Are you a Guinea Pig when you pay to participate?
Welcome to our three hour tour.
Last year when we entered the Guinea Pig 3 we had no idea what we were in for. It was our second competition ever and we were so overwhelmed with everything that a competition entails that we didn’t even understand the huge differences from a typical KCBS comp. We survived and met our goal of not finishing DAL (last). We were very excited to get our entry into the 2017 Guinea Pig (GP4) and see how much of a difference a year makes.
What is the Guinea Pig and how is the format different? You can get an overview of it here. Basically this is an event run by Sterling Ball of Big Poppa Smokers in collaboration with Smithfield and Snake River Farms. The idea is to have the same meat supplied to the teams to try and level the playing field. In addition, there is a no power rule so you need to understand your tools and how they work in this environment.
The meat is pre weighed and divided up as fairly as possible. There is a random drawing and each team is handed their cooler filled with meat. The environment is fun and there always seems to be good energy from all the teams. This year’s event was capped at 50 teams and I believe the final team total was 49 as someone possibly dropped out. Most likely due to the weather.
Did I mention the 2017 GP4 event was blessed with what was forecasted to be some of the worst weather California had seen in years? For those of you outside Southern California, you might be used to weather. We are spoiled and our version of bad weather is cloud cover or the marine layer that settles in on the beach on a warm summer day.
Days before the event the forecast was 2”-6” of rain Friday and into Saturday and to top it off the competition site was in a recessed campground lot. 99.9% of the time this means nothing as Indio, California (host city) is usually 70+ degrees and sunny. We were all concerned about the rain and wind and the possibility of a flooded comp site. There was the real possibility of things getting ugly.
I am fortunate to have to a BBQ partner that is super organized and tries to be prepared for everything. We also have Shuji (our mentor) who has ten years of competition BBQ experience and has seen it all. Although we are still relative rookies on the BBQ scene we felt prepared for the impending doom. We secured a 17’ U-Haul truck to set up as our prep area and used pop up tents to protect our smokers and wash station. Quick note – We rented the U-Haul in Indio so it kept cost to a minimum.
We try to bring tons of energy and enthusiasm to each event and the one goal we have been striving for is to nail all four meats. Unfortunately, our curse seems to be one meat spoiling our hopes and dreams. We arrived and started setting up our site. We are always very analytical about the site layout. Where is the sun rising, which way is the wind blowing and what is the rain going to do? All items that are critical and can spoil a successful cook.
We received our lucky #14 ping pong ball and after the random drawing we grabbed our cooler and headed back to the site to start meat prep. After finishing the trim and relaxing for a bit we decided to grab dinner and escape the falling water. Killing a few hours in a warm restaurant seemed like a great idea before we return to hiding in our trusty U-Haul. Upon returning we started our secondary prep and got ready for bed as it will be a long night and who knows what the weather would do. We both woke around 4am to get our pits started. If you haven’t followed us for long, Mike cooks the chicken, ribs and pork on his Humphrey’s Battle Box and I cook brisket on my Hunsaker Vortex Drum. The weather at this point was relatively mild, still raining but light.
We woke optimistic and felt like we are on top of our game and ready for action despite the rain, wind and minimal sleep. Due to the small size of the brisket I decided to split cook the point and flat. I felt this would give us our best shot at a great turn in. The brisket started off great and I was excited about the prospect of turning in a great box today! I transitioned to building our turn in boxes. I take great pride in them and feel like I nail them. While I know there is no score for garnish, we all know that first impressions can influence things. With this in mind I want these to be perfect. I had made an error last month at the Newport competition and I corrected that at GP4. These boxes looked great.
We decided to forgo Shuji’s famous breakfast and instead have Shu go on a coffee and breakfast run. The weather was just not ideal for a morning cookout. We were sad but I am sure Shu will be ready to provide a feast at Santa Anita if he can attend.
The weather was now intermittent with sprinkles and light wind. We had survived Armageddon. It was time to start getting ready for turn in’s. As we built each box we begin to see a familiar theme. We liked our food but we definitely do not love it. Our chicken was cooked great but due to damaged skins we only had five worthy in appearance. The profile was a tad spicy and we vacillated on whether to tone it down as that has stung us in the past. After a few minutes of dialog we decide to keep the chicken as is and roll with what brought us there.
Looking back now it’s really easy to see what went wrong. We were relying on our experience and not keeping our eyes on our printed timeline. Recipe for disaster! The chicken process was not exactly to plan and it threw everything off as Mike was not able to give each meat the proper attention it needed. The ribs probed perfectly but in reality were just past perfect once we sliced them. Ribs were very spicy as well and we toned them down just a bit before boxing. Box looked good so we had that going for us. Two mediocre turn in’s down and hopefully two great ones to go. We didn’t know it yet but the wheels were slowly coming off the bus.
Pork, which for us is usually straight forward turned into a big problem. Because of the adjusted timeline Mike made a fatal error. When we pulled the pork we went with our electronic temps and we did not probe for feel as they were reading perfect. This bit us in the ass when we sliced the money muscle. One was over and one was under. Taste was great but these were not going to do well in tenderness. We attempted to salvage the box with some tubes but in reality we knew that the damage was done.
We shook it off and went straight into brisket. We attack this together. Mike takes the point and starts the burnt end prep. We have had most success with splitting duties and we do not want to jinx that. Even though I make burnt ends every weekend for whatever reason it just feels right piling more work on Mike. I’m kidding about that.
I jumped on the flat and from the time I started slicing I realized the flat was not ideal. It was a bit over and a bit under at the same time! My trim was not perfect and that meant I had an inconsistent product. The weather did not help and I ended up doing some of the final prep a bit differently than in the past. I believe it cost us a point or two and I hate leaving points on the table. By the now the burnt ends were done and they’re great. In retrospect we probably should have just put those in the box as the slices were just OK.
The brisket box left and instead of our normal beer salute and a moment to exhale, we actually started packing up. Mike was ready to leave and has had a very difficult week with the loss of a family member. I was leaving in the morning for a trip to the mountains with the family and need to get home to pack as the ride up a snowy road is freaking me out a bit.
We get the bulk loaded up and I departed early. Mike and Shuji returned the U-Haul and hung out for the final awards before hitting the road. We recapped the scores on his drive and took our lumps as we knew they were well deserved. Our chicken and rib scores were exactly what they should have been and brisket was an average score for us. We knew our pork score be an issue and it did not wow the judges. We finished 29th out of 49 teams and missed the top half which is always our goal.
As we reflected on the entire field we saw many teams the same issues that we did. I guess that somehow takes a bit of the sting out. This was just one competition and we learn from it and move one. It is a real bummer when you spend so much time practicing and not being able to repeat those results in competition but that is BBQ. The meats and the conditions do not always cooperate. I guess that is why the top teams are on top and we are scratching our way to get there. We do love the journey and the BBQ community so we will continue to challenge ourselves to improve.
Our next stop is Reno for the Sam’s Club Qualifier, we have one month to tighten up the ship, get the trailer ready and get back to our core fundamentals. Process and Practice. Lots of it.
Rad Fondo BBQ