By Lisa Ferguson
You won't find many teens willing to wake up during the predawn hours on a Saturday to spend an entire day meticulously tending to slabs of succulent ribs and giant, juicy briskets.
In fact, at Prosper High School, there are only four such young people: the members of the Prosper Pitmasters BBQ team.
Earlier this month, the teens participated in their first competition. They were among 32 high school teams from throughout the state that cooked at the East Texas Regional BBQ Championship held at White Oak High School, near Longview.
The nonprofit organization Texas High School BBQ Inc. hosts regional and state competitions throughout Texas.
Prosper's team did well at the East Texas contest, finishing in thirteenth place overall. They placed fifth in the rib category and ninth in desserts with their chocolate chip-and-coconut-crusted Cowboy Cookies. Their beans landed in tenth place and their smoked chicken came in fifteenth place.
“We kind of went in with a mindset of, `Yea, we want to qualify, but we also want to go in and get our feet wet, see how we measure up and how we do,'” said Prosper culinary arts teacher Brett Claypoole, who established the barbecue team earlier this school year. He is advised by Josh Allen, a Prosper ISD parent who has competed in barbecue competitions statewide.
A graduate of Johnson & Wales University and Texas Tech, Claypoole spent a quarter-century working in the restaurant and hospitality industries before joining the high school staff three years ago.
“It's almost like a varsity sport at this point,” he explained of the popularity of high school barbecue teams, especially elsewhere in the state.
Prosper's team is one of a handful that hail from North Texas. “We wanted to get in on the ground floor while we could and set the bar very high for this part of Dallas,” Claypoole said.
Prosper ISD purchased the team a sizeable smoker (the teens nicknamed it “The Beast”), which they fuel with pecan-wood logs. Claypoole said the rig, which they trailer to events, has the capacity to smoke 20-plus briskets at a time.
The BBQ team members take culinary arts classes at the school and possess food-safety certifications.
Sophomore Sydney Fisher has cooked alongside her parents most of her life. She said Claypoole approached her last year about joining the BBQ team.
“It's been amazing,” 15-year-old Fisher said of the experience. “I love to eat. … I love the food and I love working with Chef Claypoole because he's such a great role model and he's really good about teaching us how culinary (arts) works.”
Prepping for the regional competition was nerve-wracking, she said.
The teens, accompanied by Claypoole, Allen and other parents, arrived at the event site at 4:30 a.m. to light the smoker, and at 6 a.m. were allowed to select their meats – one rack of ribs, two whole chickens and a brisket.
During the daylong contest, the teens were tasked with butchering and smoking the meats as well as preparing the sides from scratch.
Fisher was in charge of seasoning and cooking the ribs to perfection.
“We all just go crazy because we're like, `We have to get this done. We don't want to be late,'” she said. “Your nerves are just going crazy, but once you get everything on the grill, you get to relax. It's a good time.”
The students' finished dishes were judged on a variety of criteria, based on those of the International Barbeque Cookers Association, including color, texture, aroma and flavor profile, among others. Even the thickness of the brisket slices was examined.
Claypoole said through practice sessions and by competing, the teens are “learning punctuality and they're learning all of these different skills and teamwork. It's a life thing. You live in Texas, for crying out loud. … This is something you can do when you're 80, you can do when you're 18, so it's a really good skill to learn.”
The Prosper Pitmasters plan to cook for crowds at a couple of upcoming Prosper ISD events, including the popular annual STEAM Expo to be held this spring.
The team will begin practicing later this month for their next competition in April at Conroe High School, north of Houston. If they place there, they may advance to the state championship event in May.
Claypoole said the Prosper Pitmasters have been inundated with sponsorship offers as well as requests to cook at various events.
“I literally had to turn more away than I could accept because … I still have students who have academics that need to preside over anything barbecue related,” he said. “The number of opportunities that are coming our way because of this are incredible.”