With all the contests and various sanctioning bodies, competition barbecue can get confusing, but one thing is clear. Getting into the Champions Corner at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo World’s Championship Bar-B-Que is a big honor. It is bestowed upon the winners of the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo Bar-B-Que Cook-Off, the American Royal, and the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue, also known as The Jack. That means Royal winner Tuffy Stone and the Cool Smoke team will be headed back to Houston to face off against Jack winner Darren Warth and the Smokey D’s BBQ team for the second year in a row. They’ll be joined in the Champion’s Corner by a couple Texans – defending champion Jamie Geer and newcomer and San Antonio winner Ernest Servantes.
Warth calls this weekend’s Houston contest “one of those bucket list items.” He finished 16th last year with his rib entry, and plans to come back as long as he keeps getting invited. “The Texas hospitality is second to none,” he told me, but did lament the Houston traffic. His chances on Sunday are looking good if his hot streak continues. The Smokey D’s BBQ team took home the title at The Jack this year, followed by a win at the King of the Smokers, which is a sort of all-star competition held in California. His win at the American Royal in 2013 is what propelled him to a spot in Houston last year, but in 2014 he dropped to fourth in the Royal standings and his fellow competitor Tuffy Stone took home the win.
Stone is also back in Houston for the second year running with his Cool Smoke team. His brisket last year brought him a third place finish, but he’s not exactly in the swing of things. The last couple months have been dominated by filming for the next season of the BBQ Pitmasters reality competition show. From the parking lot of Southside Market in Elgin, a road weary Stone who only competes five or six times a year told me “I haven’t lit my pit since the Jack.” That was back in October when he finished 23rd, just below a team from Australia.
Stone and Warth travel the country for these competitions, so they rarely see a hometown advantage, but this Houston competition in particular feels like an away game for them. The rules are different, as are the proteins. Instead of chicken thighs, teams must turn in half chickens, and the easiest cut to cook, the pork butt, isn’t in the lineup. You also have to cook everything twice. If you make it to the finals table, the judges require a fresh batch of your barbecue, so that second brisket better be as good or better than the first.
Tuffy Stone said “This contest and Memphis in May really get me out of business-as-usual.” It’s not just the rule changes. “I’m cooking on a borrowed smoker, and I won’t have my rig,” Stone says, but he’s not worried. ”When the fire gets lit in that firebox, it’s a meditative kinda thing.” Darren Warth is more concerned with the competition he’ll be up against. “It’s a really challenging contest…There’s no room for error.”
The biggest challenge might be the defending champion. In his welding shop just south of Fort Worth, Jamie Geer builds the Jambo pits that much of the competition will be using. He took home the 2014 world championship with a stellar chicken entry. This year he triples his chance of winning since those in the Champion’s Corner get the advantage of turning in all three meats. That also means added expenses. Each of Geer’s Wagyu briskets from Snake River Farms will set him back $200, and that chicken from Whole Foods is more expensive than he’s used to paying back home in Rendon. “They’re high, but what the hell is $17 if it can win you a world championship?”
More than four hundred entries will be in the mix come turn-in time this year. Geer figures about half of them are just there to party. He has his target on the other two hundred. “Nobody’s ever won it back to back, so I’d love to win it.” He’ll have to get past fellow Champion’s Corner mate Ernest Servantes to get the title.
Servantes came to prominence in the barbecue competition world after winning the television competition Chopped Grill Masters in 2012. That led to an appearance on BBQ Pitmasters later that year where Tuffy Stone was the host and one of the judges. Servates is looking forward to going toe-to-toe with him now. “It brings all this hard work full circle. Now I’m getting the respect and the credentials to hang with the big boys.” He might be the newcomer, but he’s not intimidated. This is basically home turf for this New Braunfels resident, and he does most of his competing within the state lines. Darren Warth wasn’t sure what to expect. “I’ve never competed against Ernest. That’s the real wild card. He does really well down in Texas.” Servantes embraces his role as the wild card. “I feel good, but you can’t take it lightly.” Adding that “This is not a normal cook off. This is the big show.”
Jamie Geer was driving down to Houston when we spoke yesterday, and he sounded as calm as he could be. “I’m just gonna cook some good Texas barbecue,” was the bulk of his game plan. Tuffy Stone didn’t have much time to prepare, but he’s taking it in stride. “I go into any contest with my pit washed, my wood cut, my knives sharp, my rubs fresh, and my sauces ready.” In his true professorial fashion, Stone added a piece of advice for all of his fellow competitors. “Overs beat unders. You don’t want a tough brisket, you don’t want a bloody chicken, and you don’t want a rubbery rib.”