Competitive heat: Bragging rights fuel Edinburgh’s Cook’Em attendees amid hot competition

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Many attendees at Texas Cook’Em: High Steaks Edinburgh spent hours preparing for the competition and brought their smokers, like this one, to Edinburgh’s Ebony Hills Golf Course on Saturday 2nd July 2022. (Erika De Los Reyes | The Monitor)

EDINBURG – Passion and flavor were on full display here at Saturday’s annual Texas Cook’Em: High Steaks in Edinburgh competition, as grill enthusiasts gathered to show off their grilling skills.

The smoky aroma of fiery grills and smokers spread across the field at Edinburgh’s Ebony Hills Golf Course, where people from across the Lone Star State gathered to secure a seat in the American Royal competition. Winners also had a chance to earn $25,000.

Competitors set up their grills along the field where they proudly displayed their team names.

Among those in attendance were a team of firefighters from Edinburgh Fire Brigade, and 37-year-old Steve Mercado took on the role of chef.

Although it was his first time competing for the fire department, it wasn’t the first time he’d entered a cooking competition.

“My family started cooking competitively in the ’80s,” Mercado said, adding that he would compete in cookery competitions with his father.

He remembered competitions all over the Rio Grande Valley, like the Pan de Campo competition, where he learned different cooking techniques.

“We did all these competitions and it was drummed into me and my family that we do,” Mercado said, adding that he plans to pass the tradition on to his kids.

Now, after 12 years of competitive cooking, Mercado is excited to fire up his grill and enter the Texas Cook’Em competition for the seventh time, where he hopes to finish in the top 10.

He stood attentively by his grill on Saturday and cooked every meat to perfection.

“Competition cooking – a lot of people think it’s like backyard cooking, but it’s completely different. People are really proud of cooking competitions,” Mercado said, joking that recipes are never shared during these competitions.

Walking across the golf course you could see the dedication of each chef as they held up to the heat of the grill on a hot Saturday morning.

Ruben Bereien and Danny Salas certainly showed their commitment to the competition as they drove six hours from Del Rio, Texas to compete in Cook’em.

“That is our passion and our hobby – that is what drives us. The better you do in each cook-off, the more motivated you are to keep going,” Salas said.

Thanks to inflation, there’s a new wrinkle in this year’s competition. As the cost of beef and poultry rises, it forces competitors at cookoffs like this to shop conservatively, meaning they have less room for error.

“We only bring what we will give away. So if we screw it up, we screw it up. We don’t have any more spare ribs or brisket in the back. We try to keep our times and we help each other a lot,” said Bereien.

“If you really love it, you’ll pay more to keep doing it.”

The duo have been perfecting their system for four years, learning new techniques with every event. They hope to compete in 12 cook-offs each year with one contest a month.

A native of Waller, Texas, Ronda Pfeiffer, 37, can attest to a desire to travel to where the competitions take place and shared her views on how to judge these hyper-competitive events in Edinburgh on Saturday.

Pfeiffer is a judge for the Champions Barbecue Alliance, which competes in cooking competitions nationwide.

“In our grading system, we care about presentation, flavor and texture, and so they (the judges) will rate it from excellent to poor,” explained Pfeiffer, adding that each team gets four types of meat to cook — chicken, ribs, pork and brisket.

A judge has a maximum of 12 bites to judge each team’s contribution in a single round. Pfeiffer said the Edinburgh Cook’em, which featured 75 teams on Saturday, is classified as a state competition and national qualifier for the American Royal Event in Kansas City.

Today there are challenges affecting the competitor pool but not competitiveness.

“The economy is affecting that right now,” she said. “Some of them (competitors) stay more local. A lot of them will be traveling everywhere, but with gas prices and everything that’s going on right now, they’re staying more local.”

Mercedes resident Roland Ruiz, 51, rented a hotel room in Edinburgh because he needed to prepare for the pre-dawn competition.

He has competed in Cook-offs for 10 years and Cook’em for six years. Now he has developed his own cooking method, which consists of a week’s preparation – buying the supplies the week before, seasoning the day before and starting cooking hours before the competition starts.

“The excitement and desire to win the event” drives him to remain so competitive.

But there’s also a sense of camaraderie amidst the competition, Mercado added.

“Everyone here at the competition is like family… It’s a good 4th of July gathering to celebrate the 4th of July between everyone who has a passion for grilling, cooking and food – a bunch of foodies,” Mercado said.

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