Del Anderson has spent many nights sleeping out under the stars in Summit County.
But instead of hiking through the backcountry and pitching a tent, Anderson is typically sitting in a lawn chair on Main Street in Frisco, making sure his smoker stays hot all night long.
Welcome to the world of competition barbecue, where cooks go to great lengths — including getting just a few hours of sleep — to ensure that their ribs, brisket, chicken and pork are the most tender and flavorful meats on the block. There are dozens of complex rules to follow and the clock is always ticking, which makes for a high-intensity, no-holds-barred atmosphere filled with sweat, fire and smoke.
Want to see the action for yourself? You’ll find more than 70 cooks stationed along Main Street in downtown Frisco over Father’s Day weekend for the Colorado BBQ Challenge, which organizers say is Colorado’s longest-running barbecue competition. This marks the 26th year of the challenge, which also includes live music, a “Bacon Burner” 6K running and walking race, chef demos, a distillery tour and even pig races. (Can’t make it to Frisco? The Denver BBQ Festival is happening the same weekend at Broncos Stadium.)
“What else could I do where the town lets me sleep on Main Street?” said Anderson, 54, with a laugh.
Though the competition at this Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned event is fierce, the friendships forged within this community are even stronger.
“It’s like a big extended family,” said Anderson, who has been competing in the Colorado BBQ Challenge since 1996 under the moniker 1-2-BBQ. “Everybody wants to win, but we’re all there to help each other.”
Competitive Barbecue 101
When he’s not cooking, Anderson works as an event representative for the Kansas City Barbecue Society, which means he travels around the country acting as a liaison between the cooks, judges and local competition organizers. He also helps enforce the organization’s extensive list of rules and regulations.
“We’re the ‘no-shenanigans’ guys,” Anderson said.
At the beginning of the competition in Frisco, everyone starts on an even playing field with raw, unmarinated and unseasoned meat. In the Kansas City Barbecue Society world, teams typically prepare four meats at each competition: chicken, pork ribs, pork (Boston butt, Boston roast, picnic or whole shoulder) and beef brisket.
Judges, who must take a class to become certified, score the meat on taste, tenderness and appearance with ratings from two to nine — no one gets a 10 because, “in the barbecue world, there is no perfect score,” Anderson says. The taste score is weighted more heavily than the others because, well, isn’t that what barbecue is really all about?
It’s a double-blind judging system and event representatives make sure to rotate the entries among the judges — one table of judges will score a team’s chicken, while another will rate their ribs. (This also means judges don’t end up totally stuffed — they’re sampling one team’s entry for each category, not tasting every meat from every team.)
Competitors have a 10-minute window to turn in their entry for each category, typically starting with chicken at noon. Because they’re usually rushing to meet these deadlines, cooks can make small mistakes that cost them big time.
For example, if a judge finds any extraneous paraphernalia — the tip of a rubber food service glove or a tiny piece of aluminum foil — stuck to the meat, that team is disqualified in that category. Cooks can also be penalized for using a prohibited garnish — only green lettuce, parsley, kale and cilantro are allowed in the entry boxes.
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Event representatives like Anderson must break this bad news to the cooks, who are all vying for the title of Grand Champion or Reserve Grand Champion, as well as awards for each category. There’s typically as much as $10,000 in prize money up for grabs.
“One of the worst things a cook can see is me coming out of the judging tent with an entry box in my hand, walking toward their booth, because they know something bad is going to happen,” Anderson said. “That scares a lot of cooks.”
Once all the ‘cue is turned in and the organizers are tabulating the final scores, it’s common for more experienced pitmasters to offer advice to rookies.
When he started competing in 2008, Megill Stewart was surprised by how friendly everyone was — after their meat was in the hands of the judges, of course. Stewart, for example, says he found a friend and mentor in Jason Ganahl, the man behind the award-winning GCue Championship BBQ.
“It’s a competition and to me, competition is war,” said Stewart, 41, who runs Big Daddy’s Texas BBQ. “But even though it’s war, the people are still nice to you. I’ve never encountered any type of ill-will from a person on the circuit. Everybody has always greeted me and treated me like a brother. They’ve opened their trailers, their tents and their arms to me.”
For Stewart, who grew up in Dallas and went to college near Houston, barbecue has a nostalgic element to it. It harkens back to a time when people spent summer nights sharing a potluck meal with neighbors at a block party, he said. That feeling is a big part of the reason why he’s made barbecue into a career.
“It starts out as a hobby and then it consumes you,” Stewart said. “It’s a lifestyle.”
Striving for perfection
That sentiment also rings true for Tony Roberts, who started the Proud Souls competitive barbecue team in 2014. Though Roberts and his teammate Dan Casey both had more traditional jobs at the time, they quickly began daydreaming about how to make barbecue their full-time professions.
They converted an old tire shop into what Roberts calls a “barbecue paradise,” opening Proud Souls BBQ & Provision in the Sloan’s Lake neighborhood in October 2017. The shop sells all the tools and equipment you’d need to become a barbecue master in your own backyard, as well as offering catering and an array of helpful barbecue classes.
Like many teams at the Colorado BBQ Challenge and other competitions, the Proud Souls team also serves up delicious smoked meats and trimmings to the public. Serving thousands of people all weekend requires Roberts to monitor his smoker 24/7, sleeping for a few hours at a time on a cot nearby.
Every once in awhile, he contemplates the great lengths he and other cooks go to for their sport. But, he says, of course it’s all worth it.
“Owning a barbecue store, I see it every day when people come in and they think we’re nuts for doing what we’re doing — but then they want to try it,” said Roberts, 43. “It’s obviously a passion, I wouldn’t stay up for 20 hours straight for days on end cooking if it wasn’t something I truly enjoyed.”
And because barbecue can never really be perfected, there will always be a reason to keep firing up the smoker and trying to win.
“Every brisket, every rack of ribs, every pork shoulder or whole hog is different — it’s a different animal, it was raised in a different place, it ate different things,” Roberts said. “Our job as cooks is to manipulate it and do our best to get the results that we want. But it’s not so much about the end result — it’s more about how we got there, how long it took, the fire we built, who we spent time with.”