Finally, 'BBQ Pitmasters' Gets It Right

After three seasons of practice, BBQ Pitmasters, a reality cooking competition that is decidedly not Top Chef, has finally found the recipe.

The broadcast premiered on Wednesday, May 30 and will settle into a new time slot starting this Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Last year's version was great fun, but deeply flawed on a number of points that I will not regurgitate here, but you can read by my wrap-up from last year in Huffington Post.

2012-05-31-markus.jpgThis year the producers, led by John Markus (at right), himself a fine competitive barbecue cook, got more right than wrong.

On the line is $50,000 in prize money, winner take all, and the priceless title "Kingsford BBQ Pitmasters Grand Champion." Each prelim will feature three teams, one of which will advance to the finals. There are five prelims and a final, pitting all five winners and their pits, on July 8.

Alas, the bill for the mistakes of the past have come due. The payout is down from $75,000, the set is bare bones, the show lacks the high production values of last year (many of the cook's comments had to be subtitled because the audio was so poor), and the show has moved from the TLC cable channel to the Planet Green channel, just rebranded as the Destination America channel, owned by Discovery Communications, but way up the cable dial, and not included in most basic cable plans.

2012-05-31-pitmasters.jpgOn the plus side, the judging panel is top notch with irascible Myron Mixon (center), the "loud and proud" winner of 180 grand championships as head of the Jack's Old South team, and author of a best selling barbecue book "Smokin' with Myron Mixon", the gentler Tuffy Stone (left), past winner of BBQ Team of the Year and owner of three restaurants named Q, and the estimable Aaron Franklin (right), owner of Franklin Barbecue in Austin, called the best in the nation by Bon Appetit magazine. Anybody know why photographers insist on posing chefs and other cooks with arms crossed looking defiant?

Mixon and Stone are old friends and have competed against each other many times. They horse around and joke in their branded shirts. Franklin, on the other hand is quiet so far in his simple understated plaid cowboy/nerd shirt.

2012-05-31-brisket_box.jpgThis year they are judging more or less blind. Teams turn in numbered styrofoam boxes like the ones you get when you ask for a doggie bag. This is the standard turn-in box used in Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) sanctioned competitions, with the meat lounging in a bed of lettuce or parsley. At right is the brisket entry box from Todd Johns of Plowboys BBQ. Alas,he was not among the competitors, and none of them turned in anything that looked this good. Notice the row of "burnt ends", crispy crunchy chunks from the fattiest part of the brisket that judges look forward to like candy. One goofball did not even put any in his box.

But this event was not perfectly blind since they get to watch the cooks work and prepare the entries, so surely they have some sense of whose food is in front of them. Still, this method is much fairer than last year where the cooks presented their entries to the judges and stood before them to face the music.

This year the cooks go backstage where they get to watch the judges insult their food with bon mots like this classic from Franklin "It tastes like a really bad roast beef you get at a gas station." Then they act like the judges are idiots.

All six segments were filmed in late March and April. The first segment took place during a KCBS sanctioned competition at the "Don't Be Cruel Barbecue Duel" in Tupelo, MS on March 16 & 17. Their presence at a large competition is a bit weird since they are not competing against the other teams, just themselves. At the KCBS events were proven winners such as Quau, reigning Team of the Year, killer Hogs (the won the event), Pellet Envy, and even Marvin's team, Jack's Old South, (operating mostly without their captain), Lotta Bull.

The others are against the clock with four dishes to prepare, and they have only two. At KCBS judgings they have to cook pork ribs, pork butt, a chicken part, and beef brisket. For Pitmasters they had to cook brisket, something they should all be familiar with, and Tri-Tip, a cut from the sirloin that is popular in Southern California, but not many places else. The meat came from renowned producer, Snake River Farms in Idaho, and the brisket was an expensive wagyu, from cattle descended from the Japanese breeds. At least there was no rattlesnake or alligator this year. And no annoying announcer. The judges did all the intro material.

The biggest downer was that the teams were relative unknowns, listed here in their order of finish:

  1. Solomon Williams of Carolina Rib Kings of Georgetown, SC. He cooked on what looked to be a large expensive restaurant cooker with a ferris wheel mechanism inside, either a Southern Pride or Ole Hickory.
  2. Hank Vaiden of Cotton Patch Cooking Crew from Columbus, MS. He cooked on a large horizontal pit that looked homemade.
  3. Jim Stancil of Bare knuckles BBQ of Oxford, GA. He cooked on ceramic ovals by Primo, similar to Big Green Eggs only better.

They were chosen mainly by submitting audition tapes, so presumably the ones with the most personality and attitude were selected regardless of cooking chops. Although it would be hard to tell from this crowd. They were a bland bunch.

Hopefully the level of competition will rise as luminaries from seasons 1 & 2 like Melissa Cookston, Johnny Trigg, DivaQ, Lee Ann Whippen, Moe Cason, and others return to the lardlight. Although Solomon won, this guy is not a great cook and I doubt he will do well in the finals.

One thing Markus did to improve the show was give us more footage of the cooks actually preparing their entries. Last year they skipped over this to infuse drama into the gameshow atmosphere in a futile attempt to turn this into Survivor. This year, if you watch closel, you might learn a thing or two. Or not. These three made a lot of mistakes. It was sad to see them dumping all that sugar and margarine (!!!!!) on their expensive wagyu brisket. (Click here to learn how to cook Texas style brisket.)

My main complaint last year was that KCBS competitors are really four trick ponies. They cook the four KCBS meats and that's all they know. This has not changed. Only one had a clue as to what to do with tri-tip. This muscle from the sirloin is best cooked like a steak, medium rare (130F) in the center and seared on the outside. Salt & pepper is about all it needs, but these guys really mangled it by cooking it up to 200F like a brisket or dunking it in all sorts of juices. Sad. (Click here for the classic Santa Maria style recipe.)

My other big complaint is common to all reality shows. When you return from commercial they feel obligated to catch you up on what happened before as if it was last week. So much repetition.

I look forward to warming up for Mad Men each Sunday with meat, and perhaps a martini.

All text is Copyright (c) 2012 By Meathead, and all rights are reserved. For more of Meathead's writing, photos, recipes, and barbecue info please visit his website and subscribe to his email newsletter, Smoke Signals.

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