This year marked the 39th anniversary of Memphis' World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. 235 barbecue teams from 22 states and five countries came to compete for $115K in prize money and global recognition as the world's best barbecue. It took 900 volunteers, including 200 barbecue judges, to pull the event off. But the numbers only tell part of the story. This year, the DNA recaps barbecue fest through the stories of a barbecue finalist, a booth champion, and two volunteers.
The following Q&A is with Will Frazier from the People's Republic of Swina, 3rd place in Shoulder at this year's WCBCC.
How many years have you been part of the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest? How long has your team been involved?
2016 was my 7th year to be a part of the WCBCC, and the 9th year of competition for the People’s Republic of Swina. So, as you might have guessed, that means 2017 will be our 10th anniversary. THAT is gonna be epic. Plans for a banner year are already WELL in the works. #SwinaTurns10 is going to be a party worth seeing. Come by and check it out next year, we’re on the south side of the park on the river, usually in the S-340’s. Look for the lifeguard stand and feel free to come relax on Swina Island.
What was your winning strategy this year? Where did your inspiration come from?
Our winning strategy? Now do you really think I’m going to give away the goods? How about this, I’ll say something generic, like, our strategy was to pour our hearts into the process and deliver the best possible product we could. But really our winning strategy is our Head Chef, Denny Koerner. He is a fantastic cook and has BBQ in his bones. It is pretty amazing to watch a guy with that kind of talent; it’s like they’ve got some 6th sense where they can communicate with the Shoulders. It’s more than just some digital temperature readings, or a timer. It’s the sight, smell, feel, and then that extraterrestrial connection to the meat that you just can’t teach.
And I would be totally remiss if I didn’t thank our guide through it all, who was very hands on this year and tag-teamed the whole process with Denny, that is the one-and-only, and in the BBQ kingdom literally world famous, Jack Woods. Take a walk around the park next year, go to the back of each tent (if they’ll let you), I’d be willing to bet you’ll find more Woods custom smokers than just about any other brand. The man is a savant. He’s the Descartes of BBQ – I smoke therefore I am. So I would say Jack is our motivation, definitely. But if you asked Jack where his motivation came from this year, I think he would tell you it came from Donald Rump, who was campaigning hard all weekend, promising to Make Pork Great Again. He told us he will build the biggest smoker we’ve ever seen, and he’ll make the pigs pay for it… (Note: this neither is nor was a political endorsement of any kind, Grillery Porkton was equally represented as was Mr. Rump. You’d be surprised how many people got mad at me for wearing a Trump outfit… I was like, lighten up people, it’s just a joke!)
What do you think put you over the edge of your fellow competitors?
Well, to be fair there were two teams that beat us, we got 3rd (hats off to Lillie’s Q& Pork University for a job very well done). But we had some of the highest marks in the park after the first round of judging. What put us over the edge was a combination of things (as the judging is multiple in nature, i.e. it’s not just how tasty your BBQ was). Denny is a fantastic presenter, he knows BBQ inside and out (literally, and I guess pun sort of intended), and knows how to talk BBQ and what the important features to demonstrate are that show the true quality of your product and how it stands out verses the other shoulders those judges will see that morning. The shoulder was perfect, definitely the best I’ve ever seen, and on top of that Denny’s homemade sauce is spectacular, and my favorite thing, his dry rub, what he calls the “soul” of BBQ, is out of sight. Put that dry rub on a piece of rubber and I’d eat it.
What level of investment was involved?
This contest is no joke. Dozens of people, and hundreds of man hours of work go into this thing. From load-in and set up all week long, all the way to take-down on Sunday, there is a lot of work that has to get done. We’ve got a great team, and the majority of them pitch in and help out. We have a few that just enjoy the party (you know who you are) but they take plenty of heat all weekend so I think we’ve punished them enough and won’t call anyone out here. The total cost is always a 5-digit expense, just from an operating budget standpoint. We throw a big party, always get a riverside view, and cook a lot of fantastic food, for a lot of people. That doesn’t even include the initial investment into all the gear we have to own to really make this happen. You could buy a nice car or boat for the price of the cooking rig.
If you could describe your team in 3 words, what would they be?
One really sums it up I think: Friends.
What does it mean for you to finish top 3 this year? Any plans for your winnings?
