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Cooking up a passion

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Sarah Post
  • 90th Missile Wing Public Affairs

It wasn’t until later in life that Master Sgt. Tyler Woolverton, 90th Security Forces Squadron flight chief, finally found his life passion for cooking barbeque and competing in cookoffs. 

In 2017, Woolverton was an Air Force recruiter living outside of Chicago. Back then, he had a neighbor who spent a lot of time outside barbequing on a large smoker and competing in cookoffs. Woolverton was intrigued by the activity, and asked his neighbor to teach him the art of barbequing. 

“At the time, all I had was basic, small grills and I was just messing around, but I wanted to learn how to use a real smoker,” said Woolverton. “The next day, he brought me over at three in the morning and we made 92 pork butts.” 

After his introduction into the world of barbeque, Woolverton spent the next year learning his way around a smoker and sharpening his skills. Then in 2018, he was introduced to competition barbeque and in his first cook-off he was awarded a trophy for placing fourth. However, he walked away from his first competition with more than a trophy. He was hooked on competition barbeque and found a passion he would not be able to stop. 

Woolverton has now competed in dozens of competitions, won multiple awards and made a name for himself in the competition barbeque world. He competes in the Kansas City Barbeque Society League in the Masters Series, a professional circuit of barbeque competition. There are four categories in his league: brisket, ribs, pork and chicken. 

Competition weekends follow a schedule, allowing participants adequate time to prep, cook and meet all the timelines. Friday afternoon, Woolverton begins prepping the meats he will cook at the competition. This includes trimming, to ensure the meats cook evenly, injections, seasonings and a number of other small personal touches that help enhance flavor. Saturdays are early mornings for Woolverton, as he has to wake up around two in the morning to fire up the pits and start cooking. As Saturday progresses, there are turn-in times for each of the four categories. Chicken is turned in first around 12:30 and each other category has a time following close after that. 

“At turn-in time, I prepare the meat and box it,” said Woolverton. “Take brisket for example: each slice has to be exactly the same size, same color, same texture and same taste. In the bottom of the container, there has to be some kind of green leaf, like lettuce or kale, made all pretty. When the meat goes in, it has to be visually appealing and it almost looks fake.”

The box is turned into the judges as a blind box, meaning it is assigned a number and the judge has no idea who it belongs to. First the judges look at the visual appearance of the meat, then they take one small bite to test texture and flavor. In that one bite, the judges look for the salt amount, smoke amount, how sweet it is and they look to see if all the ingredients and steps come together properly. Each judge’s score is tallied up for a total score, and then cooks like Woolverton claim their awards. 

Professional competitions like Woolverton competes in, often have between $20-50,000 in prizes and places one through 10 are payable. Woolverton recently won a category at the Wild West BBQ cook-off in Lamar, Colorado, and was awarded the title Colorado State Champion for pork. 

Woolverton will also be representing the U.S. Air Force at the Battle of the Branches, a cook off put on by Mission Zero Hundred Hours, a nonprofit organization geared toward battling active duty military and veteran suicide rates. At the cookoff, veterans and active duty members team up with BBQ world champions. The champions guide and mentor the service members, but do not help with the cooking. The winner is crowned the best pitmaster in the Department of Defense. Woolverton will travel to Missouri in the spring to compete in this competition. However, Woolverton does not compete just for awards, but because he loves this hobby. 

“I like the amount of work and care and love that is put into this, from prepping the meats to attending the fires and seeing it finished as a food item,” said Woolverton. “My favorite thing about BBQ is seeing people's faces light up when they try the food I have made. I love to feed people and see the happiness from something as simple as BBQ brings.”

Woolverton enjoys cooking for the Airmen in his flight and all the members of the 90 SFS. Once a month, he tries to cook for his fellow Airmen, whether it is full on brisket or simply homemade burgers. 

He also enjoys sharing his passion with others. 

“I enjoy bringing folks out to competitions with me, because it is an experience not many people know about but it’s fun,” said Woolverton. “And for people just starting, practice, practice, practice. It does take time, so don’t give up; but, the biggest thing is just to have fun.”

Woolverton’s goal is to retire from the Air Force and go into the BBQ industry, where he will be able to travel to and compete in many different competitions. But for the time being on active duty, he hopes to compete in at least four professional competitions in the 2023 season.