Holy Smokes BBQ Competition’s Brian Austing Teaches High Schoolers Life Lessons from the Pit

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Illustration by Marcello Crescenzi

Brian Austing cofounded the Our Lady of Victory Holy Smokes BBQ competition in 2016. We sat down with him to chat about first-year competition blunders and the role he plays in teaching Oyler High School students cooking and career skills.

How did Our Lady of Victory’s Holy Smokes BBQ competition begin?
The parish was looking for another fund-raiser. I threw out an idea to have a BBQ competition, nationally sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society. They liked the idea…we didn’t expect that. We didn’t know a whole lot about it, because we’d only been barbecuing ourselves for a little while. So we went to different competitions, did some R&D, and got a group of teams together. This will be our fourth year. We need about 50 judges for the size of our event, and while teams come from all over the country now, this year we have a team coming all the way from England.

Were there any growing pains the first year?
Our first year, one of the judges came up to us the day of and said, “Hey, when does the ice cream come out? [I asked,] “What do you mean ice cream?” “Well,” [he said,] “one of the things the judges really enjoy is free ice cream, and at every event they’re always giving away free ice cream.” Thankfully, we had an ice cream vendor on site. Now, a judge has a lanyard with a certain certification they have to wear all day long. We said if somebody comes up with one of these lanyards, they get free ice cream…yeah, that wasn’t a thing. They got us. [But] now, we get 90-plus judges who apply [to our competition] because we do that every year.

When did you and your BBQ team become involved with the Oyler School Intersession program?
We got a call from a teacher there, and he said [they] had these Intersessions right before the kids go on spring break. He said, “Would you be able to come in and talk to the kids about barbecuing?” Even the money aspect—purchasing the smoker, the meats you use, and how much you sell it for to cover your cost. At the end of the week, the kids [would] compete and cook, and they’d have their peers come in and actually judge. [We thought] this is just one more way Holy Smokes can give back to the greater community, even outside of Victory.

What type of meat did you teach them to smoke?
The kids had a competition with ribs. They got to develop their own rubs and everything to use beforehand, and they got to decide if they wanted to cook them competition style or fall-off-the-bone. We all love it, but in competition, you will fail immediately if they fall off the bone.

For competition standards, what’s the best barbecue?
Competition cooking is not anything like going into a restaurant. For a rib, there’s got to be a little bite, so you can see the bite mark but nothing falls off the bone. They’re always judging on taste, tenderness, and appearance. There’s no set of rules that say you’ve got to cook with sauce, but you’ll always cook to your judges. And a lot of teams will stay in the same area of competitions, because you’re going to get a lot of the same judges. And once you dial in to a judge, you’re almost certain to [win].

Any interesting rubs or sauces from the students?
Well, we talked a lot about the balance between sweet and savory. One of them really had a sweet tooth. When I took a bite of the rib with their rub…it was one of those that you know you’re going to finish because the kids are looking at you.

How did the cook-off turn out?
That day wasn’t the prettiest of days—it was chilly and rainy. But when it was time, all the [freshman through senior] kids were right there at the smoker doing what they had to do. There was a girl in the class—she did all the cooking at home, and she said this is one more thing she can add to her list [of skills], and she asked what she could do just in the oven at home.

What did you take away from this experience?
Anytime you can have an impact on anyone’s life, as small of an impact as someone taking a bite. Even just for one minute, you made them feel really good.

Holy Smokes BBQ Competition, August 2 & 3, 810 Neeb Rd., Delhi, (513) 607-5869

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