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Barbecue judge dishes up secrets

POSTED: September 3, 2014 12:14 a.m.
NAT GURLEY/The Times

Scot Howard's friends watch his rib prep Saturday at the Hawgin Lanier barbeque competition, from left, Mattie and William Legg, of Commercer, and Bill Nash, of Buford. Nash also competes on Smokin' the Blues Away. Howard cooks the pork and brisket while Nash cooks the chicken and ribs.

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Scot Howard doesn’t just love barbecue. The Jefferson resident practically lives it.

In the past year, the U.S. Postal Service worker has started a website ranking various barbecue restaurants across the South and earned his official barbecue judging certificate. He started judging and competing professionally and selling his homemade goods to a growing clientele of barbecue lovers.

“I’m telling you, I really do love the whole art of barbecue,” he said. “It just makes your taste buds stand up and dance at the anticipation of the delicious smoked meats that are soon to follow.”

Here’s what the award-winner had to say about his journey:

Question: How did you become a barbecue judge?

Answer: I was sitting at the post office with a buddy of mine, and you have to understand just about every magazine in the world comes through the office, and it got me thinking. I said I would like to start a magazine about traveling around the South trying the best barbecue. My friend looked at me and said, “Let me design you a website.” So we came up with a name, www.wheresthe
bestbbq.com. You see, I used to be a chef before I worked at the post office. I cooked at Chateau Elan, the Chattahoochee Country Club, the Atlanta Athletic Club and other places, so I felt like I was qualified in my opinion. To judge it, you know? So, we started the website, and it really took off. Then I heard the Kansas City Barbeque Society offers a barbecue judging class, and I took it. From there, I started judging, which I think makes my website even more legitimate. And let me tell you, when you’re judging professional barbecue, it’s totally different than what you ever get at home.

Q: Why did you want to start tasting barbecue?

A: To me there is nothing like walking up to a hometown barbecue joint and just standing there taking in the smell of hickory and oak smoke that permeates the air.

Q: What all does being a barbecue judge entail?

A: A barbecue judge sits down at a contest, and judges four different meats: chicken, ribs, pulled pork and brisket. As a judge, you’re not just judging the presentation — you know, how good does it look — but also then the taste, and then the tenderness, whether it is cooked enough or too much.

Q: How is being a judge different from just enjoying eating barbecue?

A: You’re a lot more focused on what you’re eating. Teams have spent two days out there, preparing for you, and you only get one bit for that team to impress you. So you are judging six entries, and you have a scorecard, and you marking down on the scorecard while you’re tasting. I always give them the benefit of two bites, and that probably explains why I’ve gained 20 pounds. I’m telling you, you come across some seriously good barbecue, and some that isn’t so good. But after a while, I figured if I could talk the talk, I should walk the walk.

Q: You’re referring to your decision to compete, in addition to judging?

A: I like to do both. As a former chef, I thought I’d walk out there and take those rednecks’ money, but I got schooled. I got an awakening. You have some of the top teams in the country who come to this area to compete. I would stay around for the awards and watch some of the teams walk away with winning checks for thousands of dollars. I knew in my heart I could produce better barbecue than a lot of the barbecue that I just judged. This led me to buy a smoker and start practicing and learning the ins and outs of my smoker. I’ve tested many types of woods to smoke with. I’ve tested recipe after recipe and created different rubs, sauces and practiced various techniques to gain an edge.

I had my neighbors, co-workers and customers serve as guinea pigs.

Q: How do you decide which barbecue is the best?

A: The first question you have to ask is: “Did they nail it?” You’re looking for layers of flavors. And in competition, you always have to think in terms of one-bite barbecue. The wow with the first bite.

Q: What’s the secret to making good barbecue?

A: I think more than anything, it takes a lot of practice. Everybody can cook in their backyard and have their wife say they make the best barbecue, and when you’re giving it away, then everybody loves your barbecue. But more than cooking, barbecue is an art. You have to get to know your smoker and how to cook your meat. How to maintain the right heat and know when your meat is done. And that takes a lot of practice.

Q: What other advice would you give to would-be cooks?

A: Again, it’s practice. Before you get into your various rubs and sauces, you need to know your smoker and meats.

Q: What makes a good rub or sauce?

A: I’ve learned that barbecue is like a religion. Everybody has a different opinion, so really, what makes a good rub or sauce comes down to personal preference. In my opinion, you can add sugars, salts, cumin, chili powder, but you’ve got to add heat to it for judge’s attention.

Q: Obviously, with judging, there’s a lot of focus and training involved. What is involved with competing?

A: People don’t understand the costs. The average contest will run you about $600. There’s the entry fee, and the price of meat has skyrocketed. Plus, you don’t cook one piece of meat at a contest. You want to put the best meat on the table, so you make multiples of everything. For some contests, you can win $2,000 to $3,000, so you don’t want to be cheap.

Q: What’s the best barbecue you’ve had in the area?

A: Well, again, barbecue is like a religion. You’ve got vinegar sauces, you’ve got sweet sauces, you’ve got mustard sauces, you’ve got regional sauces. But for me, the best is The Shed in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. But locally, I really liked Cabin Creek BBQ Co., in Nicholson.

Q: Now that you’re a judge, a competitor and an online barbecue critic, what’s next?

A: I hope this will lead me to opening up my own restaurant. I have pride and passion, so I want everyone to be able to taste true Southern barbecue and enjoy the fruits of my passion and hard work. I’m still working on becoming a grand champion in the barbecue competition world. I have had many awards come my way, which is always encouraging, but through it all, I love the art.



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