I made the decision last fall that Draper’s BBQ was going to make a run at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Competition in 2015. Now, some may think that is planning too far ahead. I can tell you it is not far enough after being a part of a few teams that have competed at MIM it is barely enough time. Even with a team of seasoned veterans of barbecue, you still need time to come together and learn how to sing and operate in harmony.
So how does a newly formed team prepare for what many consider the biggest dance in all of barbecue? First you practice, practice, practice. Most good teams can get 90+% of what they need through research and trial and error, but even the best team needs a sanity check and some insider info to get that last 5-10%. That last bit is what separates teams from placing in the middle of the pack at MIM or getting lucky enough to be in the top 10 or if the barbecue God’s smile on your team, make the finals.
To get that last bit you either have to know some great pitmasters who are willing to mentor you or you have to find a class to gain that information. Draper’s BBQ has a lot of barbecue friends who have done very well for themselves as far as winning is concerned and have shared lots of info along the way, but to be honest we still wanted to get more info before we take the MIM plunge again.
Competing at Memphis in May costs literally thousands of dollars. To be willing to write those checks without sponsorship you better know your team is good and you better have every ounce of information you can get your hands on. That left me searching for a barbecue class, preferably one put on by some MIM veterans.
My search was very short thankfully because I knew of Barbecue Live from being friends with Malcom Reed. It is a relatively new class held by Mark Lambert of Sweet Swine O’ Mine and Malcom and Waylon Reed of Killer Hogs. Two great teams and both have been on a tear the past few years collecting a lot of trophies. It is one of the only classes ran by a committee of pitmasters who are willing so share all they know in order to help you bring home that Grand Champion call. As if working with Mark, Malcom and Waylon weren’t enough they are still only part of the story.
Barbecue Live also includes special guests at each of their classes. In my class Danny Montgomery of Tuscumbia River Bottom Barbequers and Patrick Banks of Booty Que were there. I know these names may not ring many bells so let me clarify just who these men are.
Danny Montgomery is a personal hero of mine. He is a legend to be quite honest, although he would never admit to it. Danny has won ribs at MIM was the 2002 Jack Daniels International Grand Champion and only followed that up with winning Reserve in 2003 and 2004. He has mentored numerous teams from all over the world and has been instrumental in making countless champions. Danny, for those in the know, is one of the most sought after coaches in the world and still one of the top whole hog and shoulder cooks around. Danny Montgomery might not be a household name, but he deserves to be. He is one the best teachers I have ever met and I am proud to know him.
Patrick Banks is a recent Barbecue Live graduate who just so happened to win ribs at this year’s MIM only to follow that up with numerous KCBC Grand Champions. To put it bluntly, 2014 has been Patrick’s year and he is quick to let you know that Barbecue Live helped light the fuse. Patrick is also very active in Operation Barbecue Relief and just an all-around great guy. Not many cooks would show you their exact recipe that just won them the big trophy at MIM.
I only talk about Danny and Patrick to highlight just how comprehensive the knowledge base is at Barbecue Live, but it in no way is meant to take anything away from Mark or Malcom and Waylon. Sweet Swine O’ Mine has won MIM several times and it has been hard to find a contest in recent memory that Killer Hogs entered where they didn’t come home with a trophy.
Knowledge base only matters though if that knowledge can be demonstrated and conveyed in a manner in which it can be learned and remembered. I am glad to say Barbecue Live did a solid job of this, but even happier that they did it in a way that pushes the student to want to perfect a craft instead of just recreate it.
What do I mean by that? Well, I have taken a few classes now and many barbecue classes center themselves on providing you with an exact time line and procedure to perform every step. Barbecue Live is willing to share this with you but they do not base everything on this. They are more about arming you with a method of preparing your entries that judges can’t help but score well instead of creating a cookie cutter clone of their process.
Barbecue Live is also one of the very few classes that cover all four KCBS meats plus MBN shoulder and whole hog. When you stop to think about that you really start to understand how much of a value this class is.
How can they cover all of this in what amounts to about 18 hours of instruction? First off this class assumes you can trim ribs, pull silver skin and do the basics. They also have a squad of cooks who are running pits, assisting with bringing meats in and generally doing anything needed to assist Mark, Malcom and Waylon while they are actually teaching the class.
Then there is Mrs. Rachelle Reed, I could spend a whole page telling you the enumerable things she does to make the class a success. Chelle not only did the chicken trimming demonstration and parsley box builds, she was in constant motion prepping lunch, ensuring there was plenty to drink available and generally making everyone feel at home. Rachelle is truly the matriarch of Barbecue Live and a force to be recognized.
I can’t say enough how valuable this support cast is to the overall success of the class. They operate as an army providing meats to the instructors so they can demo every stage of the cooking process. The timeline and attention to detail to make this possible is nearly mind boggling.
While I won’t go into detail on the information covered I think it is important to give you an idea what each day is like at Barbecue Live. Don’t mistake my lack of detail as lack of information, I do this strictly out of respect for the class. Barbecue Live answers any and all questions and shows you everything, nothing hidden or reserved.
The class didn’t officially start until 7:45am on Saturday, but Malcom and crew did something very nice on Friday. They had a Meet and Greet on Friday evening that was a great old fashioned southern fish fry. The Meet and Greet was a nice touch and the first glimpse of how useless my diet was going to be for the weekend.
