Matt Cogburn (left) and Dean Dukes stand in front of their pit March 28 before the Texas Men’s State Barbecue Championship on the Blanco County Fairgrounds in Johnson City. Cooking together as ‘Duke’s Pepper Company,’ the two won the Lone Star Barbecue Society points championship last year. Staff photo by Jared Fields

JOHNSON CITY — The custom-built grill sits under an old mesquite tree on the Blanco County Fairgrounds. Matt Cogburn and Dean Dukes enjoy a few beverages while they season chicken and ribs for the Texas Men’s State Barbecue Championship in Johnson City.

Aluminum foil covers tables outside their “toy hauler,” a converted recreational vehicle that also carries their barbecue pit. Dukes pulls the skin off his chicken to add salt and pepper. The 12-pound brisket is working up a sweat, but Dukes worries the spring wind is drying it out.

The barbecue they make for judging is nothing like you would make in the backyard for family. There are no secret ingredients or techniques known only to a select few barbecue masters. It’s just that judges only get one bite of each entry, so whatever piece they get has to stand out.

“If you sit down and eat a plateful of that (brisket), it’ll wear you out,” Cogburn said. “Everybody out here makes good barbecue, so you’ve got to figure out one thing that makes it stand out.”

The two placed sixth at the Johnson City event in both the brisket and pork spare ribs.

The duo has been cooking together since 2010 and last year won the Lone Star Barbecue Society points title. Cogburn of Bertram is the society’s president, too.

“I’ve developed as good a friendships as I’ve ever had,” Cogburn said. “My kids call him ‘Uncle Dean.’ It’s a tight deal. It’s family.”

The two wanted to cook at competitions after meeting and began working on recipes every chance they got.

“We started out cooking together. When we weren’t cooking (at competitions), we were cooking,” Dukes said. “It’s what made us get to where we are right now. If we weren’t cooking, we were at my house cooking every weekend.”

To chase points, the duo — who cook under the team name “Dukes Pepper Company” — said they cooked at 26 cook-offs last year. At one point, Cogburn said the team cooked 16 straight weekends.

“It was work at the end of it,” he said. “Lot of beer drinking.”

The two have cooked for friends and family, but don’t expect to sit down at Dukes Pepper Restaurant anytime soon.

“I wouldn’t wanna do it professionally. It turns into too much work, takes the fun out of it,” said Dukes, who is from Marble Falls.

Cogburn agreed. “I wouldn’t run a barbecue joint for nuthin’.”

After cooking so much last year in search for the points, the two are cutting back on the cook-offs this year.

“It’s been laid back. Have fun, cook where we want to cook and cook when we want to cook,” Cogburn said. “The end of last season, it almost turned into a job.”

Somehow, plans to take it easy haven’t really led to fewer cook-offs.

They’ll be cooking again this weekend, although not in Marble Falls at Rib-Alicious. They’ve won it the past two years.

Rib-Alicious is April 4-5 at Tottie’s, 806 Main St. in Marble Falls. The cook-off is a benefit for the Carl New Memorial fund, which helps Burnet County students attend trade school. Call Mary Watson at (512) 755-7640 for more information on the event.

Dukes and Cogburn will have three teams entered at Howdy-Roo in Marble Falls on May 2-3.

“We started laying off, and I couldn’t stand it,” Cogburn said. “I called Dean and said, ‘Dean, we gotta cook.’”


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