Tuesday, May 17, 2011

KCBS Judging: An Honorary Judge's Experience

To avoid painting with too broad of a stroke, I won't say that Kansas City Barbeque Society judging is a sham. What I will say is that, based solely on my experience with it this past weekend (and, actually, based on what others present had to say about it, too), it's a sham. It's an old-school club that circles the wagons when it feels threatened. It's overly protective. It's instructive & defensive to the point of fascist suppression of individual thought. In short, it's a fleecing of BBQ reviewing.

In the words of Adrian Monk, here's what happened: KCBS was having trouble filling judges' seats for a cookoff in Austin last Saturday (They're not really present in Texas. Only 3 events in TX all year.). After Brad & I agreed to judge the cookoff (and attend the mandatory honorary KCBS certification class), they still needed 10 more judges. So, I made an announcement on this blog that the seats would be given away FCFS. All 10 seats were filled before close of business. We all showed up at the honorary KCBS certification class, where they explained their judging system and talked about each of the meats. We were told that the food that we would eat 2 days later would be "better than" anything we'd eat a restaurant in Austin. We then swore an oath.

When we showed up this past Saturday to judge, they talked us through the judging process, the scoring system, the rules, etc. We listened to a recording about KCBS judging and then, again, swore an oath. Judging began. Chicken was up first. I scored my six samples. Then pork ribs. I judged my six samples. As we were asked to do if we ever gave a low score, I filled out a comment card explaining why I scored a particular rib so low. As I prepared for the pork round, an official came to our table and asked in front of everyone, "Who's Drew?" I am. He asked why I scored a rib so low. After I explained to him why I scored as I did (Wasn't that what the comment cards are for?), he asked, "You know your scores won't count, right?" (Lowest score from each table always gets dropped.) Umm, so? As if I should care at all that my honest score, if the lowest, won't count. When we score, I guess we should be thinking, "Well, I better make this high enough that they don't toss it."

The official left. I thought that was the end of it, but no, no. One of the folks at my table told me the officials (at the other end of the tent) were huddled up and were pointing at me, clearly talking about my score. I looked and confirmed. What was at first odd was now weird. A few moments later, I get a tap on the shoulder from the event's organizer, who asks me to step away from the table so we can chat. Are you kidding me? He says, "Okay, I gotta ask. Why did you score so low?" Well, let's see. Read the comment card. Or go chat with the official who called me out at the table. No, let me defend myself you to now: I scored what I scored b/c I did exactly what we twice swore an oath to do: judge honestly. As with every other sample, I followed the 1-9 scoring system - each # has a word that describes the food, and you pick the # that corresponds to the word that sums up your view of the food. He said that that's exactly what I should do (Ummm, then why are you folks so defensive?) but that "we" (meaning KCBS) just have a certain way of doing things. Uh, yeah, I can see that. I guess they weren't listening to themselves when they told us before the judging started, "BBQ judging is subjective."

He then said that maybe they should have done a better job teaching us how to score. Ha! Are you kidding me? Yes, if only you would have taught me better what I like and don't like. Even if I didn't eat truckloads of BBQ throughout the year for this blog, I would still be supremely qualified to score meat. You know why? B/c my taste buds work. I was told to consider how much time the cookers put in and how much money they spend. What? Are you serious? This has nothing to do with the cookers, so I am not being disparaging about them, but you are loco if you think that I will score something artificially high just b/c the cooker tried hard. We are supposed to score the meat in front of us honestly. Right, KCBS?

Odd turned weird was now full-on creepy. Contrary to the rumors that have made their way back to me, I was not dismissed. Instead, I removed myself from the judging, as I didn't want to be party to the farce that was taking place. Is this the way you operate, KCBS? Are you that afraid of someone not toeing your party line and rubber stamping, well, rubber meat? No wonder you require people to complete your training and get certified and swear oaths. Combine these with intimidation and public reprimand, and you've got yourselves the making of a nice little paranoid dictatorship.

Sadly, I wasn't the only judge who was mistreated. One judge told me he intentionally scored samples higher so that he would not get treated like I did. Another told me she entered a low score and "they made me feel like a criminal." I am appalled. Put aside their tactics (which I think are detestable) and look at their scoring system. Don't give us choices, and then attack us when we freely, honestly exercise them? Why give us instructions that have choices from 1 to 9 if scoring below a, say, 6 will raise the KCBS threat level to red? In that case, tell us to score from 6-9.

I got a big kick via Twitter last night, when a KCBS apologist who was at the event wrote (in response to this question about scoring choices of 1-9) "because lower than a 6 you should not be at a contest...are you even a cbj?" Classic! Did you catch that, folks? If you score something below a 6 (which, by the way, is "average" on the KCBS scoring sheet), you don't deserve to be at one of their contests. Again, if you score something below average, you clearly are not qualified to be judging a KCBS event. Puuuuuuuurfect example of the KCBS elitism that was pervasive at the event. And I love it that she ended by asking if I am a Certified Barbeque Judge. Ummm, again, I can taste and know what I like and don't like, but, no, I am PROUDLY not one of your CBJs. I'll save the $100 and the freedom to think for myself.


