Despite heated competition, Lonestar Barbecue Society cook-offs family fun
DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR
BURNET — Sometimes, a simple invitation to help cook opens up a new world. That’s what happened to barbecue enthusiasts and Highland Lakes residents Harvey Gebhard and Johnny Campbell.
Both are fixtures on the Lonestar Barbecue Society cook-off trail. Gebhard even heads up the organization as chairman of the board.
“The fun of it is it’s like this big family,” Gebhard said. “You show up Friday, and everybody’s having a good time, you’re just having fun. Then, on Saturday, it’s dog eat dog. But once the trophies and ribbons are passed out, it’s back to being friends.”
Gebhard was describing the friendly, competitive atmosphere found at the Lonestar events. The camaraderie was something Campbell noted as well.
“You meet a lot of great people,” Campbell said. “Some of the people I’ve met at the cook-offs have become great friends. And if it weren’t for the cook-offs, I probably wouldn’t have ever met them.”
The society’s Cooker of the Year Cook-off comes to the Burnet County Fairgrounds, 1301 Houston Clinton Drive, on Jan. 17-18. The annual event previously was held in Austin, but organizers decided the Burnet location offered better access and amenities.
Gebhard expects at least 70 teams to compete in the event. While it’s billed as the Cooker of the Year Cook-off, everyone is welcome to enter. Actually, the Cooker of the Year was already named. Matt Cogburn of Bertram took the title based on points and previous competition.
Even if you’re not cooking up anything, you’re welcome to attend the Jan. 17-18 event. Gebhard said people also can volunteer to be judges.
“Who doesn’t like a chance to eat some great barbecue,” he said. “And for free.”
Barbecue cook-offs are a fast-growing competitive event. Gebhbard recalled the first time a friend invited him to an open (non-sanctioned) event in Dripping Springs almost 20 years ago. Soon after, he began getting more involved and then learned of sanctioned events (which require cooks and teams to follow specific rules). The next thing Gebhard knew, he was hitting the cook-off trail with regularity.
Several years ago, the founders of the Lonestar Barbecue Society approached Gebhard and his wife, Jean, about taking over the organization. Since then, the number of Lonestar-sanctioned cook-offs has grown from about 25 to more than 100. And membership has jumped from a handful to more than 400.
“And it’s turning into a money sport,” he said.
Gebhard pointed out there’s a cook-off in Las Vegas with a $300,000 payout. The Cooker of the Year Cook-off has a $5,000 payout for the meat categories with the grand champion taking home $300.
Campbell, who got started in cook-offs in a similar fashion — by invitation — has also found the events to be a great chance for him and his four brothers — Joe, Steve, Don and Tim — to get together and have a good time. They call themselves the 5C Team.
While all five can’t make every barbecue cook-off (two live north of Abilene), they manage to attend several either all together or as a few. For the Campbells, cook-offs remind them of their father.
“We grew with a dad who cooked outside all the time,” Johnny Campbell said. “He didn’t compete, but he enjoyed it. We grew up learning from him.”
Of course, the cooking style the Campbell boys use at competitions is different than their dad’s, but his influence remains.
Johnny Campbell has pursued cook-offs across the state. When he won Cooker of the Year for 2010, he hit 27 different events.
While he loves cooking and competing, Campbell is toying with the idea of sharing his knowledge through lessons or other demonstrations.
“I’m always getting asked about teaching people how to cook,” he said. Over Christmas, he coached two people — one from Las Vegas and one from Paducah, Ky. — on how to barbecue.
As for getting started, while some people roll up to the competition in massive recreational vehicles pulling pits that resemble works of art as much as a cooking vessel, Campbell said the real key is knowing how to get the best from your equipment.
“One time, we got beat by this 90-year-old man who showed up with a 55-gallon drum with two rods stuck through it and a grill on it,” he said. “He just knew how to get the most from that stuff.”
But you can rest assured that some of the pits that arrive at the Burnet event won’t be typical set-ups.
Gebhard said he expects the Trash and Burn team to show up with their cooker fashioned from a dumpster. And, he added, it will be like no dumpster anyone has ever seen.
To get a look at it, check out some of the best barbecue cooks in the state or just have a good time, head over to the Burnet County Fairgrounds. Go to www.lonestarbarbecue.com for more information.