John Schwartz doesn’t claim to be Guy Fieri, Gordon Ramsay or another famous chef. That said, the Princeton native is enjoying the sweet taste of success at barbecue competitions all over Minnesota.
What’s funny is winning barbecue competitions was never even on Schwartz’s radar until two years ago. It simply started as something fun to do with some friends that has turned into serious business.
“The Zimmerman American Legion holds a rib fest,” said Schwartz, who is an IT equipment salesman who calls Zimmerman home.
“My first one was 2017. It was myself and two other buddies trying to figure out whose ribs were better. It was cheap entry and judges we didn’t know, so we went in blind and gave it a whirl.
“I loaded up my one smoker and a small table. I didn’t have a tent or anything. We get there and everyone has a tent and huge pull-behind smokers and they’re just laughing at us. We were just nobodies. To make a long story short, I ended up taking first place, so I thought that this was kind of fun.
“I was very surprised when I won the first one and I think everyone there was surprised just because I was the Joe Blow that unloaded a truck and had nothing. People were wondering how it was even possible. I was ecstatic. That was how it started and how I got hooked.”
While that was his only competition in 2017, Schwartz’s interest was piqued. He began toying with different recipes until perfecting his current St. Louis-style creations.
Last year is when Schwartz began taking the competitions seriously. His second-ever competition was a return trip to the Zimmerman Legion, where he again won top honors. He improved to three-for-three in his new hobby by winning first place in ribs, fourth place in chicken for Grand Champion honors last September at Tootsie’s in Big Lake.
Competition ended at Tootsie’s in 2018 because Schwartz was salmon fishing in July, hit some rough water and broke his back. He relied on the help of high school friend Matt Vedders to do the heavy lifting for Zimmerman and Big Lake, and he remains Schwartz’s right hand man.
Competitions are fun
This year, Schwartz decided to up his game and joined the Minnesota Barbeque Society, which conducts three sanctioned competitions throughout the summer. The competitions include a division for professionals and one for amateurs, labeled the “Backyard” division.
“I wasn’t familiar with these competitions,” Schwartz said. “I didn’t know this backyard barbecue was even a thing. Now they’re basically every weekend. You just have to look for them.”
Schwartz’s team – named “Schwonnyque” – is off to a roaring start in sanctioned events. Competing against about 40 in the Backyard Division, they won grand champion honors at “Minnesota in May,” which is the state’s largest barbecue competition, at the county fairgrounds in Cambridge. Another grand champion award came in an event in Owatonna and they finished the season ranked first in overall points, first in chicken and second in ribs.
Finding that right recipe to woo the judges took time, but Schwartz said it was well worth it. Judging is based taste, tenderness and appearance.
“I put in the time and found recipes that work for me. It’s something that you have to cater to everybody’s flavor profile, not just your own,” Schwartz said. “You have to find that happy medium to make those who like spicy ribs happy and those who want sweet ribs happy. It’s an overall happy medium for everybody. And then you have to find consistency and have to be right on your time, consistency and tenderness.”
Schwartz also competed at the Knights of Columbus rib contest on Aug. 17 in Princeton and left with second-place honors. At Saturday’s competition in Zimmerman, he placed second in ribs. The wins, he admits, are satisfying, but he also is maintaining a level head.
“Quite honestly, my wife, my buddy Matt and my parents are more excited than I am just because I know that when I’m winning, there are also people who thought they put out a very good product and they’re let down,” Schwartz said. “I know that feeling when you think you have it and they’re on-point, then you’re letdown. So I stay humble about it. Maybe I should be more excited, but I don’t think it’s my character. I don’t want to be the guy who puffs out his chest and says ‘Look at me.’”
As Schwartz continues compiling awards, the thought of eventually turning professional looms. With kids age 4 and almost 2, that plan has to wait a couple years.
“Barbecue competitions are not cheap. Everything that I’ve won I’ve put back into the hobby. I’ve bought more barbecues and more coolers,” Schwartz said. “I’ve gotten to know the pro teams and they want me to become a pro. Financially, that’s probably not realistic at this time of my life. But, down the road for a 2-to-5-year plan, that’s my hope, and I’d like to travel from Canada to Texas to Florida.”