It means a lot. It’s humbling when you consider the quality of the competition. Lots of these teams are legit pros. Like own restaurants, have cooking shows, sell cookbooks, and their sauces and rubs are carried in stores around the world, literally. This really is the biggest and best competition in the world. It’s just a little crazy to think about the guys we’re up against every year, it’s frankly amazing that we’re there, much less that we can hang with these guys. I’m not just blowing smoke either (sorry, the puns are just too easy…). But seriously, we really do have the utmost respect for all the teams in this competition. Of course we were a little fortunate this year, a lot of things need to break in your favor to finish in the top 3, even the best of the best don’t finish top 3 every year. Pork shoulders aren’t microwavable – you’ve got to start prepping long in advance and start your cook the night before, so when Saturday morning comes, if something went wrong, there’s nothing you can do about it. You can try a few things, tweak a few things, but if those shoulders dry out for instance, you’re done, as simple as that. Now, as for the winnings, I think it’s time to replace our old-school, circa 1999 JBL speakers. I’m pretty sure The People’s Republic of Swina will add a few decibels to the tunes in 2017, and it won’t have that annoying buzz you get when playing music through a speaker that blew years ago.
Did you have a favorite moment of the competition this year?
Personally, it would definitely be when Donald Rump made the walk to the after-party for the Kingsford Tour of Champions reception on Friday afternoon. It took me almost an hour to go 500 feet because I stopped for pictures and was invited into every tent so gave a little impromptu speech on the campaign to Make Pork Great Again. But that’s just me, and I probably enjoy the spotlight a little too much. As a team, no question the best moment came on Saturday around 1:30 when Linda Sandiford, our fantastic ambassador, stopped by our tent and unrolled the piece of paper telling us we were in the top 3 (and were in 1st place after the first round of judging). Seeing our Head Chef jump around like an 8 year-old on Christmas morning was pretty awesome. The high five he gave me was so hard I thought I broke a few metacarpals. There was another moment I’d be very remiss if I didn’t mention. Our team mother, Mama Bear as we call her, Bowen Cook, who is really the heart and soul of this team (I mean literally she does everything and she loves our team and this competition more than you can imagine), couldn’t be there this year. So after we found out we got top 3, her sister (who did a fantastic job filling in) called her on face-time. Despite what she’s going through, from her hospital bed, we got to share this moment with her. She was laughing, crying and cheering with us, and couldn’t have been happier. I’m sure it looked pretty strange to see half of our team looking at a phone in tears just moments after we were told we made the top 3. But this team wouldn’t exist without her, and it was really, really special to get to share it with her, even if only digitally because we all know what this means to her, and more importantly, what WE mean to her, and what she means to us. It really was indescribable. Who knew BBQ could make grown men cry!
Were there any mishaps or disasters along the way? Any particular challenges you had to overcome?
Slight mishap was Donald Rump (me) being a part of our Kingsford® Tour of Champions presentation. Hats off to those judges, they were serious. They laughed at my jokes but they were there to learn about good BBQ and taste good BBQ. They didn’t care too much about my goofy costume or occasional (and borderline at best) interjections about the size of my Hams or that all our pork was here legally. So lesson learned there; it’s not a skit. I thought it would be a good idea, lighten the mood, show them we could be creative with our team’s theme this year, Make Pork Great Again. (I keep repeating myself… get it?) That was a challenge. From a cooking perspective, we had a few things pop up along the way that we had to overcome. We had a couple of shoulders not turn out. It was actually a difficult year for the shoulders because we had a massive range in sizes, I think more than 6lbs difference from our smallest to largest, which can present a challenge when you’re trying to make sure they’re all perfect. Of course they’re never all exactly the same weight and they don’t all cook the same, but still that is a really big variance when it comes to cooking a bunch of competition shoulders.
Will you be back again next year?
Uhhh…. YEAH. 10th anniversary. The People’s Republic of Swina will be in full force. Back and better than ever. I can’t wait because it’s going to be an epic reunion of all the participants and team members over the years. It’s going to be massive.
Anything else you'd like to share?
A “uuuge” shout-out to the 900 volunteers and staff members who work their (pork) butts off to make this event happen. It is hands down the best competition in BBQ and there is SO much work that goes into making it happen and going so well. Couldn’t do it without them. So if want to get involved and you’re not on a cooking team – volunteer. You’ll get a front-row seat to all the action and be a part of one of the best teams in the world. Special thanks to Mike Davis and his team for everything they do. It really is a world class event.