Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ramblings: Responsibilities of Judges

This is our first guest article on the three facets of BBQ competitions. We appreciate Gary taking the time to offer his perspective. Gary is a KCBS certified barbecue judge who previously spent two seasons as an assistant on an award winning competition team and is now in his third year "judging" barbecue at restaurants across the Northeast for his website www.pigtrip.net. He probably spends twice as much time thinking about barbecue as he does eating it, judging it and writing about it.

The Responsibility of Judging

by Gary Goldblatt


(Hudson Valley Ribfest)

KCBS judges have a pretty good deal. Arrive at the site after 10:00AM, pay no admission and eat some of the best barbecue on the planet. It's a privilege, and with that privilege comes responsibility. Any responsible barbecue judge must do the following:

Show up. It seems like stating the obvious, but simply showing up is a key requirement. The increasing frequency of no-shows at contests I've attended indicates that it's a requirement far too many judges don't take seriously enough. I take “showing up” to also include confirming with the contest organizer that you're coming or providing ample notice that you're not coming. It means taking the organizer's cell phone number in case something happens on the way there. It also means not showing up at teams' sites and fraternizing the day of the contest. It means showing up sober, showing up hungry and showing up with the proper mental attitude to judge upwards of two dozen meat entries.

View and taste the meat. This seems like another instance of stating the obvious, but the entries need to be tasted. By tasting, I mean more than one bite. I have no problem with judges who store the leftovers in coolers and take them home after the contest as long as they've done their due diligence during the contest. If you take one dainty bite and don't double-check that initial taste against a piece from the opposite end of the sample, or "play with the meat" to get a true sense of its tenderness, you're not really judging.

Score the meat. By scoring, I mean scoring according to the KCBS methods, where a top score of 9 is excellent, a 6 is average, a 4 is poor and a 2 is inedible. The dreaded 1 is reserved for disqualifications. And by scoring, I mean score what's presented—it's important to score without introducing personal bias. If you love chicken thighs and cook them because they're moist, you shouldn't score down chicken breast for appearance just because you think it's going to be dry. And if you hate cinnamon, you shouldn't score it down for taste just because it's cinnamon. If you taste cinnamon overload that overpowers the meat and obscures the sauce, go ahead and score it down. But if the cook integrated cinnamon into the profile by balancing it with complementary flavors, it should score well, even if it’s not your cup of (cinnamon-flavored) tea. There's no room for vigilante judges.

(Hudson Valley Ribfest)

The hardest thing for me in judging is not comparing entries. If I give the first chicken sample an 8 for flavor and the second one is even better, but not worthy of a perfect 9 score, a quandary arises. On one hand, I want to give it a higher score than the first one, but on the other hand, I don't want to give it a 9 if a better one comes along that truly deserves the 9. The correct answer is to forget about the first 8, score this one an 8 also, and be satisfied having made only one error, not two.

There's no need to rush. I'm typically the last judge to submit the scorecard at my table, because I handle the food, take up to four bites per sample and truly deliberate before committing to a score. This isn't a free lunch; it's important stuff and it should require some thought.

Discussing the food? That's forbidden during judging, encouraged after judging. I like to chat with the other judges after the sheets have been turned in, because I hear different viewpoints, and I always learn something that will help me become a better judge next time.