out spot perfect for the judges and make sure we don’t give them any reason to deduct points for the appearance of the booth.
Memphis In May BBQ judging is not only based on the final product served, but also judged on the cleanliness of your area, personal appearance, and the presentation you give the judges.
The preliminary round of judging is comprised of two rounds. First you have to build a blind box. The blind box is handed out by Memphis In May BBQ reps and is assigned a tag to identify your entry. That tag is removed upon turn-in and assigned a number that only the coordinators know. This just keeps the blind box judging fair.
The samples are then taken to judging tables where they are presented to Blind Judges whose job it is to decide which box is best. The judges are scoring on a 10-point scale for appearance of entry, tenderness, flavor, and over all impression.
Unlike KCBS contest the only thing allowed in the blind box is meat. You have to arrange it to not only look appealing but also make the judge want to dive right in.
We’ve learned over the years how to properly choose the perfect samples of meat and how to place them in the box. Memphis In May BBQ doesn’t allow extra sauce, garnish of any type, or designing the sample in a pattern. This ensures that there is no possible way to identify the sample. We can turn-in a sauce with the meat but it has to be in a separate container. If you do turn-in a sauce, the judges are instructed to judge the meat and then sample it with the sauce. Sometimes we turn-in a mild and a hot “spicy” sauce. They judge the sauce that best accompanies the meat.
Typically there are 5-6 entries on each table. 4 blind judges are seated at each table and they score each entry accordingly. The judges are told to start at 10 and mark down based on the entries before them. They have to mark a clear winner on their scorecard and no two entries can have the same score.
At the same time blind judging is taking place, we are visited by three consecutive on-site judges. As soon as we get the blind box built, we have a “runner” whose job it is to get the entry over to the judging tent without dropping, shaking, or stopping to chat. Once we send that runner off with the blind box, we shift into on-site mode. We put on aprons, clean shirts and go a real quick check for missed cigarette butts or any trash. Everything has to be pristine.
When the first judge arrives, I greet them at the gate and give a brief description of our cooking team. Then we go to the smoker where I explain how it works, tell them about the fuel used, and open the cooker so the meat can be viewed on the grill. By this time, the judge is already thinking about what scores to give us on our Area and Personal Appearance.
Now it’s time for me to make a crucial impression on them by showing the meat. The meat has to jump out at them and make their brain say “Hey, that looks delicious and I can’t wait to taste it!” We arrange the product on a clean grate decorated with fresh garnish…Kale, Whole Pineapple, Watermelon, Sweet Strawberries just to name a few… The meat has been smoked, sauced, and glazed to perfection and now it’s ready to go to the table.
After sitting down to a table with a linen tablecloth, plates, decorations and cloth napkins, I begin the process of explaining how I took the meat from a raw state to this beautifully smoked cut of pork. I let them sample the rub and sauce, tell them about the cooking procedure, and add a few tall tales in between.
The on-site presentation is my absolute favorite part of the weekend. I get to cut-up, tell the judge how my granddaddy grew this pig on his farm or about how my wife grew the ingredients for our sauce from magic seeds. All the while watching a judge sit before me and sample the years of hard work I’ve put into that one piece of meat. There’s nothing better than having the judge’s eye’s roll back and nearly fall over backwards after taking the first bite. That’s when I know that my job is complete.
After the first judge leaves (each judge is there for 15 minutes total) there’s another judge immediately waiting to come in and get the same treatment. We scramble briefly to reset the table and quickly check our appearance. We have 3 on-site judges during the preliminary rounds.
When we’re done with these judges, the waiting game begins. As the coordinators are tabulating the scores all we can do is cross our fingers. To make it to the final round of judging you have to be better than everybody else. It’s an intense game, sitting there hoping that a golf cart comes by with news of the final teams.
We keep everything in place and have a few cocktails to take the edge off. If news does come that we made it, we’ll have an hour or so to set up for one visit of 4 finals judges.
This year I hope to get that visit. I’ve made finals in the patio porkers division at Memphis In May BBQ in 2006 (and we took home the Grand Champion Patio Porkers trophy that year too) We’ve hit 10th place shoulders, 4th place shoulder and 5th place shoulders. And one of these days we’ll finally make finals! I really can’t describe the adrenalin boost you get from the announcement.
When it’s all said and done on Saturday, we still have to wait for the award ceremony. Usually by this time everyone has had several beverages and it’s just a great mood in the park. Our hard work has been worth it even if we don’t get to walk across the stage. To be honest with you, just to be at Memphis In May BBQ is special in its self.
But the work isn’t over after the awards ceremony. We still have to break everything down and be out of our spot by noon the next day. Normally we don’t touch anything on Saturday. We just have a good time and enjoy ourselves until 10pm because the park closes at this time.
Then I go home to a much needed shower and deep sleep. When I wake up the next morning, it’s time to assemble the troops one final time and get all our equipment home safe.
People ask me if it’s worth the sometimes blood, tons of sweat, and occasional tears…I say YES. I can’t think of a better way to spend a week than doing it with 100,000 friends on the banks of the Mississippi River cooking barbecue!