Some time ago I put a feeler out over at the BBQ Beat Facebook Page to see if teams just starting to gain traction in competition BBQ might be interested in sharing their story and some of their learning experiences with my readers. The offer, which still stands by the way, was simple: teams must have won at least one (1) Reserve Grand Champion award at a major BBQ competition and no more than one (1) Grand Champion win under their belts. I set it up this way to make sure I could help newer teams get in the spotlight a little bit.
First out of the gate in responding to my free competition BBQ team publicity offer was Matt Walsh of the Hatfield and McCoy BBQ Team headquartered in the Chicago, IL area. Matt and his co-pitmaster Steve Kwasiborski did a great job of answering my questions and provided some photos as well. Hope you enjoy reading their answers as much as I did!
Hatfield and McCoy BBQ Team – Chicago, IL
1. What’s the background of your team – where did you meet up, how did you start, etc?
Hatfield and McCoy Barbecue is made up of two head cooks – Matt Walsh and Steve Kwasiborski, both from the suburbs of Chicago. Ryan Corrigan and Alex Sliwa also assist whenever they are available.
Steve – I got started when I received a Masterbuilt smoker as a housewarming gift from my sister shortly after I got married. I used a recipe I found on The Virtual Weber Bullet Bulletin Board and loved the end product. My family loved it too and convinced me to join a local amateur competition in Frankfort, IL. I built some UDS’s, won the competition and I was hooked from there.
After that contest, I entered others in the following years as the South Side Pit Men. The Pit Men consisted of me, my brother-in-law Ryan, my friend Al and any other family and friends willing to pitch in. We had more than our fair share of success on the amateur circuit.
Matt – I entered my first contest, Firin’ Up the Fox Amateur contest, in the summer of 2013 as Illinois This Butt’s For ‘Que. I came in 2nd place in ribs and overcooked the hell out of some chicken. After hearing my name called, I was hooked. I went on to cook at the Glen Ellyn Backyard BBQ a couple of months later and came in 7th overall with 3rd in ribs and a decent showing for best dish. After reaffirming that I could smoke some decent ribs, I started cooking in as many local non-sanctioned and amateur events as I could, even braving the polar vortex in February 2014 at the Winter Burn in Des Plaines. I’m also a KCBS CBJ and try to judge at area contests that we are unable to cook as a team.
Matt and Steve first met at a small town rib cook off in 2013 and became good friends while competing against each other in several non-sanctioned and amateur events. Early in 2014 we started talking about entering a couple of KCBS contests. It made sense for us to team up – we were both scoring well in area contests, each had the necessary equipment, and we could keep our wives happy by splitting the cost of entry fees. Hatfield and McCoy’s (the name is in reference to our differing opinions on the best baseball team in Chicago) first KCBS event was Smoke on the Prairie in Brimfield, IL in June 2014. A 5th place rib call and finishing just out of the top 10 overall in a field of top-notch competitors was all that was needed to push the team towards entering more KCBS events. A busy summer of competing on our own teams (and earning more trophies) led us to the Barn Burner BBQ contest in Libertyville, IL. We had a good cook and were excited to hear we finished as Reserve Grand Champs with 1st place ribs, 6th place pork and 7th place brisket. We are looking forward to chasing the elusive GC in 2015.
2. What do you guys cook on? Has your set up changed over time or are you still rocking your original smokers?
Steve, the chicken and brisket cook, has retired the Masterbuilt but still uses his original UDS’s. Matt cooks ribs on a UDS and pork on a second-hand 18.5” WSM.
Hatfield and McCoy is a “budget friendly” team. We borrow trucks to haul equipment to contests. We’ve had success with our original smokers – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Plus, there is a certain satisfaction that we do alright for ourselves on a shoestring budget.
3. You guys are starting to get more and more calls, you have at least one RGC under your belt, and things appear to be clicking. What can you most attribute to the improvement you’ve seen since you started?
Steve – We are pretty new onto the pro scene. If I had to pick something to attribute our success to, it would be researching and practicing. We are always testing new rubs, sauces, temperatures, methods, etc. I’m still learning and think we can really be dangerous if I could nail down a winning chicken recipe.
Matt – We ask for lots of feedback on the barbecue we cook. When other competitive cooks and judges offer us feedback, we take notes and try to improve what we are putting in the box. Asking for feedback and making small tweaks to recipes, timelines and procedures has helped me, I believe, build good looking and tasty turn in boxes at contests. I also ask a LOT of questions. I’ve been lucky enough to have a strong competitor as a mentor – Dan Mohr of Big Daddy Dan’s and BrewBQ. His putting up with random texts and emails from me has been a big part of our success. Also, doing research and asking questions on bbq-brethren.com has helped point me in the right direction more than once.
4. If you could point to one simple change you made to see improvement in a category, one you feel a lot of new teams make, what would it be?
Steve – If you think it’s done, wait another 15 minutes and check again. I’ve improved almost all of my categories by cooking my meat long after I thought it was done.
Matt – Too much smoke is not a good thing. Flavors in competitive barbecue should be balanced. To that end, I treat smoke like any other ingredient. Too much, and you will offend at least one judge’s taste buds, and then you’re out of the running. Rubs, sauces, and smoke should all be complementary, none of those should overpower the meat.
5. What competitions do you guys have lined up for the rest of 2015 so far?
Here’s what Hatfield and McCoy have planned for 2015 –
- May 1-2 Dwight, IL Route 66 Smoke Out – 7th overall
- June 26-27 Grafton, WI Grilling in Grafton
- July 24-25 Morton, IL Morton BBQ Throwdown
- October 16-17 Libertyville, IL Lamb’s Farm Barn Burner BBQ
If time and budget allow, we are also considering a couple of other KCBS contests, especially if we are on a roll. We will also be competing separately in non-sanctioned contests.
Is Your BBQ Team Starting to Catch Fire?
If so, and you meet the 1 RGC and no more than 1 GC parameters, please contact me to let me know. In your email, be sure and write up your story similar to the way you see it above. That way, I can determine if it will be a good fit for my readers. Try and share some insights you’ve gained as your team has begun to rock and roll – so that others might learn from your experience!