For many red-blooded American males, the sound of a sizzling steak searing on the hot grate of a charcoal grill is music to the ears. It’s certainly the sound of summer, accompanied by the smell of the smoking, the sight of appealing char marks and ultimately, the mouthwatering taste of tender, well-seasoned beef that’s been perfectly cooked and cuts like butter.
At a steak cook-off, that sizzle turns into a full-on symphony as dozens of backyard chefs show off their grilling skills in synchronized fashion.
The atmosphere and camaraderie found at one of these highly competitive events is what drew business partners and buddies Ken Phillips and Brett Gallaway to pack up their aprons, tongs and grills and compete around the country. Their team name was The United Steaks of America.
“You got to talk to people and be social. Let’s face it, we’re 40-something-year-old men,” says Gallaway. “What else are we going to do? We don’t bowl.”
After losing in the Texas Steak Cookoff in Hico in 2009, their first event, they kept practicing and improved to placing in and even winning cook-offs in the years thereafter. The duo, North Texas residents who also own a restaurant management recruiting business, built something of a fan following and a reputation for quality steaks on the cook-off circuit. Soon Wal-Mart called with opportunities to be in commercials.
While the two felt they had the formula down pat for a perfect steak, they realized cook-off rules were different wherever they went — sometimes frustratingly so. At one event, the same individual won every year because he gave the winnings back to the event coordinators, says Phillips.
“Driving home from that event, I said, ‘That’s not right. We need to report him to the sanctioning body,’” Phillips says. “Then I thought, ‘Wait a minute. There is no sanctioning body for grilling competitions.’”
With no set rules from event to event or consistency in judging policies and procedures, Phillips and Gallaway knew there was opportunity to make a positive change in what they, and hundreds of other backyard grill-masters, considered a legit culinary sport. They established the Steak Cookoff Association, based in Bedford, in 2013.
“We contacted some different promoters and said, ‘Hey, cooks are frustrated with some of these rules,’” says Phillips. “We came up with a judging system that’s equitable and fair. That first year we got 18 different events to allow us to come in and sanction the judging.”
A year later, 47 steak cook-offs became sanctioned by the burgeoning association. Last year, 87 events became sanctioned and this year Phillips and Gallaway are on track to sanction more than 120 events, some as far away as Europe and Australia.
“It was like we started a wildfire,” Phillips says.
What comes with officially sanctioning an event with the Steak Cookoff Association? Integrity, consistency and a fair shot, say Gallaway and Phillips. “We provide a level of security for the cooker, knowing the judge area is going to be run fairly,” Gallaway says. “Every team has the same opportunity to win. That’s what everybody wants. When I competed, I wanted to know I had a chance.”
Prior to establishing judging guidelines, the judging process was not only inconsistent but took way too long, Phillips says. “Steaks often got cold because they sat there for an hour before the judges got to them,” he says. “One of our core principles was getting the judging process done quickly while the product was at its optimal condition.”
Steak Cookoff Association judges even go through a training program where they are taught to form an opinion based on appearance, doneness, texture, taste and overall impression. All steaks at SCA events are rib-eyes and should be cooked to medium. Plastic cutlery is always used because, “A tender steak will cut like butter,” Phillips says.
Even local celebrity judges, who often are recruited to draw attendees to cook-offs, must go through a brief training on the judging process. “But we really don’t have too many celebrity judges,” Phillips says. “The cooks would rather have trained judges.”
And many steak cook-off organizers have forgotten that without the participating cooks, there would be no steak cook-off.
“They’re the ones paying money to be there. They pay for their transportation, time off from work and entry fees,” Phillips says. “Rather than scold them, we ought to thank them for coming and give them gifts. We went to event sponsors and started doing that and the cooks noticed.”
Today the SCA constantly receives calls from event organizers around the world who want to become officially sanctioned, so many that Phillips and Gallaway no longer the need to recruit events themselves. The two also have established the SCA world steak cook-off championship, held in late October in Fort Worth. Last year the event took place at Billy Bob’s Texas.
“Cooks have gotten accustomed to the practices we’ve put in place,” Phillips says. “And our phone just keeps ringing.”
How to grill an award-winning steak
Before establishing the Steak Cookoff Association in 2013, Brett Gallaway and Ken Phillips were award-winning steak cook-off champions many times themselves. Here are a few of their expert tips for grilling a great steak.
Bring the steak to room temperature before grilling: “The biggest thing cooks do wrong is pull the steaks right out of the refrigerator and put them on the grill,” says Gallaway. “I like to leave mine out for two hours on an aluminum pan.” A room temperature steak will also absorb seasonings more evenly and thoroughly, Gallaway adds, as it’s not tight and cold.
Go light on seasoning: “Less is more,” says Phillips. “You want seasoning that enhances the meat, not overpowers it.” Phillips and Gallaway agree sticking with salt and pepper is a safe bet, but if grilling rib-eye steaks, keep in mind that the marbling is already a bit salty. “Salt is a great flavor enhancer, but you want the steak to be the star of the meal,” Gallaway says.
Add wood chunks to charcoal for a smokier flavor: While Gallaway admits he’s a Kingsford Charcoal guy, he adds a chunk of hickory wood and a chunk of pecan wood into the fire for enhanced flavor. “It adds a kiss of smoke to the steak.”
Invest in a digital thermometer: Even though many steakhouses ask patrons to slice into their steak to check for desired doneness, Phillips recommends using a digital thermometer, which will avoid the loss of flavorful juices. “Having the tools of the trade is very important,” he says. “A digital thermometer can detect the internal temperature of the meat so you don’t have to cut the steak open.”
Source: Steak Cookoff Assocation, 1901 Central Drive, Bedford, 469-693-1179, www.steakcookoffs.com
Upcoming Steak Cookoff Association events
Crazy Cowboy Steak Fundraiser Cookoff
1 Texas Harley Way
Half Moon Holidays Steak Cookoff
Texas Cook ’Em High Steaks in Edinburg
Entry fees are $150 for all events.