TThe best grilled steak you will ever eat maybe not from a restaurant. Imagine an inch-thick ribeye tender enough to slice with a plastic knife. Inside: a uniform gray ring around a light pink center. And the taste! Just enough salt and seasoning to complement the meatiness of the steak with buttery bits of fat that melt on your tongue.
Impossible? Not for countless home cooks who consistently grill up great steaks, including competitors at a recent steak cookoff in Athol, Idaho.
Maybe you are one of them. If so, organizations like the Steak Cookoff Association are giving away big bucks to would-be grill masters, in tandem with the rise of grilling competitions (which are usually about chicken or pork and that all-important sauce).
The Texas-based Steak Cookoff Association, which members and the association both refer to as the SCA, helps event planners standardize steak grading statewide with a growing international membership. It was founded by Brett Gallaway and Ken Phillips, restaurant industry recruiters and home grilling enthusiasts, who recognized that the valuation of cookoffs varied from place to place. In 2013 they formed SCA, which sanctioned 19 events the following year.
According to Michelle Dang, who works both in medical care and as an SCA representative, 600 SCA events, including international ones, could increase this year. Dang traveled from Texas to help coordinate the first-ever Idaho SCA event, held July 23 at Super One Foods in Athol.
The North Idaho event featured 16 teams and two events, each costing participants $160. Some chefs are local, like Daryl Kunzi of Coeur d’Alene’s Drummin Up BBQ Food Truck, who placed third and eighth, earning a total of $500.
Others are even from Oregon, like Alta Hertz and husband Jason, who split the competitions, each taking first place, winning $1,000 and a “golden ticket” to the 2023 championships, where the grand prize is $10,000.
“I like SCA because it offers a level playing field,” says Dang, explaining that SCA provides the meat for every competition, shifting the focus from the person who can afford the best raw materials to the person with the best cooking skills .
Dang leads the pre-competition at 10am meeting, reviewing rules such as how steaks should arrive for judging: one per styrofoam clamshell, nothing extra; no toothpicks, skewers, or string that some cooks often use to keep their steaks uniform.
“I’m a surgical nurse,” she jokes. “We count what comes in, we count what comes out.”
After the meeting, attendees line up to choose the two steaks they’ll receive per cookoff, in this case gorgeously marbled USDA Choice Angus Ribeyes, which Super One normally sells for $15.98 a pound, according to organizer Dan Wright.
Entrants have 30 seconds to select who they hope will be winners, then rush to their individual tents.
Sandpoint resident Josh Roberts and his son wear matching BBQ360 shirts. Roberts’ gear looks new and he moves like someone used to competitive athletics. He will chill the steaks to firm them up, after which he will cut, skewer, bind and then marinate them.
The steaks go on the 540-degree grill about 20 minutes before the due time, says Roberts, who works in the medical supply store and cooks as a hobby.
“Then cross your fingers and hope it works,” says Roberts, who nabbed $200 for fifth place.
Jake Parli arrived from Lewiston, Idaho with the black Weber kettle grill he inherited from his father and fond memories of backyard barbecues. A paper towel with the inscription “Not a Pitmaster” hangs in his tent.
“I usually have a banner, but I forgot it,” says Parli, who works as a traffic light technician.
Parli wears gray camo shorts, a purple team thrash hat, and a black t-shirt that features a dirt bike tattoo on one arm and a hydra sleeve on the other. He accepts a cut of steak from Tanya Schoonover-Turner (who will turn out to be the runner-up) and chats amiably to fellow competitors.
“Everyone is very friendly,” he says. “You helped me a lot.”
At the awards show later in the day, after sheepishly admitting he dropped one of his steaks, Parli pocketed $400 for fourth and ninth place finishes.
SCA is like a family. It’s not like other competitionss. You’ll hear these comments from competitors, anyone previously judged, and SCA representatives.
Another difference: in addition to providing steaks, SCA offers assessment workshops that are also open to budding chefs. It demystifies the review process, makes reviewing fun, and helps build a network of well-trained reviewers.
“Every box that comes to you…is a 10,” Dang says during judges training, which involves grading two steaks in practice.
Rebecca Boifeuille, who works in Super One’s floral department, signed up for the grading class to discover the secrets of preparing good steaks.
“And I like to eat them,” she adds.
At the appointed hour, the steaks begin arriving, one per Styrofoam box, to which are taped a blank envelope and a randomly assigned ticket for the double-blind judging process. Dang opens the container, slices the steak in half, closes the container and hands it to one of the judges. She wipes her knife and waits for the next box.
“You don’t compare case to case,” Dang reminds the 10 male and three female judges. “You judge each box individually.”
Like the other judges, Gary Tellesen paid $100 to learn SCA’s critique method ($60 of which was reimbursed by the organizer). Tellesen, whose sons Dusty and Kacy Tellesen founded Spokane-based Nordic Smoke BBQ, attended the previous night’s cooking class ($125) taught by master griller Marty Plute.
Plute knows steak. He is the current Alabama and Georgia Cookoff Champion, an SCA top 10 point earner with six wins this year, and has his own line of rubs called Twisted Steel.
Competition steaks are judged on appearance, doneness, texture, flavor and overall appeal, explains Plute, who notes that texture was the most difficult category for him. He uses both manual tenderization and marinades, and varies the time depending on the steak.
“I’ve learned to let my steak tell me what it needs,” says Plute, an Illinois-based carpenter by trade. “Every steak is different and needs to be approached differently.”
Other tips: allow the steak to warm up before grilling, which helps fuse the rub into the meat, and use a temperature probe inserted into the steak for continuous feedback. Plute also uses lights that match those in the judging area so he can see what the judges are seeing.
“For the competition, they’re looking for a medium-sized steak or a warm pink core, and the lighting can make or break there,” says Plute, who has offered to teach the steak cooking class to expand SCA’s Pacific Northwest reach to enlarge.
Plute’s must-have gear includes duck fat for oiling the cooking grates and giving the finished steak a lustrous shine, a reliable way to check the temperature of steaks and grill, sharp knives, a timer and, of course, a grill and fuel .
He also has “good music and good friends” on his list of most important things.
“Because in the end,” says Plute, “it’s the friends I’ve made across the country that keep me coming back.” ♦