Chad and Maria Cooke of Grafton are excelling in hot competition against some of the country’s best grillers
When Chad and Maria Cooke of Grafton entered the first Grillin’ in Grafton barbecue competition four years ago, they had never heard of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and had no idea what a KCBS-sanctioned event entailed.
Today, the couple is ranked 129th out of 3,000 barbecuing teams in the United States and hope to be in the top 100 this year. Scroll back to 2011, when Chad and his wife Maria Caputa Cooke and her family decided to enter a team in the first Grillin’ in Grafton event. The team name, The Smokin’ Cs, which stands for Cooke and Caputa, was put on shirts, banners and Chad’s smoker.
“I had been smoking meat for four years and bought a smoker at Home Depot for my 40th birthday,” Chad said.
“I thought, ‘We have a real smoker so when everybody else comes with their Weber grills, we’ll be ahead of the game.’ We were doing it for the fun of it.”
He went on the Internet to learn more about KCBS-sanctioned events and found out he had to smoke four meats — chicken, ribs, pork and beef brisket.
“I didn’t know what a brisket was until I found one at Sendik’s in Mequon,” Chad said.
He was feeling confident when he was the first one to set up his smoker at the event and started preparing the meat and sauces inside his brother-in-law’s camper.
When he finally stepped outside, he was shocked by the sophisticated smokers and trailers he saw.
Dave Raymond, who created Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauces, was among the competitors who came over to talk to the Cookes. He asked Chad about his smoker and why the chimney was so tall — to get better airflow?
“No, to keep the marigolds from dying,” Chad answered.
The flowers in his wife’s window boxes were dying from the smoke, so he put an extension on the chimney to protect the blooms.
Chad learned just how serious the competition was at the required cooks’ meeting when a KCBS representative went over the rules.
The Grafton event had 15 entries, just enough to qualify as a state championship. The contestants were told that if anyone was disqualified, the event would no longer be a state championship.
“He then said, ‘Let me introduce you to the only first-time team’ and pointed to us,” Chad said.
“From then on, people were coming up to us offering extra ribs if we needed them, more greens for the boxes (when food is presented for judging) and saying, ‘Let us know if we can help you in any way.’”
When Smokin’ Cs’ chicken finished fifth (Raymond’s came in sixth), Chad’s confidence rose.
“I’m thinking, ‘We’re going to beat these guys,’” he said. “Next was ribs, and my ribs are awesome.”
Maria noted, “Actually, our goal was not to finish last.”
They finished 14 out of 15 teams and won $25 and a cutting board.
The couple was fascinated with the world they encountered and attended several events that summer before donning barbecue gloves the following year.
To compete on that level, Chad said, they needed a trailer and new smoker. They bought a used trailer for $7,500 that is big enough for the couple to sleep in and a Peoria Meat Monster smoker.
Chad does the cooking and Maria helps select the six best pieces of meat and arrange them with greens for judging.
In 2012, the Smokin’ Cs entered seven events and qualified for the Sam’s Club National BBQ regional event in Rockford, Ill.
“When you get to regionals, it’s 30 of the best teams in the Midwest,” Chad said. They finished 29 out of 30, but learned a lot, he said.
Last year, they competed in nine events and did well, but this year, they’ve become the team to fear.
Last year, they qualified for a Sam’s Club competition in Mississippi, but their chicken was disqualified because Chad left a toothpick in the meat.
“I don’t even bring toothpicks with me anymore,” he said.
Chad credits this year’s success to the gravity-fed Southern Q smoker he bought in Georgia. The temperature stays consistent, he said, and he doesn’t have to get up all night adding wood and charcoal.
This year, they were named reserve champion at the Montello Puck-a-Way BBQ competition, taking home a carved pink pig that will have a place of honor at future competitions. The second-place finish lifted them in the national rankings.
“My goal was to be in the top 200 nationally, and we’re past that,” Chad said. “Now, I want to be in the top 100. If not this year, then next year.”
Last weekend, he finished 24th in Plymouth, Ind. His final competition for the season will be Oct. 3 and 4 at the Jim Beam Classic in Kentucky.
Maria said they’ve made many lasting friendships at the competitions, where everyone shares a love for cooking and eating barbecue and having fun.
Chad enjoys mentoring new contestants, who in turn root for him.
“I just tell them, ‘Here are the mistakes we made and maybe you can learn from them,’” Chad said. “I’m just helping them. They still have to cook it.”
Chad has favorite outlets for his meat. He gets brisket from Oregon, as do most of his competitors, organic chickens from Georgia, ribs from Duroc pigs raised in Minnesota and pork from Pick ’n Save.
His dream is to open a barbecue shack similar to those he frequented while living in the South several years.
“They make the best barbecue I’ve tasted, and there is nothing like it here,” he said. “You open at 11 a.m. and close when you run out of food.”
Image information: A cute pink pig was awarded to Maria and Chad Cooke as reserve champions at a BBQ contest in Montello.