When I received an e-mail about a bunch of barbecue competition judges getting together in January to taste some ’cue because they were “missing the competition smoke in the dead of winter,” I was skeptical.
“You realize this could be the most awkward hour of my life,” I told my editor.
A dozen strangers, around a table, eating barbecue, expected to critique the food with the owner possibly in earshot, and, oh yeah, with a voice recorder capturing every word? Jean-Paul Sartre couldn’t have imagined a situation to elicit more existential dread.
Then I heard the event would be at Charlottesville’s Ace Biscuit & Barbecue, a double-edged sword for me. The size of the place —smaller than some walk-in closets—would ensure chef/owner Brian Ashworth would be able to hear a lot of what was being said. (Score another point for the most awkward food event of all time.) But sheer Ace deliciousness made the prospect more attractive. What would these competition judges think about one of my favorite local grub spots?
To be blunt, it wasn’t pretty. The 14 attendees were each certified Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) competition judges, used to chowing down on some of the best BBQ in the biz. What’s more, these guys and gals are looking for very specific attributes in their smoked meats. Take the spare rib. While most people associate success in rib cooking with floatin’ off the bone tenderness, barbecue judges call such a rib overdone. They’re looking for meat that falls within a small window between undercooked and overcooked—so that “when you take a bite, the rest of the meat on the rib is left behind,” one of the judges told me.
So how did Ace’s ribs rate? You guessed it: Overcooked to competition standards. But most of the group agreed the ribs were pretty damn tasty just the same. A couple people said the meat was under-seasoned, but that opinion was an outlier. The seasoning on most of the offerings didn’t get the same pass. Just about everyone in the group agreed the pulled pork was over-salted. The smoked turkey Ashworth sent out was in general well received, but a few of the judges scolded him again for heavy-handed seasoning. This time it was too strong on the pepper. As for the brisket? Under-seasoned and overcooked.
“Commercial barbecue is different from competition barbecue,” said David Heilbronner, a KCBS judge and co-founder of Charlottesville-based barbecue sauce company Bone Doctors’ BBQ. “A lot of it is volume and public expectations.”
Having to crank out enough pulled pork, for example, to pay the bills, restaurant chefs do things differently from the competition guys. Typically they smoke their meat ahead of time and then bring it up to temperature when it’s ordered, which sucks some moisture out. Plus, competition chefs only have to produce a single tasting portion for their critics. They can throw out the chickens they’ve overcooked and select only the finest couple of ribs when they’re gunning for BBQ gold.
“When you’re cooking competition, it is going from smoker to plate,” said Todd Parks, a veteran of the circuit who’s judged more than 40 events.
Regardless of experience, the judges assembled at Ace last week had an uncanny ability to agree on the best food. To my left during the group gorge was Josh Baugher, a relative rookie on the judging scene who’s attended fewer than a dozen competitions. To my right was Greg Gordon, who’s lent his opinion to 34 contests over the years and is a “master judge.” The two judges consistently agreed on the quality of the meat in front of them.
“KCBS ranks on a number scale from two to nine,” Gordon said. “We don’t give 10s. There are other sanctioning bodies that use a 10. We say nine is excellent, and we don’t use a ‘perfect.’ Perfect is a little mushy.”
In a competition, the judges rank each meat based on appearance, texture, and taste, weighting them so flavor is worth the most. Ace’s product consistently got excellent scores for appearance from the range of judges, if not for texture and taste. Baugher admitted the judging process isn’t without failings, though.
“I’ve taken leftovers home of something I didn’t think was that good at the competition and been like, ‘this is great,’” he said.
As for my own thoughts on that overcooked, under-seasoned spare rib that was falling off the bone? Best rib in town for my money.