Wooley Bully “BBQ Mafia”, a professional barbecue team from Live Oak, has qualified to compete in the 25th Annual Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue in Lynchburg, Tenn. on Saturday, Oct. 26. Competitors often refer to The Jack™ as the most prestigious barbecue competition in the world.
Damon Wooley, half the Wooley Bully “BBQ Mafia” team, said he and his father had started entering barbecue competitions non-professionally about five years ago. They were sitting around watching television and a competition came on sometime before it became a mainstream event.
“We thought, ‘that’d be fun,’” said Wooley.
A few years back, Wooley heard about a competition that was being held in Perry, so he and his dad decided to give it a shot. He said there were the “backyards” as well as the professionals at the event. The “backyards” as you can probably guess were the novice or beginners of barbecue.
“It’s for the ones who are just learning and don’t want to jump in with the big boys,” smiled Wooley. “Generally speaking the fees are less, too. We got lucky and won the thing and of course we were then hooked.”
This was in December of 2008.
He said it wasn’t just about developing a great technique or finding that amazing mouth-watering combination of ingredients your family or friends find appealing. What you or someone else finds delicious, the judges might not, so it’s up to the competitor to try and figure out what most judges are looking for in barbecue.
”You have to overcome that obstacle of giving them what they want, not what you want,” said Wooley.
He said there were so many people who had been cooking for years and made great food, but it just wasn’t what the judges cared for, so they wouldn’t do well. He said you have to alter your seasonings, marinades and sauces into the profile of what you think the judges want.
“It’s so subjective too because you’ve got a room full of 40 judges and all 40 don’t like the same thing,” said Wooley. “So, you’ve got one judge who loves what you have and another not like it.”
Wooley compared it to a great piece of chocolate cake in that it’s so good and rich, you can only eat the one bite. He said that’s how your barbecue has to be. You have to adjust the flavors and “wow” the judges on the first bite. You must not only “amp” up the flavors, but also be aware of what category you’re working in.
There are four different categories, chicken, rib, pork and brisket. Wooley said that by the time the judges get to the end of all the entries (2-3 hours), their taste buds are dulled, so the first bite is most crucial. Wooley said by the time the judges get to the brisket category, the competitor’s brisket has to have a bold, savory flavor otherwise it will taste bland. He said one time he let a friend try some of his brisket he was entering, but that was all the friend had eaten, so he thought it was too heavy on the salt, but for competition, it was actually where it needed to be.
The three main criteria that judges look for in all four categories of meat are appearance, taste and tenderness. He said often beginners have a hard time in the appearance side of it. Wooley has looked back at past competitions and just laughs because by comparison to the well-seasoned pro he is now, he entered food that he thought, at the time, looked great.
“I can’t believe I thought that looked good,” Wooley said, laughing. “A lot of people when they first start, they get their feelings hurt.”
Wooley said when he first started, he realized there were so many different people from all walks of life that shared the same interest in cooking up great barbecue. Wooley has been able to meet people and travel to a lot of places, but in order to compete in many of the events, one has to have a flexible schedule. Each event can be over a two day period and when you figure in the travel time depending on it’s location, you might be looking at a three to four day affair.
What is Wooley’s specialty or talent?
“I guess one of my talents is the fact that I have a very sensitive palate,” said Wooley. “I can taste foods and rubs and know what’s in them. It’s kind of a joke out on the barbecue circuit. ‘Don’t let Wooley taste what you’re using, he’ll figure it out.’”
Wooley said there’s a term called “shigging” that refers to competitors at barbecue events who purposely try to steal others secrets and recipes. He said people will put certain spices in different containers just to help confound the competition.
The upcoming competition will feature a pool of 76 champion teams from across the United States and 23 international teams representing, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Holland, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Puerto Rico, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. In order to receive an invitation to The Jack™ domestic teams must have won an automatic event, such as Memphis in May or the American Royal, a state championship with 25 teams, a competition with more than 50 teams or have won seven contests in the past barbecue season. Due to the large amount of seasoned competitors, the final teams were selected in a blind drawing of all qualifiers in early September. Teams will compete in seven categories: pork ribs, pork shoulder/butts, beef brisket, chicken, Cook’s Choice, dessert and Jack Daniels sauce.