Rachel Nania, wtop.com
WASHINGTON - During the week, Virginia resident Amy Buras works as a full-time librarian at a small school. Her weekends, however, are far less tranquil. They often involve battling outdoor elements, dodging flames and sparking some serious competition.
Buras and her husband, Eric, contend with some of the country's best barbecue masters at cooking competitions up-and-down the East Coast.
It all started about eight years ago when Buras, then a cooking novice, moved to Virginia and entered her first chili cook-off.
"And we knew absolutely nothing," Buras says, adding that she and Eric arrived at the cook-off completely unprepared. "We didn't even have a recipe."
However, Buras' old Coleman stove and impromptu approach didn't set her back too far. She scored in the competition's top five spots -- and she was instantly hooked.
"Not being a professional cook and having full-time jobs and all that fun stuff and doing this as a weekend hobby, cooking against people that are professional barbecue cooks -- it is a challenge when you get mom and pop sort-of average people out there against people who have big TV shows and $20,000 cookers," says Buras, who has won a total of five chili championships with her husband.
However, Buras' championships do not come at a low cost. She says participating in barbecue competitions costs her about $1,000 at each event. She spends this money on the food, the equipment, the travel and the typical $250-$350 competition entry fee. Winning a competition earns her recognition on the barbecue circuit and sometimes some money. But winners are lucky if they break even.
Buras says she's invested in better equipment since her first chili cook-off, but she doesn't believe in spending tens of thousands of dollars on tools, like other competitors.
"That's one great thing about competitive cooking, whether you're doing chili or barbecue. You can dump tons of money into expensive equipment, but the best barbecue cook can beat your tail on a little $20 cooker -- and I see it happen over and over again," says Buras, who uses a vertical water smoker in most of the competitions.
Buras decided to enter that fist cooking competition eight years ago because she wanted to learn how to cook.
"We all work a lot of hours in the D.C. area and we commute a lot, and I found myself eating out every day or sometimes twice a day," says Buras. "Competitive cooking has allowed me to move towards wanting to learn how to cook, in general."
Now, Buras helps others learn how to cook with her food blog and cooking show, "Amy Learns to Cook."
"I never learned how to cook growing-up, and now I'm in my 40s. Having started competitive cooking and really tasting food and using ingredients that I had never really played with that much before -- even basic, simple ingredients that are everyday -- my awareness of food has really expanded. I feel like I have so much lost time," she says.
Buras says that investing all of the hours into her cooking show and her competitions pays off when someone tells her they made her dish and they enjoyed it.
"That's really satisfying to me. In the process of me learning how to cook, the people that are watching are learning, too."
This summer, Buras and her husband aren't slowing down. They will attend several competitions in the area, cooking up their favorite dishes, including smoked chicken and ribs.
"It's become so much a part of our lives," Buras says.
Amy's husband, Eric, makes smoked chicken
Amy's lasagne cupcakes earned her recognition for the "anything but" category at a barbecue competition.
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