Fulmer said...

The actions of KCBS are deplorable. After seeing your initial tweets, I figured they would have "seen the errors of their ways", but obviously it got worse. I will make it a point to avoid any events where KCBS is affiliated.

Anonymous said...

I have experienced a small fraction of what you described. I would much rather judge a MBN event. Their scoring IS comparitive, ie the meat at the table only are competing against other meat at the table. Instead of competing against all BBQ I have ate in my life. To me, that's more straightforward judging.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I was in the parking lot cooking, so I have know way of knowing what happened in the tent.

From your description of the events it sounds to me like the Reps did their job. You were singled out because your scores were well outside of what the other judges at your table were giving, not just because they were low, on a consistent basis.

If you did a quickie class and listened to the CD, you should have picked up the fact that you were to leave any preconceived ideas of what constitutes "Good BBQ" behind before you entered the judging tent. Your job was to score each entry seperately, and fairly, as presented. That's it.

When you removed yourself from the judging pool, you did a further disservice to the teams competing. With 30 teams, I'm confident the contest reps were able to make sure that a team never hit the same table twice. That's done in the interest of fairness. If you scored low, and well outside the norm, for the first two categories 1/2 of the field was at a competitive disadvantage. If your friend followed your lead...You do the math.

A mutual acquaintence introduced us recently, and as a result you have my contact info. Feel free to use it if you'd like to discuss this further.

My name is George Mullins, I cooked with 2 Worthless Nuts at the contest in question, and I have approved this message.

Drew Thornley said...

"From your description of the events it sounds to me like the Reps did their job." My point exactly. The process is messed up.

"you were to leave any preconceived ideas of what constitutes "Good BBQ" behind before you entered the judging tent." I didn't need any ideas of what constituted "Good BBQ." What mattered was the quality of what was in front of me.

"Your job was to score each entry seperately, and fairly, as presented. That's it." Thanks for confirming, George. That's exactly what I did.

George Mullins said...

It is what it is. You want to see it your way, and your way only. So be it. Your myopia is exceeded only by your apparent ego.

Drew Thornley said...


Anonymous said...

I understand what you are saying completely. I think the Reps were trying to keep it fair for the competitors. If you are scoring way below what everyone else is then every competitor on your table is at a disadvantage. Listen YOU were SCORING LOWER THAN EVERYONE else. I understand you judged the way you thought.I do understand there system maybe be flawed but what a disadvantage you put the competitors that landed on your table.
This is coming from a IBCA bbq COMPETITOR.

Anonymous said...

Wow Drew...I can only say I am so tickled I checked your blog today!

Sounds like a terrible experience. I would say it is nearly impossible to leave all preconceived notion of BBQ behind when sitting at a judging table. The whole reason for having a panel is so scores can balance others out. I judged a chili cook off once and everyone scored different. One chili had tons of fresh cilantro in it, I scored it very low as it was not to my taste, but others loved it.

There is plenty of other BBQ out there to eat and judge...it is basically your passion. Hopefully KCBS can find judges to suite their "parameters" in the future. I guess they will really have to do a better job "training" too.

Don O. said...

Judging BBQ is very different from reviewing BBQ. I think KCBS, which is the largest BBQ organization in the world, is made up mostly of cooks, so they're always going to come at it from the cook's point of view. They make money from memberships and from sponsoring cook-offs.

The one thing you can say about them, is at least they try to instruct and have their judges come at it from a standard place. IBCA and some others simply round up folks from the crowd, give them some basic instruction and let them have at it. When money and points are involved, believe me, the cooks want the most knowledgeable judges they can get. At least KCBS tries to have knowledgeable judges. They try. They do not try to impose taste, but they do try to set standards so that everyone judging uses the same techniques. Apparantly your scores were way off from everyone else at the table.

As far as your scores, give 'em what you think and let the chips fall where they may. Whoever was questioning your low scores was in the WRONG. Period. However I don't think you should give up on the whole organization and their procedures based on one bad experience. They have been doing cookoffs for many more years than you have been doing your blog. 25 years, in fact. There really is a method to their madness, even if it does seem madness to a first timer.

I spent the $100 a year ago and thought it was an interesting and worthwhile experience. Even though I had been blogging about BBQ 5 years before I ever took their class. Every organization has a different way of doing it and I seem to recall a good discussion in our class about really low scores being reserved mostly for really bad BBQ, not average, but bad. Maybe you didn't get that discussion, but we did. I think I gave a couple of 2's in the one KCBS contest I have judged so far, and no one questioned me about it at all. Bad BBQ is still bad BBQ no matter what the rules. Just stick by your guns. I do.

I expect you'll eventually get an official response from KCBS. Maybe not, but I'll be surprised if you don't.

Anonymous said...

Curious to why you scored low? Maybe that is where the problem is? Was is just bad or something you did not like or tough?

Drew Thornley said...

3:33 PM Anonymous: You mean you don't check my blog EVERY day??? Say it ain't so!!!

Drew Thornley said...

