Burnet Culinary Arts Teacher Joins Llano Champs at Frontier Days Chuck Wagon Cook-off
BURNET — Mike Erickson, a trained chef and the Burnet High School culinary arts teacher, knows his way around a kitchen with stainless steel appliances, commercial-grade stoves, and other high-end equipment. He can even lead a group of high school students through planning, creating, and serving a fine meal.
But what if you take the chef out of the kitchen, plunk him down by a campfire next to an 1880s-era chuck wagon, and give him a cast-iron Dutch oven?
"I was definitely out of my element," Erickson said.
In July, JoAnne and Bobby Mims of Llano let Erickson join them at the Cheyenne Frontier Days, where they were competing in an American Chuck Wagon Association-sanctioned cook-off. The Mimses hauled their chuck wagon to Wyoming in a trailer behind their truck.
It was the couple’s second trip to Cheyenne for the competition, but they were far from rookies in the chuck wagon cook-off world. However, compared to some of the other competitors, they weren't quite seasoned either.
"We were in nine competitions last year in four different states," said Bobby Mims, who, along with his wife, competes as J Diamond B. "Yeah, we've only been doing this competitively since last year, but we travel to a lot of cook-offs. We work hard at it."
"We have been competing against people who have been doing this for 20 years," JoAnne Mims said. "We've been really blessed to compete and bring home some buckles."
The cooks and the food aren’t the only things scored during the competitions. Judges also look at the chuck wagons. Originality counts as does how closely the competitor’s campsite resembles that of an 1880s cattle drive.
As the Mimses were entering the chuck wagon cook-off world, Nancy and Bob Sparks of Brownsville were looking to retire from it after amassing 14 championship titles. The two couples connected, and the Sparks not only sold their chuck wagon to the Llano couple, they also became the Mimses’ mentors.
"They taught us to set up the wagon properly because judges look at everything," Bobby Mims said, “but they also opened their cookbook up to us. Now, we've added our own styles and things to the recipes, but they really helped us out.
"There's no way we'd compete as well as we do without Bob and Nancy," he added.
Bobby Mims was no novice in the kitchen. He developed his cooking skills during three decades as a firefighter, cooking meals at the station. He also learned the finer art of cooking under the tutelage of Chef Jeff Trujillo at The Crescent Club, a fine-dining establishment in Dallas.
Still, that didn’t prepare him for cooking outdoors in the elements.
"You're one wind gust away from burning your biscuits," Bobby said.
Erickson, who like the Mimses has an affinity for Western culture, said that, as a teacher, he's always trying to expand his knowledge. "I love to cook, and I love to learn," he said.
He encourages his students to step out of their comfort zones. It's easy to keep doing the same thing because you’re good at it, but that’s not how you grow, he said. Growth comes from pushing yourself and trying new things, and that always has the chance for failure.
"Part of the reason I wanted to do this was to demonstrate to the kids you have to take risks, you have to put yourself out there and risk making mistakes," he said. "Some of the best lessons you'll learn are when you take chances and make mistakes.
"This was totally outside my wheelhouse," Erickson added. "I want my students to try. You don't know if you'll be good at something unless you try, and I can't just tell them that. I need to show them that I do the same thing in my life."
Considered one of the biggest and best outdoor rodeos in the world, Cheyenne Frontier Days draws thousands of people over the course of the event. The chuck wagon cook-off was July 29 and featured some of the best cooks in the competitive circle. The Mimses were the returning champions after tying for first place in 2016. A fact unknown to Erickson at first.
"That might have been a little too much pressure for me," he said with a laugh.
Going into the competition, the Mimses felt confident they could compete, though they doubted they had a chance at repeating. One thing they had up their sleeve was their biscuit recipe.
"We have a sourdough starter that's over 225 years old (made) from King Arthur flour," Bobby said.
A starter is basically a mix of flour and water to encourage yeast and beneficial bacteria growth, and many bakers use an established one to give them an edge. The older the starter, the better it is, and at 225 years old, or more, the one the Mimses had could push them past other competitors in the bread category.
"But the rules changed, and we couldn't use it," Erickson said.
The Mimses and Erickson thought they were watching their chances slip away, but instead of giving up, they went to work developing a new biscuit recipe, and Erickson turned to his culinary experience to help concoct the entry.
"We came up with a black pepper, bacon biscuit," Erickson said. It also had a touch of local honey.
"Our competitors are still talking about that biscuit," JoAnne said.
On July 29, the three were up before the sun peeked out across the Wyoming prairie to get the fire going so they could go to work.
Bobby pointed out that he and his wife are often the first team on site and the first to start cooking the day of a competition.
"It's about doing the work," Erickson added. "That's another thing I try and stress to my students, you have to do the work."
The Cheyenne Frontier Days competition called for a chicken-fried steak, beans, a bread, a potato dish, and a dessert.
Erickson admitted it was challenging working outside over a campfire with a Dutch oven.
"Man, I was worried because I'm the rookie, and I didn't want to screw things up," the teacher said. "(The Mimses) know what they're doing, and I was kind of figuring things out as I went. But I listened to what Bobby and JoAnne told me."
When all the chuck wagons had turned everything into the judges, it was time to wait on the results. Bobby and JoAnne hoped for first but figured the odds were against them.
"After tying for first last year, we had a target on our back. We knew that," JoAnne said. "So we wanted to finish first, but you prepare for not winning."
"That's the tough thing," Bobby added with a laugh. "You want to win, but you have to get ready for not winning. But we're competitive, so we want to win."
As the results came in, J Diamond B pulled a third in the beans category, a first in bread with their new biscuit recipe, a first in the potato dish category, and a first in the chuck wagon category — all adding up to first overall.
"We were shocked," JoAnne said. "A first in three divisions and overall. Going in, I thought there was no way we could repeat."
Erickson hopes his first chuck wagon cook-off won’t be his last. He’s planning to compete in future cook-offs with the Mimses, but before that, he'll take what he learned over the campfire into the culinary classroom this year at Burnet High School.
"I want to show my kids that, even now, I still compete," he said. "It's hard, competing, but something you're going to be doing all your life if you want to succeed and keep learning. One of the reasons I do things like this during my summers is I can go back to the kids and show them you can never stop learning. That's how you get better; you keep learning."
As for the Mimses, they'll soon hit the road again for another chuck wagon cook-off in Colorado.
"We try to pick them in the summer to take advantage of places with cooler weather," JoAnne added.
In the Highland Lakes, there are two chuck wagon cook-offs: the Llano Chuck Wagon Cook-off at Badu Park on Oct. 20-21 and one in the spring in Fredericksburg.
Go to americanchuckwagon.org for more information on chuck wagon cook-offs.
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