Learn about Houston Rodeo Cook-off from the new guy on a cooking team. And the 4 ways this experience can grow your comfort zone.
Sometime late on a Saturday evening, after opening beers, dishing up beans and restocking portable toilets with paper for the fourth consecutive day, a friend took a picture of me.
My hair was stringy from the humid weather and my proximity to our giant barbecue pit. The starched team shirt was limp with sweat and wood smoke.
And I’m smiling broadly.
Working as a rookie with the Third Coast Cookers at the Houston Rodeo Cook-off was testing the limits of my comfort zone. And that felt good.
Don’t think – just say yes
My friend Carole has been on the Third Coast Cookers team since its inception. Six months before the Houston Rodeo Cook-off, she and I were at our usual Tex-Mex/Margarita Friday gathering.
Carole suggested I join the team. Both of us were shocked when I said yes. The word just snuck out there like a lager-fueled burp.
“Yes” is a dangerous word
Getting comfortable with discomfort always seems to start with the word “yes.” “No” usually works the other way. “No” usually keeps you cozy and comfortable.
“Yes” can get you up early, expose you to cold and rain, or force you into day-long interactions with strangers. I was worried because that is precisely what I’d signed up for.
What did I hope to get out of this experience?
Houston Rodeo Cook-off is a monster
When Houston Rodeo Cook-off first fired up in 1974, seventeen teams entered, each barbecuing a minimum of 10 pounds.
Today over 260 teams compete, and more than 260,000 people attend over three days. I just realized that works out to about 1,000 hungry people for every team.
And as the crowds have grown, so too have the sponsorship investments and what the teams do for those sponsors.
Sponsor wristbands are coveted
If you have a sponsor wristband, you get into that specific booth for unlimited food and drink. If you don’t have a wristband, you used to be out of luck.
Years ago, you paid to get in the cook-off grounds but without a wristband, you just looked on from outside the booths, as pitiful, hungry and as unloved as Tiny Tim in Dickens’ Christmas Carol.
But things improved for the public.
Now your admission ticket gets you live country music and a barbecue sandwich in a central area. Beer is available to buy. But you can still feel left out of the main action.
A Houston Rodeo Cook-off Team that Cares
Which was one of two fundamental reasons I joined the Third Coast Cookers.
First, this team was started with the sole purpose of providing money for Texas youth scholarships.
Secondly, TCC didn’t forget about the folks that didn’t have wristbands. A front porch extension on the front of their booth allowed their guests and the public to mingle and enjoy performances by The Zydeco Dots, high-steppers from the Clann Kelly Irish School and Dance and the prerequisite country band.
And on a couple of nights, that extended roof area provided a little cover from the rain.
On a waiting list for years
This team was the right place for me to step out my comfort zone and into the fire.
Third Coast Cookers have been competing at the Houston Rodeo Cook-off since 2011. Founding spouses Greg and Diana were on the booth waiting list for seven years before that.
When they got word that they were in, Greg and Diana recruited family, friends, and co-workers to help pull off that first year. There was lots of work to go around.
And every year, the Third Coast Cookers upped their game, eventually expanding their space and building a facade with a porch cover and lots of outdoor seating.
Because along with placing your brisket, ribs, and chicken at the world championship competition, the goal is to recruit sponsors to help offset your costs and provide more money for scholarships.
Working weeks before the cook-off
Donors like pipeline services and manufacturing and construction companies along with financial and internet services pony up the money and in-kind support.
In return, these donors use their invitations to give their employees three days of VIP treatment at the Houston Rodeo Barbecue Championship.
In the weeks and months before the cook-off, team members give up weekends to guarantee those companies and their employees have a first class experience. Work weekends are devoted to the following tasks:
- Unloading their storage space and checking that all the cook-off equipment is working
- Repairing and updating the facade
- Precooking and freezing the hundreds of pounds of meat to finish cooking each night for the donor parties
- Cleaning, chopping and sauteeing onions, parsley, celery and bell peppers for the gumbo served on Cajun night
- Turning those mounds of chopped veggies into that gumbo
- Mixing, pouring, and freezing 4000 jello shots
Third Coast Cookers now has a waiting list of companies that want to sponsor them. And an influx of new rookie members from the employees of sponsor companies.
Like the married couple who chopped veggies alongside me for four hours at the last work weekend.
Learning the ropes as a rookie
In my first few moments as a rookie at the cook-off where I manned the beer tub, I popped open a beer for a courteous young cowboy in starched jeans and western shirt.
By the end of the weekend, I had dished up multiple servings of beans, dozens of cans of beer and pounds of pulled pork for this same cowboy. He turned out to be an employee of one of the sponsors.
The cowboy showed up every night to enjoy the rewards of being part of a company who was participating at the world famous Houston Rodeo Cook-off.
When I saw him coming, I’d his cold Miller Lite open and ready.
That was the case with dozens of guests. I enjoyed watching them have a good time at this multi-day party that I was hosting with my new teammates. And my teammates and I were bonding closely through rain and sun, set up and tear-down and everything in between.
Nothing like laying mats in front of muddy porta-cans and picking up wet trash together to create a bond.
From the high school principal who was back in school to get her Ph.D. to the Croatian bar owner from Alief to the go-to Irish guy, Third Coast Cookers was a mixed-up group that reflected Houston’s claim to the most diverse city in the US.
“How did you get on this team?” was my first question to everyone.
While earliest team members were old friends of Greg and his wife Diana, each of those folks brought new connections.
One signed up fellow soccer moms from her daughter’s team. One of those soccer moms recruited her husband. Her husband used his family’s Filipino cooking secrets to help win a high placement for the team’s ribs a few years back.
This year, that same rib master recruited a team member from his sand volleyball team. She became the first woman cooker.
And Carole recruited me, probably one of the more unlikely rookies.
4 Things I Got as a Rookie at the Houston Rodeo Cook-off
Once the smoke cleared, what did I gain from leaping outside my comfort zone in such an uncharacteristic way?
- Freedom from outside expectations about who I am.
I had no history with my teammates. As a rookie, my only responsibility was to be quiet and do what people told me to do, no matter how menial. After a long career with management duties, I felt as free as a puppy who had escaped her leash.
- Openness to learning from whatever happened.
When you don’t have a clue, that’s easy. For example, I had to take a TABC course to serve liquor. I gained a better appreciation for the responsibility of a bartender or waiter.
- A unique way of listening.
When my friend Carole was sent out of town unexpectedly, I was left with no one familiar to cling to when I first started working at the cook-off. It was like starting at a different school halfway through the school year. Everyone I met was new to me, and I began to see that my unfamiliarity set me up to listen to each person’s story
- Growth from taking a risk, regardless of the outcome.
Except for some minor embarrassments, like finding out the toilet lid was down in the pitch dark port-a-can, my rookie year went well. I was going to benefit either way.
Failure is an acceptable option
“There really is no such thing as “fail” if you got something out of the experience. And just so you know, “FAIL” re-framed means “first attempt in learning,” – Dr. Abigail Brenner in Psychology Today.
As counter-intuitive as it seems, the truth I learned is that when you jump into something uncomfortable and new, you are expanding the size of your native comfort zone.
I wonder if you can get it so big, that discomfort has no room in your life? There is no reason not to keep trying.
And smiling, no matter how bedraggled you look.
What ways have you escaped your comfort zone
And how have you benefited?
Please share your experiences. A little company makes any leap of faith not quite so frightening.