International barbecue champions are coming together for the world’s largest cook-off on Saturday, and it is taking place right here in the Rio Grande Valley.
The 13th annual Texas Cook’Em: High Steaks in Edinburg, with its 115 competitors and a total of $31,000 in prize money, will continue to set the standard for what a barbecue cook-off should be like. Participants will be vying for cash and bragging rights in the categories of steak, brisket, ribs, chicken and micheladas.
“This is really to showcase Edinburg and the Rio Grande Valley,” said Ronnie Larralde, director of marketing and special events for the city of Edinburg.
The event is free and taking place at the Edinburg Municipal Park, located at 713 S. Raul Longoria Road. Gates open at 9 a.m. and a firework show will be the closing act at 10 p.m. Attendees can visit vendors selling food, art and other products. For entertainment, there will be a live alligator show, free kids’ rides and music all day featuring Pat Green as the headliner.
Part of what attracts so many accomplished cooks to this event is the thousands of dollars in prize money to be distributed among the winners of each category. This amount increases as more people join, as the event grows, the money brings in more large names from the world of barbecue.
It costs $250 to enter the competition and another $50 to cook an extra steak, but the coordinators take those registration fees and “turn them around and give them right back.” Larralde said the purpose is not to make money but to promote the region.
“These cooks come into town, they bring their families and stay in our hotels and purchase their meat here and they shop here,” Larralde said. “It’s a trickle-down effect for business and that’s what the chamber of commerce represents.”
One notable competitor is Rio Valley Meat’s Fred Robles, a Weslaco native who was the 2017 International Barbeque Cookers Association’s total points champion. ICBA keeps track of up to a thousand competitors participating in cook-offs year-round, and Robles had the most points overall.
Among Robles’ competition is Ernest Servantes, a chef from New Braunfels and owner of Burnt Bean Company. Servantes is a champion of Food Network’s “Chopped Grill Masters” and one of Destination America “BBQ Pitmasters.” He won High Steaks in 2015, but has not been back until this year.
The competition is so fierce that some began setting up Thursday night, and competitors were allowed to spend Friday night in their spot. Even with all that preparation from the teams, the coordinators ensured no team had too much of an advantage.
“Everybody is on the same playing field because H-E-B donated two steaks to each team,” Larralde said. “So they all have the same piece of meat, the same cute. It all depends on how they cook it.”
Larralde said within the last 10 years, barbecue has taken off as a competitive sport. Saturday’s competitors traveled from across the state, and one from Louisiana, for a chance to show their skills. There’s even a kid’s competition, which Larralde said is “all about the kids learning the love of barbecue.” Unlike the adults, the kids compete for free.
Larralde said the whole event began when members of Edinburg’s city council and chamber of commerce were looking for a way to celebrate Fourth of July. After teaming up for the American Royal World Series of Barbecue in Kansas City about 15 years ago, they brought the event to the Valley and incorporated steaks.
That decision brought the Steak Cookoff Association into the mix. As a worldwide organization, they have competitions and cooks from Europe to Asia. Whoever wins Saturday’s award will receive a ticket to the SCA world championship in Fort Worth. That event, however, will be smaller than High Steaks with about 80 competitors, according to Larralde.
Another unique aspect of the event is the michelada competition. In addition to cooking meat, 50 teams will receive two cups of beer provided by the event’s sponsor, L&F Distributors. After the teams turn in their cups, one will be judged for taste and the other for visual appeal.
Although it is a cooking contest, anyone not judging will not be allowed to take samples from the competitors. Larralde said this is due to safety concerns, and even the judges are limited in how much they can taste.
While Larralde agreed that the barbecue is the main attraction, he said his favorite part of the event is seeing the competitors grow with the event. He said High Steaks has created an environment that values community.
“I see it in all the teams – it’s all about family,” Larralde said. “Everyone in the Rio Grande Valley knows the (tradition) of going with family and friends, and just spending time cooking.”