Navarro ECHS barbecue fundraiser hones skills in pursuit of national championship – Low Calorie Diets Tips

By Paul Stinson

The Navarro Early College High School grill team heads to Nationals this month after impressing state judges and seeing their fundraising chef’s meat fly off virtual shelves long before the grill gets underway.

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

The virtual window to the valuable selection of meat, side dishes and desserts opened in mid-May and the students got a first impression of the culinary delights before letting the adults participate in the campaign.

“We’ve sold enough where we had to cook for two days,” Cortez said, noting that the high demand meant cooking for two days instead of the usual to satisfy the public’s appetite.

Tasked with preparing 13 briskets, 12 pork steaks, 24 ribs, chicken, burgers and Dutch Oven dessert dishes, the school’s offset smoker, ‘El Jefe Grande’, spent the last week of school in high-fundraising gear, raising proceeds, which will sponsor some barbecue dress rehearsals and an overnight stay at the Round Rock national competition venue.

Travel to local competitions isn’t typically paid for by the district because the team won’t leave Travis County, Cortez said.

“Once the competition is over, instead of packing up at 6 and going home, that night we get to enjoy the resort, cool off, and have the same experience as any other team traveling from out of state or city” , he said.

National Championship

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

Don’t worry, everyone’s grilling outside in the parking lot.

Event organizers implored attendees to “Come eat our homework!” in a flyer promoting the event and showcasing the nation’s top high school barbecue talents.

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

At stake: Bragging rights and full scholarships to Sullivan University — which offers a culinary arts program among its many degrees — go to the champions. Scholarship dough will also be awarded for the second and third places.

In this year’s national competition, the Navarro team will face off against a host of Texas talent and out-of-state competitors, including teams from Ohio, Missouri and Florida. Whether grilled oranges will be included in the dessert category is not yet certain.

The team earned their way to Nationals after achieving a top 20 finish in the May 7 state competition at Burnet. The José brothers’ 5-piece culinary band (Brisket); Natalie (Desserts), Luis (Chicken), Ribs (Leo) and Beans (Eno) qualified for the state competition by winning a regional competition at Travis High School.

The national stage is nothing new for the Navarro team, who placed 3rd at the World Food Expo Championship at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas in November 2021, competing against a number of Texan teams and a handful of foreign competitors.

Preparation for game day

It’s Wednesday afternoon and El Jefe Grande is working through the briskets it picked up at 7am and parked in front of the Agriculture Department entrance, taking up three parking spaces—four if you count the trailer hitch. (Don’t worry, no faculty rooms were actually obstructed, it has its own room)

Inside, team members continue to pass frozen ribs one by one to José, who works as quickly as possible to meet the needs of each platter, removing unwanted bits that may get in the way from the smoke getting into the meat.

Cortez said that although the final cook serves to add financial resources to the barbecue fiscus, the prep week is equivalent to a band going through a setlist, or a team honing a play’s execution — or in this case, a culinary skill — with a Such repetition makes it second nature on game day.

“It’s all about speed because we don’t get the meat until the morning, so there’s no pre-trimming in the competition,” Cortez said. “The kids have to be used to being able to trim quickly because we only have a limited amount of time to put things on [the grill] beforehand, so we don’t have to rush anything.”

Sharpening the basics is everything, especially in a competition that leaves little room for error.

“In some competitions you only get a piece of rib,” he said. “If you screw up that one rib, you’re going to cook that one messed up set — and the only way to get good is to practice trimming over and over again.”

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