Skip to main content

Grill, baby, grill: BBQ competitions are hot

  • Story Highlights
  • Barbecue is a serious sport for cooks who want to prove nobody does it better
  • Hundreds of barbecue competitions take place across the country each year
  • Contests usually have four categories: chicken, ribs, pork and brisket
  • Are you a grill master? Show off your cooking skills
By A. Pawlowski
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font

(CNN) -- Of all the great sports of summer, only one leaves competitors covered with sauce, smelling like smoke and clutching trophies with charcoal under their fingernails.

Left to right, Carol Reyes, Elsa Zavala, Jennifer Baird and Lisa Martens are the "Shady Ladies" barbecue team.

Clint Cantwell, right, and his family show off some of the awards he's won for competition barbecue.

Barbecue -- the staple of gatherings with friends and family on hot, lazy days -- has become serious business for amateur cooks who want to prove nobody does it better.

Not content to keep their skills confined to backyards, these competitive foodies hit the road loaded up with meat, equipment and secret recipes to challenge like-minded aficionados in hundreds of barbecue competitions each year.

"I don't play golf, I don't really have any other hobbies, so I own a lot of grills and smokers, and this is my fun," said iReporter Clint Cantwell of Garden City, New York.

Cantwell, 39, is the founder of the Smoke In Da Eye team and winner of last year's New York State BBQ Championship.

Born in Texas and married to a woman from Memphis, Tennessee -- two regions famous for their barbecue --Cantwell said the fare has always been part of his family life. He began entering contests in 2006 and now competes in about six a year, enough to fill a trophy room on the third floor of his house with awards and medals. Watch Cantwell prepare a grilled stuffed meatloaf

Cantwell has plenty of chances to win more.

The Kansas City Barbeque Society alone sanctions 300 events across the country. Then there's the Memphis Barbecue Network, the International Barbeque Cookers Association, the Central Texas Barbeque Association and others.

Ed-'Que-Cators and Shady Ladies

State and regional contests culminate in prestigious annual events like the American Royal Barbecue in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue in Lynchburg, Tennessee, both held in October.

"You could literally begin in New York and work your way all across the country just eating barbecue at these competitions, it's quite amazing," said Tom Gellert, who began competing last year.

Gellert is the director of music and art education for the Harborfields Central School District in Greenlawn, New York. His colleague John Valente is the director of health, athletics and physical education for the school district.

Educators by day, they're the Ed-'Que-Cators on the competitive circuit, a team that grew out of a mutual passion for barbecue.

The men started out judging barbecue competitions, but decided to compete after they realized they could do much better than a lot of the entries they were sampling. See some recipes and tips from our grill masters »

"My personal hope is when I retire that I'm going to culinary school as the next stage of my career," said Gellert, 51. "I hope that some day, I'll be able to put on my tax return that I do this for a living."

The meat-centric contests may seem like male-dominated events, but plenty of women take part. Husband-and-wife teams are common on the circuit, and all-male teams get lots of competition from the opposite sex.

"We get some little sneers sometimes, 'Oh that's a girl team,' but when we come out ahead ... then we kind of get a little more respect afterward," said Lisa Martens, a member of the all-female Shady Ladies team.

The 37-year-old bookkeeper from suburban Houston, Texas, and three friends pack into a travel trailer to take part in a couple of competitions a year, both for charity.

Grilling vs. barbecuing

Think you've got that special touch and a killer recipe that will wow the judges?

First, let's start with the terminology to make sure you're in the right competition. Grilling is hot and fast, or what most people do when they cook a hamburger or a salmon steak over an open flame.

Barbecuing is low and slow, a process that takes 12 hours or more as meat is exposed to gentle, indirect heat in a smoker. Things get more complex with the addition of dry rub seasonings, wood flavoring and liquid injections to help keep the meat moist, but the end result is heavenly for barbecue fans.

"The product you end up with is the most tender, juicy piece of meat hopefully you've ever had in your life," Gellert said.

Competitions can have both a grilling and a barbecue component, though grilling contests are mostly unique to the Northeast, and winning them doesn't result in the same bragging rights as the barbecue awards, Cantwell added. Watch what it's like to take part in a barbecue competition

The format can vary from region to region, but the events usually have four categories: chicken, ribs, pork and brisket. Since it takes hours to cook everything just right, contestants set up the evening before the judging and spend the night carefully tending to their meat.

They sleep in trailers or tents, though sleep is a relative term. Cantwell calculates that during competitions, he sleeps just 4 hours and cooks for about 20.

"By the time it gets to be turn-in time, I'm pretty fried," he said.

On competition day, each meat category is submitted to judges who grade on taste, appearance and texture. The judges can't talk to each other during the process, must drink only bottled water and are not allowed to wear any cologne or perfume, said Gellert, who is certified as a Kansas City Barbecue Society judge.

The judging is also blind to ensure complete fairness, so the cooks aren't allowed to make any identifying marks on their entries. "Sculpting" meat a certain way, for example, might be grounds for disqualification, Gellert said.

Competitors can collect anything from a gift certificate to thousands of dollars in prizes, but most enter for the excitement and camaraderie, not the money.


"You're never going to become rich cooking competitive barbecue," Cantwell said.

"I'm just trying to have fun and share my knowledge about grilling and barbecue and meet new friends and travel the country."

All About Food and Cooking

  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print