Kansas City Barbeque Society
When you plug into the BBQ network on Facebook, you soon find out that there are some key players – folks anyone who’s anyone in the BBQ world are friends and colleagues with. I soon found Karen Walker, Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) Contest and Volunteers Manager to be just one of these people.
Since becoming a KCBS judge last October, I’ve been trying to become as familiar with the organization as I can. Sure, I get the “Bullsheet” newsletter, and there are some great stories in there. But I decided to start talking with more folks from the organization, and Karen was kind enough to work me into her very hectic schedule.
What follows is an email transcript from my correspondence with the Amazing Karen Walker!
BBQ Smoker Site (BSS): It’s clear you have a love of BBQ, hence your position with the Kansas City Barbeque Society. Can you tell us a bit more about your job there and how you began working for the KCBS?
Karen Walker (KW): I’ve worked in the non-profit field for the last decade. I worked as a Volunteer Director at a local animal shelter as well as a battered women’s and children shelter. When I was researching KCBS for the position, I was drawn by the philanthropy involved in the BBQ community.
The majority of our contests benefit major charities such as The Children’s Miracle Network, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Special Olympics and Habitat for Humanity. Not to mention many local Chamber of Commerce’s, Lion’s and Shriner’s Clubs. The giving spirit of the community is what has kept me here since August of ‘08.
As the Contest Manager, the major areas of my responsibilities are Organizers and Reps. I’m the office source for new Organizers interested in becoming sanctioned, keeping existing Organizers in compliance, developing and distributing the Organizer Guide, tracking info from the Rep/Organizer/Team Critiques for stats, managing the Rep assignment calendar (over 750 assigned in ’09), inputting the contest info you see on our website and anything else that involves contests and Reps. Basically, I spend a lot of time in front of a computer and talking on the phone.
This is why when I am able to attend a contest you can usually find me talking with and photographing teams instead of selling t-shirts or something. They help me keep perspective of why I spend 40+ hours a week knee-deep in spreadsheets.
BSS: I’ll play it safe and assume that you love to eat good barbecue. Do you cook it as well? Do you have any experience with being on a competitive team?
KW: I’m a gastronome first and foremost. I have several bookshelves in my home full of cookbooks, foodie magazines and food writer books and am always on the hunt for a great recipe or local foodie haunt to try. And, if I’m in the right place at the right time, I get to have great barbecue.
I’ve been a bit spoiled in the short amount of time I’ve worked at KCBS tasting some of the best BBQ on the circuit. I’ve had Pellet Envy’s brisket (and ribs, which are my favorite), Chris Lilly’s pulled pork, Jack’s Old South whole hog and Munchin’ at the Hilton’s chicken. I don’t eat BBQ all the time, but when I do, I am very aware of how lucky I have been.
I cook but I don’t compete. Not yet. Last year I suggested us KCBS office ladies (without husbands/boyfriends) cook a couple of competitions a year to get the feel of what our teams go through. You know, just us girls braving the elements. Let’s just say I didn’t get very far with that idea! Two of my co-workers helped their husbands cook a contest this year. I was there to support them and will continue to do so. My other half and I have opposite schedules so it would be just me and whoever wants to help.
As I’ve met people on the circuit and learned of others cooking solo, I’m considering competing. I also have gracious friends who have offered to teach me along with these two classes that are at the top of my wish list: Pellet Envy’s ‘Old School vs. High Tech’ and Jack’s Old South Cooking School.
BSS: What do you consider to be the top three competitive BBQ events in a given calendar year and why?
I’ve been to Memphis in May and recently The Jack. Everyone has their favorite regional contests but these three are pretty big for most cooks.
BSS: If you could put on a “Karen Walker Invitational BBQ Cook-off,” share with us some of the teams you’d be sure to invite and why.
KW: Great question….I would invite the top 5 Team of Year teams from all the BBQ sanctioning bodies across the world. A true ‘Best of the Best’. Imagine that!
BSS: I know you’ve recently solicited information from folks on Facebook about Women in BBQ – a topic I’m very interested in as well. Obviously, Lee Ann Whippen of Wood Chick’s BBQ is a fan fave. What prompted this research, and what have you found out so far?
KW: Lee Ann was part of the inspiration actually. I’ve always been interested in the smaller, underrepresented populations of competition cooks, such as women.
Since posting that on my Facebook page, I’ve received numerous suggestions of women who cook and spread the good word of BBQ – both are valid. As far as what I’ve discovered so far…well, you’ll just have to wait and find out!
BSS: Lastly, TLC’s BBQ Pitmasters series is generating a lot of interest, as well as a good amount both positive and negative talk among BBQers. What’s your take on the show in terms of what it might be doing to promote competitive BBQ?
KW: In my personal opinion, I think the show is great. I’ve talked with some people who do not feel it is an accurate impression of the competition circuit. I respect their views. I’ve seen the two episodes and so far the series has shown all the elements I’ve seen or heard about.
Cooks traveling long distances to compete, treacherous weather (“We’re all gonna die!!), teams lending to other teams in need, cooks driven to finding that perfect flavor profile, bravado personalities, humble personalities, cooks who drink way too much, families and friends cooking together, the hopefulness of hearing your team name called and the sheer disappointment when it’s not, new cooks finding out that learning how to cook competition style BBQ is a PROCESS that takes time and experience.
They even got all the teams congratulating each other at the end of awards.
From the preview clips for this week’s episode in Decatur, AL, it looks like they got the organizer’s perspective on what it’s like when you have to balance issues that are out of your control with the cook’s needs.
Regardless of our opinions on the show, we are still watching and wanting more.
I don’t know if it’s intentional but it appears the show is slowly revealing the BBQ sub-culture layer by layer…I know it’s uncomfortable to see things we don’t like about ourselves. But the differences we have, good or bad, make us what we are today: an open society that celebrates barbequing not only as a craft, but as a lifestyle.
I appreciate the show and hope to see more in the future.
BSS: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers about your BBQ Life? If so, please do!
KW: I have a personal project that involves the BBQ community in the works that I will probably unveil sometime in late spring. Stay tuned…
I’d like to thank Karen again for her willingness to talk with me here on the BBQ Smoker Site. Folks in the Competitive BBQ business and those, like Karen, who help support it, are extremely busy.
As such, I can’t promise when the next interview will come along, but I’ll keep asking – and we’ll see who comes up next. The 2010 Lakeland Pig Festival is fast approaching in January, and I know a lot of great teams will be heading down here to FL to compete. We’ll even be able to see Pellet Envy on their new(er) Geer Pit (Jambo Pit) stick burner rig, so that’ll be awesome. (See DivaQ’s blog for a great interview with Pellet Envy’s Rod Gray.)
Until then, thanks for stopping by – and I’ll keep trying to keep things interesting!
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