SINTON – Lee Hickel has cooked in a lot of places throughout the country. He’s also cooked against some of the best cooks in the world and is currently ranked number one in the International Barbecue Cookers Association (IBCA) — no small task beating 1,500 other teams for that title.

And yet, just a few years ago he turned in his first barbecue cook-off entry – burnt chicken, undercooked ribs and undercooked brisket. He finished dead last but ultimately fell in love with competition cooking.

Humble beginnings

It was at the end of 2016 when Hickel got a call from his brother-in-law from Converse inviting him to a barbecue cook-off competition at a local VFW there. He thought it sounded like fun but having only ever cooked on a small propane pit he had in his backyard, he knew he needed something else.

“That got me looking around for a stick burner barbecue pit,” Hickel said. “So I went to Houston, and I bought a barbecue pit from a company called Pits by JJ that was an offset wood burning pit, bumper pulled, and the day I picked it up from the company who built it was the day of the competition.

“So I had never even turned that thing on. When I went up to get it, they were putting air in the tires.

“So I had my truck loaded with mesquite and all the briskets, ribs and chickens, and I drove from Humble over to Cypress, got set up, and I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. I had no idea. No idea.

“I was so embarrassed when I  came in dead last, but I had never cooked on a wood pit my entire life. And I don’t like to be defeated.”

Life before Harvey

In January 2017, Hickel headed to the Nueces County Fairgrounds in Robstown for another cook-off competition and began talking to a few of the teams that were around him.

At this point, Hickel was on his own. Redmule’s Bad Ass BBQ Team was just him, a pit and a bunch of meat.

So he got to talking to other teams and learned that cook-offs weren’t just about beer drinking and staying up all night cooking low and slow. He also learned about the competition cooking circuit and especially about injecting the meats with flavors.

“They said because the judges are going to get one bite of each of your meats, what are you going to do different than the person beside you?” Hickel said. “If we all just use salt, pepper and garlic with no injection it could all taste the same. So we need to add something a little different in our meats, that way the judges get a ‘wow’ factor.

“I had never heard of it. Never heard of injecting anything.

“Anyway, I didn’t do very well at that cook-off.”

But he was intrigued by the competition cooking circuit and, after doing about four more cook-offs in 2017, decided to become a lifetime member of the IBCA.

“I wanted to join the circuit,” Hickel said. “So July 1 of 2017, I joined the IBCA circuit, and on Aug. 25 Hurricane Harvey came.

“I only had two months of cooking on the circuit, and I was ranked sixth. Then I didn’t cook again for 10 months.”

Hickel and his wife Yvonne own and operate two Resthaven Funeral Homes — one in Sinton and another in Aransas Pass which had just opened that January but was destroyed by Harvey.

“Well, after 10 months of no income coming in, I mean we had the Sinton funeral home, but we also still had the bank  note from the Aransas Pass funeral home which was inoperable. It had no roof, everything was a loss on it,” Hickel continued.

“So my wife said, ‘You need to get a job.’ I said well, let me try this barbecue. So that’s why I went into the barbecue professional circuit.

“It’s like going into the music industry or playing Major League Baseball,” he laughed. “One in a million can make money at it.”

So after a 10-month hiatus he signed up for a radio station hosted cook-off at Schiltterbahn in Corpus Christi. There, out of 41 professional cooking teams, he took Grand Champion.

“I won it, and I hadn’t cooked in 10 months,” Hickel added. “I was hooked.

“So I’m fortunate enough now to where I make a lot of money doing this.”

Burnt offerings

So what did Hickel do to go from burning meat to making a living off the competition cooking circuit and ranking No. 1 for the 2019 IBCA season? He studied from the pros and practiced. A lot.

“I sat down for a couple of two-day classes from the pros — and paid a lot of money for them — but I wanted to do well in this. I learned what they did and incorporated my own skillset. I still use different ingredients here and there, and I’ve developed a profile that is pretty universal, no matter where I go compete. 

So if I compete in McAllen or in Shreveport or in Oklahoma City, or if I go compete in Georgia, I don’t change my flavor profile. I leave everything the same. I believe I found a neutral flavor profile that won’t be offensive to any judge who eats it. 

“Good barbecue is good barbecue. That’s a quote I learned from good pro. He said regardless of where you go, good barbecue is good barbecue. 

“So I just need to cook good barbecue.”

Giving back with BBQ

A few weeks back Hickel heard about Fisherman’s Daughter Seafood Restaurant, located at 3714 Farm-to-Market Road 1069 between Aransas Pass and Ingleside, which was struggling financially due to the coronavirus shuttering their doors. He contacted husband and wife owners Danny and Patricia Stevens-Neill and said he wanted to help.

“I said let me cook some barbecue,” Hickel added. “Resthaven paid for the meat and the sides, and I told them to sell it at whatever they wanted to and keep 100 percent of the profit.

“There was a two and a half hour wait. Cars were lined up as far as you could see. The police even showed up to make sure everyone was social distancing,” he laughed.

That experience led to a question he gets asked a lot — why not start a restaurant?

“I really love the competition part of barbecue,” he said. “People have asked me to open up a barbecue restaurant, but I don’t want to. I have a fear that if I do, then I will burn myself out of my passion for barbecue competition.”

Unforeseen circumstances

Every competition cooking event was halted for the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Hickel has his sights set for June, the last month of the cooking season. He hopes the competitions will begin once again then, and he has a goal.

“I just need a Grand Champion or Reserve Grand Champion that put me into number one,” Hickel said. “So it looks like if we can get going again in June that would give me four weeks to see if I can’t get bumped up to number one or number two before the end of the year.”

He’s currently the reigning IBCA champion cooker, ranked fifth in the world, 18 in the nation and currently stands at seventh place for the IBCA rankings. With big wins in June competitions he could regain his championship title for another year.

You can learn from the champ by taking his classes at bbqchamps.com/pitmasters/lee-hickel.

“It’s really just a hobby, but it’s also become a passion,” Hickel said. “Good barbecue is good barbecue, that’s all I have to say.”