The next morning everyone got registered grabbed a seat and settled in. I will say this right off the bat, Saturday is a long, long day of information. It is packed full but a great day. Chicken is covered first and you barely get the first cup of coffee down before you get to try a piece of chicken. Ribs are up next and in both cases it was very nice to compare and contrast how Killer Hogs does their entry vs Sweet Swine O’ Mine vs Booty Que. You really come to understand that while each of the pitmasters do very similar things overall, they each have their own unique and identifiable flavor profile.
In intermission of ribs lunch was served. You will find a theme from this point forward concerning food. The theme….no corners cut. Every meal provided was awesome and done with care. Lunch consisted of some awesome sides and headlined by Gus’s World Famous Chicken. Gus’s is seriously the only place I stop at every time I am in the Memphis area. Nope, not barbecue, Gus’s. Gus’s isn’t the cheapest place on the block and it was very nice to have it brought in for the class instead of pizza.
After lunch the remainder of ribs is covered along with getting to eat them. Then it is on to whole hog prep, which was great. Being a future whole hog team at MIM I can tell you even after cooking several and being mentored by some of the best, we learned some amazing tips from Mark Lambert. I don’t think there is another person on the planet that knows the intramuscular structure of the hog better. Mark is a credit to the barbecue world and does a great job covering the topic.
Next up is trimming of butts and shoulders. Again, you typically will not get both in the same class and it was great. Many times I found myself thinking that this really was two classes for the price of one. There was so much covered between the butts and shoulders and all of it valuable.
Then we moved into the first part of brisket. Again, seeing how each pitmaster differed between their prep and products used was nice. Better than that though was knowing that we would get to taste the two side by side to compare and contrast.
Dinner is one of the last things on the docket for the day. It was comprised of an amazing smoked skirt steak, smoked pork loin and sides. To say it was fantastic is again an understatement. I have never in my life been so sick from eating so much in a given day, but so happy at the same time. We all had eaten so many of the ribs tasting the difference between Compart Duroc pork vs regular pork that dinner was nearly an afterthought for most of us. That did not deter us from enjoying a great dinner though.
After dinner there was a recap of the day along with a final Q&A. I would like to say we all went out and had a beer after that, but seriously we all went straight to the hotel and tried to sleep off the food coma.
After about 12 hours sleeping off the food coma and information overload from the previous day we started again at 8am. Before I really get into Day 2 let me side track for a minute and highlight something that I really liked. Barbecue Live used a camera focused on the presenter’s hands and this was shown on a 40in television. This was great because in some classes a gaggle of students cram around the presenter and only those in the first row or two get to see precisely what is going on. In this set up people could also sit back and check out the television which lessened the need to be shoulder to shoulder with the presenter. That’s not to say you couldn’t literally stand next to Malcom and Mark during the whole class, you could, the camera set up just allowed a fair view for all. So often times many would gather up close to the television as well, it was really neat to see.
First up was the wrapping of butts and briskets, followed by building of parsley boxes. As with all previous topics everything was well covered and all questions answered including injection and mop recipes.
Next pork blind boxes were covered in depth. I will say this is yet another topic where the quote “we will show you how to build boxes that judges can’t help but score well” rang true. Waylon spent a long time going over every aspect of exactly how he perfects his box and it was great to see firsthand the level of care that goes into that box.
Whole hog presentation was next. Mark went through basically a MBN presentation explaining where he would pull from and why. He even managed to show me some cuts deep inside the hams that I never really noticed before. Again, demonstrating his amazing knowledge of the anatomy of the hog and proving why he has won MIM a few times.
Lunch consisted of the whole hog and if you’ve never bellied up to a whole hog you are missing out. To me it is still the pentacle of pork and why we cook whole hog. It was awesome to contrast our flavor profiles with Mark’s and get a good feel for where we stand. That piece of info alone was worth the cost of admission for us.
The class concluded with barbecue business and marketing. It was interesting to hear how different the paths to success were for Killer Hogs and Sweet Swine O’ Mine. Again all questions were answered all things good, bad and ugly were discussed. This info would be invaluable to new teams or a budding sauce/rub company. This section alone if expanded on could be a complete day and honestly I would love to see it expanded and a few more sauce and rub companies invited to the table to add even more diversity to the conversation. I for one would make the trek in a heartbeat to be a part of that panel.
So what is the take away on Barbecue Live? Honestly, it is one of the best classes in the country bar none. While it may be a newer class, it is done right and doesn’t miss anything. If I knew absolutely nothing about barbecue I might find the class, perhaps, a little advanced. But if I knew that little about barbecue I would honestly be spending my time on the internet watching videos from How To BBQ Right, researching, reading forums and putting into practice what I found before I was willing to part with my money for an experience like this. On the flip side of that coin, this class would put a fair pitmaster over the top and on the winning track quickly. Some may find the level of information off putting since it is so in depth, but as someone who has done this for a long time I still found many tidbits of information that were well worth the cost. The class does not pretend to make you a Killer Hogs or Sweet Swine O’ Mine clone, but they do promise to help you become the best pitmaster you can be and I think they more than deliver on that promise. So hit up the website and sign up, you won’t be disappointed.