Tiffany Patrick, Executive Project Manager at U.S. Engineering Innovations, recently flexed her management prowess in another arena: meats. She brought home not one, but TWO medals in the 2020 Grill Your ACE Off steak competition that took place in West Newton, Pennsylvania. The two steaks she cooked won first and third place, bringing in a total of $1,300 in prize money.
Winning a statewide Steak Cookoff Association cooking competition also means that Patrick is invited to the World Championship in Ft. Worth, Texas, in March 2021. You can follow her event schedule at her website, This Girl Knows Meat.
Here are excerpts from a conversation we had with Tiffany about her victories, her history marinated in barbecue and her favorite barbecue joints in the Kansas City and Denver areas (two locations where U.S. Engineering holds offices).
First off, congrats on the medals! How did you manage to win two?
This competition was a double, which means you cook two steaks, picking one and spending an hour and a half on it, then coming back for your second one, and turning them in within two hours of each other. Steak A and Steak B are judged separately and have their own prizes, and all steaks are judged anonymously—the judges don’t know whose steak is whose. They give you these pull tickets like you get at the counter at a grocery store, and they call the winners by number. So technically everyone has a chance to win twice.
Were you surprised?
A year before this competition, I’d gotten my first ever Top Ten call, sixth place, and right before I left the Mid-Atlantic, I got a third place call. I felt like I was on a roll. But when I went to West Newton this year, I hadn’t competed in anything since those wins. I didn’t really expect anything big to happen because I didn’t have any time to practice. So I was basically going into this competition thinking, I’m just here to see friends and have a good time.
When they called my Steak A number for third place, I was like, oh man, that’s cool, because the “medals” they give you are ridiculously huge. I joked with a friend that if I’m lucky, I’ll win a cash award and have to spend it all on shipping it home. And I then I won first place. It’s my first time ever in a cooking competition to take home an overall first-place prize. My reaction was a cuss word.
[Editor’s note: Tiffany declined to tell us which cuss word she used.]
All my friends were doing this competition, so I just had to show up with my knives and seasonings, and they brought me all the equipment I needed, my grill, my charcoal. They gave me everything I was used to using. And then I kicked their butts!
These awards were for steak. But you have a background in barbecue. How did you get into that?
I grew up in Kansas City and kind of took barbecue for granted. And when I moved to Maryland, where people boil or steam ribs—that was gross. Eight years ago in Maryland I became a Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) Certified Barbecue Judge. I got to Master Judge level in three years.
What I was tasting in competition barbecue was magic: you’ve got a window of thirty minutes to turn in your barbecue and have it be the best that judge is ever going to taste.
I started thinking how on earth are they hitting this? How is it all coming together? So three years ago I decided to compete and learn how to do all that.
What did those competitions look like?
In the KCBS competitions I cooked chicken, pork ribs, pork and brisket. You cook all four, spread out in thirty-minute increments, for six judges. It can get a little chaotic—you have to have six pieces of chicken (easy), six ribs (easy), six portions of pork butt, and you’re trying to get the best pieces of all of that in front of the judges.
And with brisket, especially when you’re talking about burnt ends, in my opinion if you’re not from Kansas City, you don’t know what a burnt end is. So it’s risky. Where I was competing you had these East Coast judges who are like, “Oh my god, that’s fatty.” Well, yeah. That’s what a burnt end is.
When did you pivot to steak and why?
Two years ago, the Steak Cookoff Association was started by a couple barbecue cooks. As crazy as it sounds, barbecue had gotten really political. Too many rules, judges against cooks, it became a thing for some people. So these cooks wanted to go back to the basics and have fun.
It’s really different. At a barbecue cookoff you have to supply your own meat, and at a steak cookoff they supply it, so everyone’s on an equal level to begin with. You draw a chip, you pick your steak, and if you’re last on the first run, you get to go first on the next, so you have a decent chance at getting a good cut of meat.
Now it comes down to the cook. It’s also quicker. You pack up the same day. It’s not a 48-hour commitment, like barbecue. It’s some charcoal, some seasonings, and you go out there and show you know what you’re doing.
After barbecue, was it an easy transition to competition steak?
At barbecue competitions in Maryland, they started throwing on an extra challenge: steak. And I was like, well I’m already here with a rented truck and some charcoal, so why not? And I was not good. I thought it was all about what a steak should taste like at home.
To me, a ribeye (by the way, in competitions, it’s always a ribeye cooked medium) should be medium-rare, not medium—like if you cook a ribeye longer than medium-rare, we’re approaching you-can’t-be-my-friend territory—so I was probably undercooking at first. I didn’t do well in early competitions. But I kept getting better each competition.
What’s your method or philosophy walking into steak competitions?
One interesting option in steak cookoffs is you have the choice to cook a practice steak. But I don’t ever do that. I approach it the same way I approach playing golf: I never hit practice balls before I play. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to think it’s going to be a good day or bad day. I just want to let it be what it is.
Are there restrictions on seasoning?
No. Kind of like with barbecue, it’s gotten to where the flavor profiles are pretty similar. When I started people were all over the place, teriyaki, weird flavors, super salty steaks because they weren’t thinking about how salt condenses. But it’s gotten to where flavors are all pretty similar.
You can basically cook it any way you want. But most people are cooking over charcoal, going for grill marks, color, all of that.
What are the steaks judged on?
They judge you on appearance, doneness, texture, taste and then you get an overall score, which you would think is an average of all of those categories, but it’s kind of random. It’s a whim score.
How did you figure out what the judges want?
You would not believe what I do to this poor steak. You have to trim off the huge fatty piece of the ribeye because you want it to look pretty. Then I jaccard it—stab it with pinholes—but I actually use a hair pick because it has teeny little holes, and I can control where they go. You have to turn an already tender piece of meat into a ridiculously tender piece of meat. Then I use eight different rubs: some all-purpose, some for coloring, one as a finishing dust. You’d never do this at home.
The trick is you research to see what everyone is doing—you don’t want to stand out too much—but you add your own small touches to give it your signature. In barbecue competitions, for example, I’d follow several recipes and then add Gates barbecue sauce because it’s my favorite.
Steak: hobby, passion or calling?
Definitely a hobby. Cooking is my passion.
But I love these competitions. Most people who know me know I’m a fairly aggressive person. I’m immensely competitive. One of the hashtags I use is #yougotbeatbyagirl. No matter where I place, I always let them know, “here’s how many of you got beat by a girl.”
You can tell by my career choice, but I like to go places that are typically male dominated, and show that I can dominate them.
Where’s your favorite place to get a steak?
I don’t really go out to eat steak. It’s kind of a price point issue—why am I spending $35 on a ribeye that would cost me $18 at home?
What about barbecue? You mentioned Gates.
Gates is not the best barbecue in Kansas City. And I know that. But that’s the place I go every time I’m in town. It’s in my blood.
But Joe’s Kansas City. If you look on the walls there, he’s a Slaughterhouse Five. Teams from Joe’s still compete, even as far out as Maryland. That is competition barbecue.
In Colorado: GQue. Again a former competitor opened a place, and it’s awesome.
Lastly, what advice do you have for aspiring competitors?
YouTube. Oh my gosh. What did we do before YouTube? You can learn anything there. Steak, barbecue. They walk you through the preparation. You can probably come out and be in the top ten just by watching what other people do.
As Executive Project Manager at U.S. Engineering Innovations, Tiffany Patrick provides guidance and oversight over large projects while contributing to the strategic vision of the organization. Patrick is a LEED®-Accredited Professional. In addition, she is an award-winning steak cook and certified Master BBQ Judge who has judged over 50 contests nationally. Read more in her bio.