By KATE LUDLOW
“I’m just a backyard cooker. We just get out and have fun.”
Chester Park, founder of Chet’s BBQ competition team, talks about his tough competition, crash courses and getting by with a little help from your friends as he prepares to compete in the Liberty Hill Livestock Association BBQ Cookoff this weekend for what may be his 15th year.
“Well, back in the late 70’s, they used to gather behind the VFW. This was a brown beans competition. They used to do a Farmer’s Market back there. I had a pot, and I could cook beans, so I decided I’d do it. That first year, there were five teams, and I think I came in third,” says Park.
While it is not exactly clear when or if this event morphed into the BBQ Cookoff, it did get Liberty Hill residents excited about gathering together to cook. Plus, “It was an excuse to have a party,” says Park.
Now, Chet’s BBQ is considered by many to be the best party to be found at the cooking event, boasting a dance floor, live music by Kenny Orts, a full bar with beer and margaritas, and some of the best barbecue to be found on the cookoff grounds.
A few years after the bean competition, Park found himself competing in his first cookoff.
“I had to borrow a pit, Vicki (Park’s wife) and I slept in the Suburban behind the VFW. I don’t remember if I ever placed. But we had fun doing it,” he said.
About three or four years into competitive barbecuing, Park finally had success.
“That year, I just won it all. I was first in brisket, second in ribs, Overall Grand Champion. I caught the bug,” he said.
Park credits the men whom he calls “The Cook-off’s Founding Fathers” with keeping him going. “There’s Rick Jordan. I wouldn’t be doing any of this without him. Bud Lane, the Lohman Brothers, Roy Floyd. Then Jimmy Holland Sr. & Jr. It was good competition. We’d try to out each other every year, try to raise more money. We’d get calls, ‘Joe Blow says he’s out to get you this year.’ You know, and long as someone’s shooting for you, and we’re raising more money because of it, bring it in.”
Park says that competition fires the main reason the cookers compete – raising money. Each barbecue team has a bucket, and as the crowds pass through their booths, samples their barbecue, listens to the bands they hire, and enjoys the atmosphere each team creates, they put money into a tip jar. The tips are counted, the team that raises the most money wins the People’s Choice Award, and the money goes directly to the LHLA. In his best year, Park says the tip jar netted about $6,000.
One year, the tip jar was stolen off the bar, he said. No one was ever arrested, but Park says it was lucky that it happened early in the event.
“We still got top money raiser that year,” he said.
Though the tip jar could easily reimburse most cookers for their expenses, Park isn’t worried about being paid back.
“In a really good economy, the most we ever spent was $7,500. We don’t spend that now,” he said.
Park fronts the cost, but has taken on sponsors to help out.
“Johnny Solis always gets me a brisket sponsor. Joey Smith has gotten em a tequila sponsor. James Burkett with Burkett Excavating. PMC Communications, Lakeline Seamless Gutters, JC Communications, J.C. Evans, Clay Polasek Trucking. My employer, Morrison Supply. They’ve been my steady sponsors. They’ve donated cash, time and help over the years. Brown Distributing has been there since day one, helping us out,” he said.
Though there is no charge for a plate of barbecue, Park encourages everyone to tip heartily.
“I always want to tell people, think about how much it would cost to go out on the town. Me and my wife, Vicki, we can go out to Coupland Inn, and by the time we pay the cover charge, buy a few beers, and food, we can spend $80 or more in a night,” he said. “People get kind of excited about the ‘free’ part, and they forget we’re trying to raise money for the kids.”
It takes more than good barbecue to get the crowd’s attention. Park realized this, and so, back when the BBQ Cook-off was still held at the VFW, he began hiring live music, paying for the band out of his pocket. Luckily, he had some talent within the family.
“My nephew, Kyle Park, was looking for exposure. He’d stand up there, picking and grinning all Friday night. He did it for two years for nothing more than tips,” he said.
Kyle Park went on to become a Texas crowd favorite, playing with or opening for Clint Black, Tracy Lawrence, Mark Chestnutt, Gary Allan, Jack Ingram, Randy Rogers Band and Eli Young Band. He’s also charted on the Texas Music Charts with multiple singles.
It was a one-time turn competing in the Austin Rodeo’s barbecue cook-off that really sent things into action for Chet’s BBQ.
“We started building walls and a stage. That’s when we left the VFW, and moved things out to the Indian Mound Ranch,” he said.
Chet’s BBQ started setting up on Wednesday. They arrived to ready the personal RV’s that will be their home for the next four days. In that time, they will cook 30 briskets, 100 pounds of sausage, 100 pounds of potato salad and 30 pounds of beans.
Park says he’ll keep going, though he’s dreamt about retirement for years.
“Rick (Jordan) and I joke that we could be sitting in the shade every year. But every year we keep going,” he said.
Park credits his daughter, Annie Pogue, for pushing him every year to give it “one more go. She comes up with the decorating ideas, and gets it up to the bigger scale that it’s at now. I feel like The Godfather some days. I try to get out, but they drag me back in,” Park says, laughing.
These days, Park has a room full of trophies to show his contribution, but for him, it’s still about the kids.
“We just all try to raise as much money as we can for them,” he said.
Park was in FFA when he was in high school and showed hogs. His daughter, Krystal, followed in his footsteps, as did his grandson, Mason.
Still, Park is looking forward to the day when he can turn the reins over to someone else. His grandson has expressed interest in learning his techniques, just like Park learned them from watching his father.
“We’ve always got help decorating. I’m ready for them to come cook the meat,” he said.
It was a learning process for him, and each year he worked to improve his recipes.
“I’ve burnt many a brisket along the way,” he said. He uses a special rub, which of course is a secret.
“It’s very rewarding,” Park says. “We really enjoy putting this on. Every year I can check the paper in December and see what the kids won (at the livestock show), how the money raised will be spent, maybe they covered their butt, instead of losing money on their show animal.”
By now, the cookoff has become a family reunion of sorts with 20-30 of Park’s nearest and dearest family members and friends showing up to pitch in.
“They help put up the walls, they help cut meat, they do the serving. They help with everything,” he said.
Though they don’t need another reason to celebrate, Park’s team gets one.
“Every year the cook-off falls on my birthday. That’s my birthday party every year,” he said.
For Park, winning isn’t the best birthday present.
“There’s so many good teams. So much good competition. We used to be the only team that hired a band, now there’s more of that. There are a lot of good teams stepping up to the plate, teams that weren’t there in the old days, that are now taking it to the next level, and helping to earn a lot more money for these kids. It’s great, the way it has run,” he said.
Look for Chet’s BBQ among the more than 100 barbecue teams competing in this weekend’s BBQ Cook-off.