10th Place Finish

Michelle Zinneman

FireHouse Smokers TN
Final Score
84.6309732
KCBS Score
677.6228
WFC Score
75.75

A coworker brought some leftovers from a BBQ contest into Michelle's work. Zinneman tasted it and thought, "I can do that!"

As a paramedic from Seymour, TN, Michelle Zinneman works with an ambulance team based out of a firehouse, so she's quite used to being surrounded by smoke and fire. In fact, the name of her competitive barbecue team is The Firehouse Smokers. But none of that experience prepared her for what she faced soon after returning from the World Food Championships last November in Orange Beach, AL. That's when she found herself confronted with the raging wildfires that ravaged the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge areas.

"It was crazy," she recalls. "I had just gotten back when we jumped into the fire. We've seen an amazing outpouring of support since then, and I'm really grateful."

She can also thank the firehouse for inspiring her to join the professional barbecue circuit, because four years ago a coworker brought in some of the leftovers from a contest in to work. Zinneman tasted it and thought, "I can do that!" That's when she caught the bug.

Ironically, that same coworker now cooks on her team, and Zinneman participated in 16 Kansas City Barbeque Society sanctioned competitions last year, which lead to two reserve grand championship finishes. Her success on the circuit earned her a spot in the inaugural Cowboy Charcoal Fire & Ice Women's Barbecue Championship Series finals at the WFC, where she competed against nine other female pitmasters to win a share of $15,000 in "ice" jewelry from Manning Jewelry.

Zinneman wasn't alone at the challenge, having brought along her fiance Terry to help out. "He cooks with me at most events, but he complains that I make him do 'the girl duties.' But what can I say? He builds a prettier presentation box than I do. I handle all the meat prep and cooking except for trimming the chicken because it's boring. He does clean out the smoker for me, so I tell him that's not girl duty!"

The Fire & Ice challenge was divided into two days of competition at The Wharf in Orange Beach with the first round being a grilling challenge. This is when the pitmasters had to step out of their normal comfort zone to prepare a dish for a panel of judges using Cowboy Charcoal on a Bull Outdoor grill. Zinneman served up a platter of grilled King crab legs that had been injected with herbed butter. The huge claws hung off all sides of the tray, leading to a less-than-beautiful presentation that Zinneman believes probably cost her some points with the judges, but she adds, "We thought they were delicious! We had a blast grilling."

Round 2 was a more traditional KCBS challenge where competitors cooked and presented the four basic contest meats: chicken, ribs, pork and brisket. "We had a good cook," shares Zinneman. "I think my brisket was my best meat, like it has been all year. But since I use wagyu, it's a little pricey to practice with too often."

In the end, Zinneman did not win one of the two biggest prizes, but she did go home with a $1000 gift certificate from Manning. And she really did go home with it since she did not have time to head to the jewelry store with the other winners to pick out her prizes because she had to get back to work in Tennessee. "I guess I need to plan another trip back to Orange Beach to collect my prize. At least I'll get a vacation out of it," she figures.

But she already got something great out of her experience competing in the Fire & Ice challenge at the WFC. "It was fantastic getting to know all the girls. I'd seen their names and their teams before, but we're always so busy at competitions we never get the chance to spend much time together." She also enjoyed herself after her contest was over. "After I was done competing I watched some friends compete in the Dessert category at the WFC. I have to admit that it was fun watching other people stress over their turn-ins."

But despite the anxieties and excitement of competing against the clock and other teams, Zinneman encourages anyone, male or female, to get involved in food sport. "Just jump in and stick with it! You're not going to get a top 10 every time, but don't get frustrated or turned off. Just develop your own system and you'll get better. And it's a whole lot of fun!"