Navarro ECHS barbecue fundraiser sharpens skills in quest for national championship

By Paul Stinson

Navarro Early College High School’s barbecue team is heading to Nationals this month after wowing state judges and seeing the meats from their fundraising cook fly off the virtual shelves long before the grill gets going.

“Everything is 100 percent pre-sold,” said agriculture department head Tracey Cortez, who leads the barbecue program, now in its fifth-year of competition. “It takes about an hour and we’re pretty much sold out,” he said.

The virtual window to the prized array of meats, sides and desserts opened up in mid-May, with students getting the first crack at the culinary delights, before letting adults get in on the action.

“We sold enough where we had to incorporate two days of cooking,” said Cortez, noting that high demand meant two days instead of the usual one for cooking to meet public appetite.

Tasked with cooking 13 briskets, 12 pork butts, 24 racks of ribs, chicken, burgers and Dutch Oven dessert fare, the school’s offset smoker ‘El Jefe Grande,’ spent the final week of school in high-fundraising gear, generating proceeds that will fund a few barbecue dress rehearsals and a night’s stay at the host site of the national competition in Round Rock.

Travel to local competitions is not usually paid for by the district since the team won’t be leaving Travis County, said Cortez.

“Once the contest is over instead of packing up at 6 and going back home, we can enjoy the resort that evening, cool off and have the same experience as all the other teams that are coming in from out of state or city,” he said.

National championship

The National High School BBQ Association is holding the championship June 19–22 at the Kalahari Indoor Water Park, which opened in November 2020.

Not to worry, everyone will be grilling outside in the parking lot.

Event organizers implore attendees to “Come Eat Our Homework!” in a flyer promoting the event showcasing the nation’s top high school talent in the barbecue arts.

The assignment for teams: dessert, steak, burger, chicken, ribs and brisket.

At stake: bragging rights and full-tuition scholarships to Sullivan University –which among its many degrees offers a culinary arts program— going to the champs. Scholarship dough is also awarded for second and third-place finishes.

The national competition this year will pit the Navarro team up against a raft of Texas talent and out-of-state competition, including teams from Ohio, Missouri and Florida. No word yet on whether or not barbecued oranges will be entered in the dessert category.

The team earned their way to Nationals after notching a top-20 finish in state competition May 7 in Burnet. The 5-member culinary band of brethren José (brisket); Natalie (desserts), Luis (chicken), ribs (Leo) and beans (Eno) qualified for state competition by winning a regional competition at Travis High School.

The national stage is nothing new for Navarro team that notched a 3rd place finish in Nov. 2021 at the World Food Expo Championship at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, competing against a raft of Texas teams and a handful of out-of-state competitors.

Game day prep

It’s Wednesday afternoon and El Jefe Grande is working its way through the briskets it accepted at 7 a.m. and parked outside the agriculture department’s entrance, hogging up the equivalent of three parking spots –four, if you include the hitch. (Don’t worry no faculty spaces were actually impeded, it has its own space)

Indoors, team members continue to hand frozen set after frozen set of ribs to José who is working as rapidly as he can in tackling the needs of each slab, removing unwanted portions that can get in the way from the smoke making its way into the meat.

Cortez said although the final cook serves the purpose of adding financial resources to the barbecue fiscus, the week of prepping amounts to the equivalent of a band running through a setlist or a team sharpening up the execution of a play –or in this case a culinary skill— with such repetition it becomes second-nature on game day.

“It’s all about speed because we don’t get the meat until that morning so there is no pre-trimming at the contest,” said Cortez. “The kids have to be used to being able to trim quick on a consistent basis because we only have a limited amount of time to get things on [the grill] before so we’re not having to rush things.”

Sharpening fundamentals are everything, especially in a contest that may offer little room for error.

“Some of the contests you only get one rack of ribs,” he said. “If you mess up on that one rack of ribs you’re going to be cooking that one messed-up set –and the only way to get good is to practice trimming over and over.”