Bite by Bite
Conquering My Culinary Bucket List One Dish at a Time
By Emily Banks Wooten
Cooking runs in the genes for one local young man. John Tucker Drake, 9, competed in the World Championship Barbecue Junior Cook-off Contest held Feb. 24 in conjunction with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. While John Tucker’s father, Marty Drake, is the one that got him into cooking in the first place, John Tucker only recently learned that his maternal great grandfather competed in the cookoff 49 years ago.
This is just the third year of the junior cook-off and the first year that John Tucker has been eligible to participate. There are only 35 spots available for youth ages eight through 14 and they must be sponsored by a current official cook team. John Tucker was sponsored by the Polk County Go Texan Committee. He came in 12th of the 32 youth that competed.
“He didn’t place (first through third) but that’s ok. The memories made can never be replaced. It was a super fun day,” Rachel Slocomb Drake, John Tucker’s mother, said.
“Talk about a full circle moment. I’ve always heard that my grandfather, Dick Slocomb, helped start the Houston cook-off with Bill Bailey in 1974, but that was it, no other details. I went on a fact-finding mission to see what I could find out. I learned that Dick – yes, we called our grandparents by their first names – was one of 17 cook teams the very first year of the cook-off, which was by invitation only.
“I’m told that Dick owned the cook team and he and a few friends showed up in his big green RV ready to cook and have a large time. They cooked Dick’s award-winning chili recipe,” Rachel said.
“Marty, John Tucker and Sean Ericson have spent weeks practicing for the cook-off. They have really enjoyed their Sunday afternoons grilling and perfecting their presentation. Cook-off might come to an end but I bet their grilling time together doesn’t. Who knows, maybe in another 49 years, John Tucker’s grandchildren will be looking for details of when he cooked in the cook-off,” Rachel said.
Marty and Sean own Sully’s Catering which does custom cooking for different types of events and specializes in brisket, ribs, chicken, sides and pies, among other things. John Tucker’s been helping ever since the venture started. The business is named for John Tucker’s younger sister, Sully Drake.
“We want to grow Sully’s Catering for Sully to work one day. And one day, hopefully, we’ll have a business where we employ people with special needs,” Marty said.
For Christmas, John Tucker received a 14-inch Weber Smokey Joe charcoal grill on which to practice. At home he prepares his own coals and lights the fire himself. However, an adult handles that at the competition.
Contestants in the junior cook-off are each provided a grill, charcoal and a ribeye steak. Contestants may add sides or garnishes as long as they enhance the steak and do not take away from it. Marty could be with him in the area and could give verbal instructions but couldn’t touch anything. The youth have one hour to prepare and cook. Then they place their entry in a box provided and walk to a different spot to submit it for judging. Judging is based on appearance, tenderness and taste.
John Tucker prepared his ribeye, some grilled shrimp, a Caprese salad and a piece of grilled bread. He said that more than anything, he was scared he would drop it.
“I was sweating,” he said.
When word got out that John Tucker was a cook-off legacy, he became a bit of a media sensation. He was interviewed several times, made it on two Houston news channels and also in the barbecue cook-off newsletter “Smoke Signals.” As he cooked, numerous committeemen and directors came by to talk with him and encourage him.
Not flustered at all by the attention, John Tucker said, “It’s surprising that I’m able to come in and do this cooking with my parents.” Asked about his technique, he said, “Practice. We practiced for four weeks.”
He said he prefers his steaks medium rare with an internal temperature of 120 degrees. And he said he uses Gonzo’s Sugar Daddy, a grilling blend created by Sean Steffey and manufactured by Daddy’s Seasonings out of Nacogdoches.
“I talked to several different people this past week who shared stories of Dick and my Dad (John G. Slocomb) and I even got my hands on some cool pictures. I learned things I had never heard before and enjoyed every second of it. Forty-nine years later our nine-year-old son is cooking in the HLSR Jr. Cook-off. I imagine Dick and my Dad are bursting with pride. I know our whole family is super proud of John Tucker. The entire experience was a total win for him,” Rachel said.
“I’m not sure who was more nervous, Marty or me. John Tucker was cool, calm and collected the entire time. He did a great job cooking his steak and shrimp and it looked beautiful in the box. It was just a fantastic day that a ton of people played a part of and we’re super grateful for everyone. Days like that can’t be recreated and will no doubt be a core memory,” Rachel said, adding, “Now onto baseball.”
Along with the other competitors, John Tucker received a set of barbecue tools with their own carrying case, a hat and apron, a certificate and a goody bag filled with other items.
“It’s generation to generation. I’ve been cooking probably since I was 5. My grandmother had a taffy hook and I pulled taffy growing up,” Marty said with a big smile on his face. Then, in a quieter and much more serious manner, he commented, “Whether he won or not, we made great memories cooking on the back porch. This definitely was the highlight of my cooking career, watching him do that.”
The Polk County Go Texan Committee gives scholarships annually to graduating seniors throughout Polk County. Last year the committee gave 14 $1,000 local scholarships and based on their efforts, received 2 $20,000 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo scholarships, for a total of $54,000. This year the committee will give 21 $1,000 scholarships and does not know yet what it will receive from Houston.