More than a dozen culinary students at Frontier High School stepped out of the kitchen — literally — and into the parking lot this year, trading stoves and ovens for smokers and wood as they competed in the Texas High School Barbecue competition.
The high school students took home plenty of hardware from the regional and state competitions, making a name for the Mansfield school district in a competition that’s dominated by rural schools.
The teams finished fourth in brisket, ninth in ribs, 14th for beans and 19th for dessert out of 67 total teams at the statewide competition this month in Burnet.
The competition is growing fast. Three years ago there were a handful of teams competing at the state level, said David Roberson, the culinary/competitive chef instructor at Frontier High School. What started as a club sport for rural Future Farmers of America students is now on its way to becoming an officially sanctioned UIL sport.
“For our city kids it’s taken us a couple years to get acclimated to what they’re doing,” Roberson said. “The FFA kids, they’ve gotten really good at it. They know how to barbecue better than us culinary guys.”
This is the third year that Frontier High School has competed and this year the school hosted a regional round in the school parking lot in March. The barbecue competition typically starts at 5 a.m. with teams lighting and seasoning the meat before the sun comes up.
Junior Grace DiGiorgio is in her element as the team’s pitmaster, starting the fire and throwing in logs to keep the fire at the magic 275 degree temperature. She trims the perfect cut of meat — not too much fat, not too lean. Once the meat is in the pit, it’s about maintaining a steady heat and knowing when to spritz with apple juice, when to put the foil on and when it’s finally done — a process that can take up to nine hours.
“I’ve had a really good time just learning how to work a smoker, how to treat the meats properly, how to work as a team so we can get everything done so we can kind of relax,” DiGiorgio said. “It’s such a hard thing to master. I’m by far no master in it, I definitely have a lot to learn but it’s definitely been interesting to see how the smoker works and see how this one piece of meat can do so many different things.”
Junior Clayton Redmon smoked ribs for the first time competitively this year and won first place at the regional competition.
“The hardest part is managing the fire, especially with it raining and all the wind and stuff,” Redmon said. “Getting first at regionals, it made me more open to [smoking ribs at home.]”
Delaney Chiarelli worked on beans and the smoked chicken. For the baked beans, she started with dry pinto beans, soaking them and putting her gravy together with the right touch of barbecue sauce, molasses and honey. She used fresh chickens grown from the school’s agriculture program so she had to learn how to process the bird herself, removing the spine and organs.
The junior said she is still exploring what she wants to do after high school as she is considering branching out to photography or the medical program for her senior year but she’s grateful for what she’s learned in the culinary programs.
“There’s very few in the state that offer the programs that Frontier has. If we want to go to culinary school we already have some of the skills we will need,” Chiarelli said.
The culinary students routinely compete in competitions against other schools, including one that’s run like the popular “Chopped” competition on The Food Network.
For Roberson, the barbecue competitions are a chance for these students to learn valuable skills beyond the traditional French or classical culinary techniques they learn in the classroom.
“Competitions take you out of the classrooms and now you have to apply it all under pressure. People are watching,” Roberson said. “There are prizes on the line. It builds team camaraderie. It builds professionalism.”
They also have a local barbecue celebrity helping them.
Renowned barbecue competitor Jamie Geer, founder of Jambo’s Barbecue Shack in Rendon, volunteers his time with the team, helping them perfect their technique. He also offered them use of his custom pit.
Roberson said it’s meant the world to his team.
“Just getting involved with the community and getting the right people in here to help us coach and put together the things to give back to the kids,” Roberson said.
While the chicken, ribs and brisket are pretty straightforward, the dessert is wide open.
“It’s a wild card. Whatever you think goes well with barbecue,” Roberson said. “Some teams do peach cobbler. Cherry cobbler. Apple crisp. It’s up to the teams how much time and energy they want to put into it. But if you want to win, you really need to be in the top 10 in dessert because it makes a difference in points.”
Frontier High School will host another regional barbecue competition in March 2020 that will feature a Taste of Mansfield from several local restaurants, a car show, live music and samples of the students’ food, Roberson said. Next year’s competition will add a steak cookoff and desserts will be made in a dutch oven.
Cathy Hudgins, principal at Ben Barber Innovation Academy, said she loves the barbecue program because it involves so many different disciplines from culinary to agriculture to welding. Even the graphic artist students at the school helped create some of the artwork for the state competition, making it an all-around effort.
“I have a lot of teachers who are passionate about bbq,” Hudgins said. “Bringing all their insight into what the kids are doing is pretty remarkable.”
She was recently appointed to the board of directors for the Texas High School Barbecue Association.
“I’m from Memphis so barbecue is near and dear to my heart and I’m so excited the school is doing this,” Hudgins said.