Judging The Iron Chef @ The Blues & BBQ Festival

Sarah Green

So it turns out that the formation of the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) started as a big joke by Carolyn and Gary Wells and Rick Welch (a.k.a Sir Loin) one fine evening in 1985. They put together a bar-b-que newsletter, called it the "Bull Sheet," and an organization of of fanatical bbq aficionados was formed. Membership at official formation = 12. Since then, the membership numbers have exploded (300,000 at last count) and the light-hearted, half-joking nature of the society has taken a serious turn for the...well...serious! Part of the KCBS's Judges' oath states that each judge shall accept his/her duty to judge objectively and subjectively so that "truth, justice, excellence in Barbeque and the preservation of the American way of life..." may be strengthened and preserved forever. Wow. I think that may be more moving for people than the swearing in of the Commander in Chief. (Commander in Chef, perhaps?) 

All I can say is this, there was NO joking around during the Iron Chef competition at the Blues, Views, and BBQ's Festival at the Levitt Pavilion in Westport this weekend where I had the distinct honor to sit as an honorary judge. The weekend-long festival, featuring phenomenal performances by truly great artists like Blues Travelers, Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials, and Papa Chubbs, was a mecca for BBQ lovers and chefs, both professional and amateur. Our own Chef Nicole taught how to prepare an entire meal on the grill in under and hour, and friendly competitions, including the Kids Q on Sunday abounded. Smokers smoked, grillers grilled, sauces were lathered and chins were continuously wiped as guests from near and far sampled the goods. Chefs from JC's Wicked BBQ, Vuvuzelas, Purple Turtle Catering and WTF (NO! - It stands for Wakeman Town Farms!) to name a few, prepared ribs, chicken, tenderloin, and anything else that mooed, oinked, or clucked.  All in good fun and friendly competition. But once the Iron Chef began, the air turned formidable. There was some serious adjudicating to be done and the invited panel of certified judges was ready for the challenge. And so was I. (Yikes!) 

I must start by thanking Rich Nightingale, KCBS judge to my right.  He must share some DNA with 'ole Florence because he truly saved my ctbites rump steak! I never knew that judging at a "Q" would be so intense. I realized that I was out of my league from the start when, upon entering the tent in my white - yes, believe it or not, WHITE! - shirt, the other judges stared in disbelief. Red is the shirt color of choice at a BBQ judging competition. Duh!  What was I thinking? I pretended not to notice the stares as we all took seats at one of 4 tables. We were handed score cards with the three categories distinctly outlined - appearance, taste, and texture. Next we were each given a laminated place-mat with bold, square borders delineating space for each sample.  And so, the event began...

Master of ceremonies, Doug, gave us the ingredient list for this particular competition -Pork Tenderloin, Onion, Zucchini, Bell Peppers, and Sweet Potato. -and reminded us that scores (9 as the highest and 1 as the lowest) in the "appearance" category should reflect general aesthetic and the ability to discern each ingredient within the presentation. Also, each platter was to be judged on its own merit and not compared to any other platter that might follow. A last minute surprise ingredient was also given to the chefs, Jim Beam, and at this point I wished they had offered shots of the Bourbon to the judge at Table 1, seat 3 - namely, me! Other ingredients, of the chef's discretion, were also submittable. Four platters were brought to each table and we began. I turned to my right to ask ole Rich another question, this time about the tearing of the paper towels and the careful drenching of these paper towel sections in water,  but he gently put one finger to his lips to shush me as politely as he could. No talking once the competition began! Sheesh, didn't I know ANYTHING?  (now where WAS that bourbon?!)

We were to judge entrees 228, 229, 230, and 231 - the names were not revealed, keeping all judging fair and equal. Each platter was displayed in all its glory and the judges examined with learned eyes. Most competitors in our group served the loin in rounds but vegetable creativity varied dramatically on each plate. Some chefs whipped the sweet potato while others sliced or diced. Onion was served in rounds with grill markings or sliced and layered. Zucchini was often cut length-wise and layered in flower-like fashion and the bell pepper (red and green were present) was either sliced or diced and spread like confetti around the dish. Beautiful presentations by all, but I had my favorite. I scored my card with confidence...and then looked over at Rich's card, just to be SURE I wasn't totally out in left field. I think he covered his card with his arm after that, but I'll never know for sure if that was intentional. Finally, it was time to chow! Each dish was passed around to the judges and we were to place at least one piece of each ingredient on our laminated mats in the specified, numbered square. Tongs? Spatulas? Serving spoons? No, fingers were the way to go, so I did. Then, the wiping of the fingers on the moistened paper towels - AHA! now I get it, no thanks to ole Florence over there - and on to the selection from the next competitor. And so on until our laminated cards were full. Now finally, the eating could begin. 

Here, creativity with spices and ingredient combinations were key. Each competitor seemed to outdo the one before by creatively combining the natural juice from the pork and melding it with the flavors in the veg and starch in whatever way each saw fit. Each chef had done a solid job and choosing a winner would be no easy feat. But, for the sake of ctbites and the preservation of the American way of life, I had to choose, and I did. But would my favorite win? I suppose I'll never know as the numbers attached to the names were never revealed. Winners were announced by name and number of points. What I do know is this:

Iron Chef #1 = "The Vuvuzelas" with 163.4288 points (and by the way, a Vuvuzela is the horn that was blown at the world cup in South Africa)

Iron Chef #2 = "Purple Turtle Catering with 161.7142 points

Iron Chef #3 =  "Lazy Bones BBQ" with 160.0000 points

and "Purple Turtle Catering" was the only professional in the top three! 

I had to leave before the final shakedown but my experience as a BBQ judge was unique and incredibly educational. In fact, I may just take one of the judging classes they offer and get myself certified. Any interest? Check out KCBS.com for all the information you could ever need. And until next time, here's to "excellence in BBQ" forever more!