Don O: Great thoughts, all. I find it interesting that you twice gave a 2 and were not confronted either time. Hopefully, that (not confronting on the spot) is the norm. I'm sure there are scores of people with glowing things to say about the KCBS process. As I said, my thoughts are based on my personal experience.

Drew Thornley said...

As for hurting teams, no. Uhhhgain, they automatically drop the lowest score each round. And they filled my seat as soon as I left, presumably with someone who scored higher than I. So, most likely, my departure helped teams.

J said...

This whole experience is proof that "competition" BBQ is an artificial sport that is not in keeping with traditional BBQ from the respective regions of our country. BBQ competitions are a sideshow that may boost the ego of those who win but leaves the public with a maligned view of what BBQ really is and tastes like.

The ability to feed BBQ to large groups of people in a BBQ Joint or at a catering is more open and honest than any competition. Every customer and guest is a judge in their own right. Companies that fail to meet the expectations of customers will fall by the wayside and become marginalized over time. Those companies that do meet and exceed expectations become prosperous known throughout the region.

The virtues of longevity and consistency in operating legitimate "brick and mortar" BBQ Joints are to be held above trophies and prize money gained in competition. The feedback is more immediate, honest, and impacting than could ever be imagined in a competition setting.

I do not doubt that there are some good things about competitions and those that take the time to compete. It does take a certain amount of dedication and risk to go out and cook in such a setting. I choose to rail against the overall purpose of BBQ sport and the way in which judging is "handled" by these big organizations. Competitions and the organizations behind them are self-absorbed and feed off of the hype they generate.

That hype is not good for the everyday person's view of BBQ. Whether it is a TV BBQ competition or an organization-backed judged competition, the effect is more negative than positive for the craft.

Anonymous said...

Its my understanding that most of it is not even eatable for anyone with normal taste within the context of enjoying a meal. Go to your local q joint and let those ego trippers trip.

Anonymous said...

Drew...I emailed the manup email regarding this issue...check it if you haven't already. i don't know a ton about bbq judging, but what I do know is this. You eat a ton of bbq to know what is good and not. That's why there are different judges bc no 2 taste buds are alike. I got a kick out of the post...and I can only imagine the elitism.

Larry said...

I am sorry you had such a bad time. I was there, I was sitting next to Brad. The bbq at this event was not the best, in fact another KCBS certified judge and I both agreed that mostly was we were presented for judging at our table was average. There were some very pretty boxes presented but the tastes and the textures did not match the presentation. I was disappointed in the quality of what was presented. I do not know if it was because of the teams, most of whom were new to me or if it was the expectation that I had for judging mostly Texas teams.

Competition bbq is not Restaurant bbq nor is it backyard bbq. That is something I understand. The teams are there to create the best bbq according to the KCBS guidelines that they possibly can. From over 5 years of experience, it always amazes me how closely a table will score independently of each other.

When I am judging, I do not compare what I am tasting at that moment with any other Q that I have tasted before. My goal is to judge each entry on its own merits. How well did the cook team achieve what it was trying to do. Some sauce, some don't. Some have a way of keeping it moist and tender and others haven't figured it out yet. How well did the cook team balance the quality of the meat to the sauce if they used it, if no sauce was the rub balanced with the flavor and texture. Would I want to go have that in someones restaurant somewhere. Did it knock my socks off. Most of what we had in Austin, no it didn't knock my socks off.

As to your twitterer, I have scored below a 6 and did so in Austin because that was the score it deserved in my opinion. I am not embarassed to give a low score if the entry merits it. I have been presented with some pretty awful stuff at a KCBS event. And then again, I was presented with an entry that was poorly presented but that was one of the best chicken entrys this year. It was breast, it had just a light smoke, it was moist, it was tender and no sauce, didn't need it. I gave it a low score for presentation but gave it 9s for both taste and texture.

There are all manner of people who are judges of bbq. Some are on a lark, some take it seriously. I started on a lark and have since become serious about what is presented to my eyes, my nose and my palate.

When I do go down, one of my favorite places for a late breakfast is Louie Mueller's in Taylor, they open at 10am. And I can get the first slices off that fatty brisket. The brisket we had to judge at our table was no where near that good. I have had instances were the brisket at a competition was incredible along the same lines of what one gets at Smitty's.

A recommendation is to go to the American Royal in Kansas City the first weekend in Oct. There will be over 500 teams competing.

And tell Brad I checked out his recommendation in Dallas, Lockhart Smokehouse, on the way home and so far it is the best bbq I have come across in Dallas. Poor Dallas, such a big place with such bad bbq.

Thanks for the write up, it has made me think about what I am really looking for when I am judging. Sort of renewed my senses about what I am doing when I am judging.

I will keep checking out what your writing. Have you ever read Dallasfood.org and Scott's write ups about Texas BBQ?

Drew Thornley said...


Thank you so much for sharing your detailed thoughts. Particularly given how much experience you have in judging, your perspective is valuable. I am glad you liked Lockhart Smokehouse; I look forward to trying it myself for the first time soon. Brad and I just read your comment together, and he sends his best, as do I.