Elite Spotlight: Sean Hill, 205 Pitmasters
Tell us about your background.
I’ve been a teacher and a coach in Texas for the last 11 years. For 9 of those 11 I coached football here in Texas and recently I was able to convince the administration that they needed a high-school barbeque team. Last year we started up the high school barbeque club and have been competing in high school Texas bbq for two years. Last year we made it to the state championships, this year we have doubled the club size and we’ve qualified for state again and been able to do some pretty cool stuff.
What led you to start the 205 Pitmasters?
For about two years I was trying to get the high school principal to get this started, and wasn’t having much traction, but one of the assistant principals at the STEM school here said they had been trying to get that started, so he called me up and I was able to transfer over here and I’ve been coaching these kids the past two years.
Tell me a bit about your experience in the BBQ community
I’ve been smoking and bbqing for the last 10 years, professionally for the last three years with a buddy of mine. We got together and thought we cooked pretty good barbeque so we started doing competitions and did alright. People started asking us when we would be cooking, and that turned into a business where we cook regularly for catering weddings and events, and teaching these kids so that we can have the generation of pitmasters come through.
When you’re barbequing, especially smoking stuff, it takes a while, there’s a process, it gives you time for fellowship and spending time with family and friends. The bbq community is one of the best out there, everyone likes to talk and share. Nobody’s having a bad time when there’s good bbq.
I imagine you’re teaching these kids so much about patience, and failure, and having to start all over again, because good barbeque is not easy.
No, and you’re never going to have the same experience, and the mark of a good pitmaster is when you start getting consistent results. If you’re only doing it every now and again, you won’t get those results. It’s like anything else, practices with football or practices with anything, you have to learn your equipment and your tools and how to overcome any obstacles.
There must be so many variables: the wind, the weather, all of that must change how long it’s going to take, right?
100% and these kids are cooking competition style barbeque so they have limited time. In regular barbeque you have some flexibility, dinner will be sometime between 5 and 7 pm, but when you’re doing these competitions you have timelines and your brisket has to be turned in by 3pm whether it’s ready or not, so you have to get that tough piece of meat tender and juicy and flavorful on time. We were in San Antonio last week and it was 30° when we started, and by 10am it was 60°, so we have to make adjustments to continue to cook at a consistent temperature and get the meat just right.
Tell us about competitions and championships
We just cooked in San Antonio when they were having the international championships for the IBCA, the International Barbeque Cookers Association. They had 300 professional teams across the street while we had the high school teams competing at the same time. We were able to take 5th in brisket and 12 in ribs, so it was a pretty good weekend. And that was just with two kids cooking. One was a senior, and one was a junior. Both were supposed to be seniors but one of them had a bit of trouble with his grades and that’s something we have to look out for, we hold them to the same academic standards. It is a privilege to travel and represent your school and your club.
What are the highs and lows for you, what do you love to cook and what not so much?
I would say probably the thing I love to smoke the most is your pork belly, I love to take that and cook it burnt end style, cubing it and smoking it. I use honey, brown sugar, and butter to give it a sauce and then I put a pepper jelly glaze on it. That’s one of my favorite things to cook because it doesn’t take too long. With a brisket you’re going to spend 15-18 hours on, and it’s really good, but this you spend 4-5 hours on and it’s delicious. On the other end of the spectrum, as much as I like to eat chicken, I hate chicken when it comes to bbq competitions. There’s just something about poultry, it’s always giving me fits, it gives the kids fits. It just doesn’t want to come to temp.
Do you find the kids who start in the club see it through for the full four years?
Well, what got me hooked on this idea was an episode of the Food Network called Varsity Barbeque. They followed a couple of teams who cooked at the world championships at Dallas about 4 years ago. I had no idea that high school teams existed until then, and from then on I just kept asking the principal if we could get this going. It’s only been around about 6 years, but most of the schools doing it have found kids do come back year over year. For two of the kids in my club, next year will be their third year.
Do you see similarities between coaching football and coaching barbeque?
With any team sport or anything like this, you teach them teamwork, how to work together. We usually travel and don’t check into a hotel until 9 or 10pm, and these high school kids probably aren’t getting to sleep before midnight, if at all, and then we’re up at four in the morning and going all day, so by 2pm people are tired, they’re hungry, they’re cranky, and they have to put that all aside to reach the goal. In football, the goal is to win the game. In barbeque, we have beans that have to be ready at 9, dessert by 10, chicken by 11, ribs by 1:30 and brisket by 3pm. Whatever we need to do to get there, we do it. In football we had a practice schedule that had time periods, and I do the same for barbeque. You need to check the fire, pull out of the brine, check the ribs, spritz things. Different people take different roles, the dessert guy does dessert and once that’s done, he’s on fire management.
What do you do with all that good food when you have a full barbeque practice? I know teenagers can eat a lot, do they eat it all?
Everything is so expensive now, so buying the ingredients for a practice cook for two teams is $150-$200 for a practice, so we try to have as little wastage as possible. The trimmings I turn into sausage, and everything else gets eaten by the kids, or they take it to their families, or we’ll have some judges in to do a mock evaluation.
What is the kitchen tool you can’t live without?
The most important thing is your pit, and the next is your knives. We’ve been blessed to partner with Dalstrong and the kids are in love. I’m not going to lie, I sneak the knives home every now and again to use them as well. My favorite is the Gladiator series with the slicing knife and hybrid cleaver. The pit as well, you have to have something you understand and know well so you can manage it.
You have been mentoring some strong up-and-comers in the BBQ game. What advice do you have for those just starting out or who want to up their game?
It takes consistency and practice, and it's okay to fail. Everyone has a barbeque failure story and everybody has something they thought was going to be amazing that turned out horrible, but you have to learn from that and find out why it happened. I tell the kids all the time to take notes on their cooks. Know what you’re doing and how you're doing it, record your temperatures and your times. Take notes, be consistent, practice a lot, and don’t be afraid to fail because everyone is going to do it eventually and even bad barbeque is good.
What would your last meal be?
Probably a prime rib, medium rare, with some garlic mashed potatoes, a piece of garlic bread, some horseradish and au jus. I’m not a big vegetable person but I can sure do some carbs and some protein.
What’s next for the 205 Pitmasters?
We’re going to do a practice cook here later this month and the school administration will be our judges for that. We were supposed to go to Katy during the spring break but I found that a lot of the kids weren’t able to make it for that, so we’ll be competing in a professional barbeque association here locally, the Kaufman Stock Show and Rodeo Outlaw Barbeque. They have set it up so that anyone 14 or older can be a head cook, so we’re going to enter with the big boys and see how they do. There’s going to be about 45 or more teams at that event and the kids are really looking forward to competing with the big boys.
When we talk to people who barbeque, they all say there’s a moment that makes all that hard work worth it. Do you have that moment?
I think that moment is there for anyone who’s doing anything that requires that dedication and commitment. For me, being outside, surrounded by friends and family, relaxing, it makes the work worthwhile. Life is a long journey and a long struggle, and hopefully when you get to the end of life you can look back and say “this was a good journey” and barbeque is the same, it’s a lot of hours of work but the end result is what makes it worth it. If it’s quiet in a house full of people, you know the food is good, and that’s it for me.
Find the 205 Pitmasters on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/205Pitmasters
Learn More About Sean Hill & The 205 Pitmasters