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Ronnie Cates, Creator of the Smoke on the Water Championship Barbecue Competition in Hot Springs

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I am an excellent cook, but an amateur when it comes to barbecue, which my husband and I both enjoy. Since we were headed to Hot Springs, Arkansas to enjoy the sights, we also decided to visit the Smoke on the Water Championship Barbecue Competition. To learn more about barbecue competitions, I conducted an e-interview with Ronnie Cates, who created and promotes this event, along with his wife, Cari.

When and how did you first get serious about barbecue?

Always loved barbecue and grilling, but it wasn't until 2001 I created Smoke on the Water Productions. My ad agency was providing marketing services for some of the largest festivals in Arkansas. After seeing the process of creating and producing a festival, I thought that was something I could do better. I never knew competitive barbecue was a "sport" and had such a large base of enthusiastic grillers.

Our goal from the start was to increase prize money. Barbecue is a fine art and the members of these teams are artists. I think it's a skill that should be greatly compensated. In only 9 years we've gone from one $10,000 competition to producing the world's richest purse of $100,000 for the USA Barbecue Championship in North Little Rock, AR.

Are there many family/husband-wife teams? How many women BBQ champions?

There are many husband-wife teams in the sport. It's certainly male dominated, but there are many women who are making their mark. Candy Weaver from my hometown of Pine Bluff has won the Mississippi State Championship and has placed well in all her efforts.

Take me inside the mind and heart of the competitive BBQer.

Very exciting and competitive yet still very friendly. Bottom line is it's competition. Bragging rights. Our events attract the world's best grillers. If a team wins or places in the top ten, everybody in the barbecue world takes notice. It's serious business, but the competitors are like one big happy family. Everybody truly loves the art of barbecue; they respect the process and are very supportive of each other.

Are there BBQ spies?

I wouldn't say spies, but some cook to win, some to just have a good time. The serious cook can walk around and size up their competition. It's easy to tell the pros from the ordinary Joes. The object is to win money and any edge you can get helps.

Is there a barbecue competitor subculture?

It really attracts all demographics. We have pros who just compete on the circuit, doctors, blue-collar workers; you name it, having the best barbecue appeals to all. Barbecue is their hobby. Some golf, hunt and fish. Others grill on the weekend. They get to travel to different states and areas and most make it a family get-a-way sharing quality time together.

What's your best tip for the amateur griller?

Always experiment with different rubs and spices. Barbecue should be cooked low and slow. Try different wood and smoke pellets. Barbecue is all about the flavor held from the smoking process.

Do you have a favorite barbecue cookbook to recommend?

Not really. I research the internet for tips. Best of all, since I'm the promoter of these competitions, I'm in constant contact with the world's best grillers picking their brains and observing.

What material do you use?

Apple wood and Kingsford Competition Charcoal. Cooking in the backyard I use propane, but in competition, wood only. Propane is fast when cooking on the run, but nothing beats the smoke flavor of wood and it's all that can be used in competition.

I prefer dry over wet barbecue. Do you have a preference?

I love dry. Just like the flavor better.

Any secret spice ingredients you can reveal?

If I revealed them, they wouldn't be secret anymore.

Explain the role of the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) with Smoke on the Water.

They are just the sanctioning body of Smoke. There's so many rules and regulations to follow. I don't agree with all of them, but they seem to work. KCBS uses blind judging, which concentrates on flavor, texture and presentation. The size of your rig or reputation means nothing. It's just who has the best tasting barbecue.

Share a unique aspect of BBQ competition that might surprise people.

In the big money events like ours, it's a business. Grand champion can walk away with well over $20,000. Winning individual categories pay $5,000. Somewhere, there's a contest every weekend. If a team is consistent, there's a lot of money to be made over the course of a year. Also, most of the well known teams have their own line of sauces, rubs, cookbooks, just a wide variety of products for barbecue enthusiasts. They love what they're doing and capitalize on their grilling knowledge.

We have never attended a barbecue championship. What suggestions can you provide so that we can have the best experience?

Cooks are very accessible. Walk around and watch them in action. Don't be afraid to ask questions, they love to talk barbecue. It's just a neat site to see all the different grills. Most are very elaborate. Remember that these teams are working. Turn in time is from noon to 2:00 pm. That's not a good time to socialize because they're concentrating on the preparation. When it's over, then they let their hair down and usually offer samples of their wares if you ask. And nothing compares to true competition barbecue.

Two weeks later, armed with the insight and information provided by my interview with Ronnie Cates, we arrived at the barbecue competition held at the Hot Springs Airport. The competitors were set up on a large grassy lot. We zigzagged on foot through a Hooverville of trailers, trucks, campers, RV's, and all sorts of fascinating barbecue grills and rigs. We stepped over colorful tangles of heavy duty electrical cords and tolerated the inescapable drone of electric generators. There were 53 competitive teams this day. Such a massive maze of confusion – whom should I interview?

After about fifteen minutes of weaving our way through the grounds, I gave up looking for divine inspiration and went with a version of "pick them, pick them not, pick them."  I selected…Eric Westervelt! I got luckier than I realized.

Eric Westervelt is married with a son and is a registered nurse in a burn unit in a Kansas City, MO area hospital. Eric works three twelve-hour shifts a week and was looking for a hobby five years ago when he developed his interest in barbecue competition. He found his BBQ partner, Greg Anthony, through the internet. Together they formed their competitive team, Ribs 4U Barbecue, and entered about a dozen competitions during their first year. Currently, they compete in about 20 contests each year in Kansas City, Iowa, and Arkansas. The team is ranked 31st out of 3,000 teams.

Eric was friendly, and proudly showed us his $3,500 backwoods smokers. He explained that there are four categories of competition: brisket, pork, chicken, and ribs. Surprisingly, this competitor does not make his own rub or sauces. He supports his BBQ colleagues and buys their products.

The team participates in all four categories. For each competition, they prepare huge amounts of meat – most of which is leftover. This was my segue to ask for a BBQ sample (as Ronnie had suggested), and Eric generously fulfilled my request. He handed us a plate filled with chicken thighs, pork ribs, pork shoulder, and beef brisket. Yummy!


Championship BBQ Competition at the Hot Springs ARK. Airport

The announcement of the awards came a few hours later from a grand stage on the airport tarmac where a band had been playing to a sizable crowd. The scene pleased my people-watching husband. The perimeter of the tarmac was lined with BBQ-related vendors and concession stands. (The competitors cannot sell their extra BBQ.) The promoter, Ronnie, began the award presentations with the tune "Smoke on the Water" (of course) playing in the background. The competitors were a friendly, handshaking, backslapping, and loud-clapping crowd as the winners were announced.  
My mojo, karma, intuition, or whatever had been working, because my random interviewee's team, Ribs 4U Barbecue, was awarded the Reserve Grand Champion prize (coming in second overall) and earned a $1,500 prize! In addition, prizes were awarded for places 1-14 in each of the four categories. This team also took third in ribs and brisket, ninth in chicken, and thirteenth in pork shoulder.

Eric Westervelt and Greg Anthony-Reserve Grand Champions for Smoke on the Water BBQ Competition

We left the scene feeling relaxed and newly educated in the world of competition barbecue.


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