Sunday, March 22, 2015

Competition BBQ Class: Pork Choppers University

I attended Pork Choppers University this weekend in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  PCU is a high level, tell - all competition barbecue class presented by the Warren County Pork Choppers.  They are a fixture on the BBQ circuit and were the Grand Champions at our first solo competition last year.

Donny Bray at Rocky Top BBQ Cook-off in Knoxville, TN May 2014.

Don't feel bad that they beat us last year.  For the whole year, Warren County Pork Choppers pretty much beat everyone else like they were a brother-in-law's mule.  That's why they won Team of the Year for KCBS in 2014.

So I decided to learn from the best and moseyed up to "the holler" for their class.  This is just a review of the class - I'm not giving away any secrets here.  First, it's their content, not mine.  Second, I could tell you but you'd have to cut Warren County Pork Choppers a check first. 

In KCBS judging for BBQ, you get three scores from 0 to 9 for appearance, taste, and tenderness.  Since this is a BBQ competition class, I'm going to review it on that scale, just changing the categories a bit. I give Pork Choppers University competition BBQ class Triple 9's! 

Appearance (facilities, hospitality, learning environment) - 9
The class is held at their newly built barn located in the rolling hills of Western Kentucky.  There is no cell phone coverage in the holler which is a plus - no distractions. 

The barn was built specifically for conducting classes so it's a perfect fit and a great learning environment.  It may be a barn but it is completely outfitted with all of the creature comforts (heating/air, restrooms, etc).  It is an ideal set up because you go from inside class room to outdoor demonstrations with just the roll of a garage door.

Warren County Pork Choppers barn
Ours was just the 3rd class in the new barn.  Kitchen is on the left, the middle and right side are the class room.

The podium has an overhead mirror and an overhead projection screen so you can see everything going on in detail even if you are standing all the way at the back by the buffet tables.  The barn has a professional audio system. 

Pork Choppers University
We had 30 or so in our class but the barn can handle more than that.

The team provided snacks, happy hour (open bar), and a full teppanyaki style dinner on Friday.  Saturday morning they put out a huge breakfast spread of biscuits and sawmill gravy, sausage, bacon, breakfast casserole, eggs, and more.  Then of course you sample all of the BBQ.  You won't go away hungry, I promise. 

Donny Bray (left) and Billy DoRag Carroll (right) whipping up veggies for the teppanyaki dinner.

Shot of the interior during happy hour.
It is an entertaining learning experience.  I really enjoyed meeting other BBQ people outside of my normal regional contests area.  There were people from Wisconsin, Connecticut, South Dakota, Kansas City, Alabama, South Carolina, and more.  The team makes it fun and uses a lot of humor.  Billy "DoRag" Carroll was a riot, Donny was full of quips (like the brother in law's mule one I stole), and the team members take light hearted jabs at each other.

It's not just Donny - it is a true team approach.  Each and every interaction I had with a team member was friendly, helpful, and I walked away with what I needed.

It is a comfortable, well designed set up for learning.

Taste (Content) - 9
The class is advertised as "tell all" and after taking it, I have no doubt that Donny gave us the full spectrum of his program.  Not once did I get the impression he was holding back or being coy.  He even told us things he is currently working on changing, even if it is still in the experimentation phase.  This is not just rubs and sauces - Donny is giving you a complete turnkey operation, everything you need to be successful. 
  • Detailed techniques and processes for product selection, trimming, injecting, brining, seasoning, cooking, and presenting.  For example, he gives specifics for how much of 3 rubs to put on the bottom of chicken and different ratios for the top.  Yeah, that level of detail.
  • Donny talks through equipment, suppliers, fuel, times/temps, and just about anything that could possibly related to winning at BBQ.
  • There were plenty of eye opening surprises in the content.  But each time you might question a technique or suggestion, all you have to do is look at that Team of the Year trophy.  They scored higher and won more contests than any other team in the country.  They might know what they are talking about.  Examples -
    • The type of ribs they use is NOT what I expected.
    • When they apply smoke was suprising.
    • You do what with your brisket!?!?
    • A sharpie as a BBQ tool?  Like the permanent marker - sharpie? 
  • Donny discusses how things are supposed to be judged (i.e. "only judge what is presented to you in the box") versus the reality ("it puts the burnt ends in, or else it gets the hose again").
  • Despite his credentials, Donny is a very humble and approachable instructor.  He presented everything as just his opinion but he was absolutely confident in those opinions.  

Backwoods smokers, Warren County Pork Choppers
Smokers rolling at 6 in the morning.

Tracy showed us how to build a lettuce blind box that actually looks good.  As a judge, most of the ones that I see look awful so we have always used parsley when we compete.  But parsley is time consuming and sticks to the sauce.

Any time I questioned anything Donny said, I just went into the kitchen and looked at the wall and his Team of the Year hardware.

Donny Bray, Warren County Pork Choppers, Brisket, burnt ends
They shared their no fail burnt ends technique.  Results spoke for themselves.

It was great being able to open the roll up door and walk straight from the class room to the cooking area.

Warren County Pork Choppers, Pork Choppers University
Donny working through his chicken program.

Competition bbq ribs, warren county pork choppers
Ribs ready for foiling.  He shared some ideas about sugar and toughness of the skin that I had not thought about.

competition chicken
These didn't have the appearance he wanted because we were cramming 9 in per pan since we needed so many.  That didn't give any room for air circulation so the edges weren't as pretty as normal.

These were the back up ribs after someone (cough, Donny, cough) got so excited about the taste/texture of the ribs and started passing them out before we built the blind box.  It proved the point he made several times about distractions and we got a good laugh from it.

A little blurrier than my other pork shots but I just loved the steam coming off in this pic.

They taught us great techniques for keeping pork warm and juicy during holding and while building your blind boxes.

Competition blind box pork
Pork blind box. 

brisket blind box competition
Brisket slices and burnt ends, always my favorite.
Tenderness (Takeaways) - 9
One funny lesson we learned is "Don't eat your turn in ribs before you build your turn in box".   Yeah, that class.

But my main takeaway without revealing secrets is this. I now have absolute confidence that I am going to have a much better year this BBQ competition season and I'm not talking just about scores.  I know that I am going to enjoy it more and have a better experience because I have the tools, knowledge, and processes to be more organized and focused on what needs to be done. Without a doubt, I got every penny of my money's worth from this class. 

If you have been thinking about taking a comp class, do it, you won't regret it.  It is educational and entertaining.  Specifically, the Pork Choppers University is excellent for
  • Rookies wanting to get on the fast track and side step the mistakes,
  • Teams looking to improve their scores and get more calls, and
  • Veteran teams that just need to shake up their program.
I highly recommend it.

One side note:  If you do take the class - drive carefully down Jenkins Road on Saturday morning.  It was before dawn as I came over a hill and almost hit a black cow standing in the middle of the road. "Hey Donny! I brought two more briskets to class!"

To find out when the next Pork Choppers University session is, keep an eye on the Warren County Pork Choppers Facebook page or you can contact Tory via email.

[FTC Standard Disclaimer] I received no compensation for this post, have no affiliation with Warren County Pork Choppers, and paid full price for the class.