Best of Show: Opinionated Cook Wins BBQ Title at County Fair

I had chased the elusive Best of Show award for years - and finally tasted victory.

It had been five years since the last time I had won Best of Show at the Napa County Fair Barbecue Contest, and every year I’ve been trying to win it one more time. Years past have seen a consistent first place in any division I entered, but I had been awarded Second Place Best of Show just as consistently. I had been beat by professional chefs, culinary instructors and one guy who simply barbecued for longer than I. This was my year to come out on top.

This year, I decided to enter two categories to double my chances at winning. Beef was out, as it was my Dad’s turn and he was planning a ridiculously delicious blue cheese burger with grilled onions and barbecue-baked buns. I didn’t want to attempt chicken because there’s a 30-second window between undercooked/dangerous and overcooked/sawdust when it comes to done-ness. Pork carries a similar risk unless it’s cooked low and slow for hours, but I knew there would be at least one contestant () using this technique and I wanted to stand out. I also didn’t want to cook lamb, as I’m not a big fan of it unless it’s my Dad’s famous grilled chops. So, my only other options were the Fish and Vegetarian categories.

As we do every year, my family and I piled into my husband’s truck that had been loaded down with two barbecues, multiple coolers and my Dad’s portable cookoff table, complete with an inverter into which he plugged his blender for margaritas. We arrived at the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga on a warm Saturday morning and quickly set up our stations in the shadiest spot we could find, proceeding to grill bacon for breakfast, washed down with plastic cups of .

Other teams slowly arrived, staking their claims to the remaining shade, firing up gas grills and adding wood to smokers in preparation for the day’s dishes. All of the regulars were there:  Pork Smoker Guy was doing four categories, food blogger Karin had her husband nearby with the wireless internet and Chef Doug sharpened his knives from across the lawn. I exchanged hugs with Doug and Karin, and kept a wary eye on Pork Smoker Guy, who stood near his equipment with arms folded, smoking a cigar.

As the sun crested in the sky, the ambient temperature became almost unbearably hot, increasing with every step closer to my high BTU grill. I had a lot of grilling to do, so I did as much as I could in the earlier hours of the day, browning my lemons and roasting my tomatoes. I kept hydrated with cold beers and every once in a while held my face near the dry ice surrounding the butter.

I had been working on a sumptuous Butter Poached Halibut with Lemon Gastrique dish for a few months now and knew it had potential for the top spot. Gently poached in melted butter, then grilled over an open flame, the halibut was then drizzled with a sweet/sour/savory lemon syrup, resting on a bed of baby greens dressed in a spicy shallot sauce. Because I lost first place last year because I hadn’t grilled as much as the winner, I decided to freeze butter and then grill it to give it a smokiness before melting it in the poaching pan.

My other dish was a crazy concoction of grilled sriracha-soaked tomatoes, arugula, shiitakes in truffle oil and extra sharp white cheddar between two sliced of sourdough slathered with roasted garlic and Dijon mustard. I entered this sandwich into the Vegetarian category, thinking it would at least be different from the regular grilled vegetables or breads. This was to be the first entry turned in, and my timing had to be perfect. I just barely made it, as a few of my sandwiches fell apart on the grill, weighed down by the ingredients and difficult to flip. I presented the sandwiches wrapped in red-checked paper, resting on my homemade pickles.

After all of the dishes had been presented for judging in each category, we gathered for the results, straining to hear over the sounds of the nearby midway with different music blasting from each ride. Pork Smoker Guy won the Pork, Poultry, Beef (Dad was robbed!) and Lamb categories and I won the Fish and Vegetarian categories. Finally, after some verbal dithering by the emcee, it was announced that I was the winner of the Best of Show award! I was presented with a shiny new grill and handshakes all around as I welled up with sheer joy.

I’ll be taking a break from grilling in this contest next year. I have achieved my goal, and now I want to support my Dad, ready at his side with fresh margaritas.


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