Think you've got winning barbecue? It's one thing to be a weekend warrior at a summer cookout; it's another thing entirely to enter a formal competition. Sylvie Curry has been involved in championship barbecue for about 10 years, first as part of the Four Q team and now competing solo as Lady of Q.
We caught up with her before the recent West Coast BBQ Classic, held May 9 in Long Beach at the Queen Mary. Lady of Q received a 10th place award in chicken and a second place in brisket to place 14th overall out of 57 teams.
What exactly is competition barbecue, and how does it vary from regular barbecuing?
The biggest difference between competition and regular is that we have to be able to wow a judge with just one bite — the judges can't eat a whole lot of it. When the judges bite into your entry, that one bite represents your whole barbecue. At a competition, you have to cook chicken, ribs, pork and brisket. You want to be good in all four. Even when you may have one you consider a specialty, you have to be good at all four.
How did you come into competition barbecue, and how long have you been competing solo?
I started out as a food blogger, believe it or not, back in 2005, 2006. Competition barbecue wasn't even an interest. It was just something I did at home, and I would invite friends over to barbecue. But I once posted some pictures of some ribs on my blog, and Neil Strawder saw the pictures. He emailed me and asked me if I was interested in being on a barbecue team. That opened the door.
We formed a team called Four Q, with three guys and myself. The other two guys were Shuji Sakai and Luis Ramirez. The first time we met each other face-to-face was a month before our first competition. I invited all of them to my backyard so we could all practice together because we'd never done a competition. And my husband came home from work and saw me in the backyard with three other guys. And he was like, who are these guys that I don't know cooking barbecue in the backyard with my wife?
Over the course of time, Neil dropped off to do his own thing, Bigmista's Barbecue. Then one of the guys had kids, so he couldn't dedicate the time. So it was just Shuji and me. In 2011, Shuji was unable to do it anymore, so I went out alone. I did my first [solo] grand championship in December of 2011. I got the name from someone who wrote an article in a barbecue journal about the ladies of barbecue, and I was one of them. And I went "OK. I'm a Lady of Q." And that's where I came up with the name.
What's it like competing as a woman?
I compete the same way as the guys do, but it took a while for them to get respect for me — there are a lot of them that couldn't believe I can do all this by myself. A lot of the male teams are three, four, five or even more players competing. So the mere fact that I do this by myself, I think I get more respect from the guys. I think it's more that they like to say I'm a role model. Other competitors bring their kids — they'll bring their little girls a lot of times to take pictures with me. And they'll say, "Look, women can do this."
Do your friends or family ever get tired of this?
My husband is absolutely tired. Every time I practice the chicken, he goes, "Oh, God, more chicken." But keep in mind that for the competition, when I'm preparing the "turn-ins" [the boxes of meat to turn in to the judges], I don't taste it. He does all my tasting. I'm so hyper and so stressed it's hard to come down. But I can tell the texture and the look. But he's tired of it. We don't go to barbecue restaurants. That's a no-no.
What advice would you have for the weekend warrior? Someone who barbecues occasionally, just to up their game?
Patience. I think a lot of times people kind of rush barbecue; this is something you can't rush. Seasoning. If you want to get fancy with your rubs and stuff, you can. But plain old salt and pepper work. I think a lot of weekend warriors need to learn the difference between indirect cooking [cooking away from the flame or heat source] and direct cooking [cooking directly over the heat source]. Because a lot of times, people will say, "OK, I barbecued some hamburgers." No, you didn't barbecue hamburgers, you grilled them.