Note: Pitmaster Robbie Richter will be checking in every week with a recap of Thursday night's TLC BBQ Pitmasters show. Take it away, Robbie!
TLC's second episode of BBQ Pitmasters, a new reality show about the barbecue competition subculture, ran last night and the premise was pretty crazy: to hold the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) and Memphis Barbecue Network (MBN) on the same day. Combining these two already rigorous contests requires the teams to cook and submit seven different blind judging boxes and entertain nine on-site judges over the course of four hours.
Having cooked in over 70 contests across 14 states, I have competed in both the KCBS and MBN. Shoot, I have even competed in KCBS contests on back-to-back days. I agree with TLC's BBQ Pitmasters executive producer John Markus that competing in the two simultaneously is downright "insane."
The setting for this week's episode was the sleepy town of Murphysboro in southern Illinois, nicknamed Little Egypt. Mike Mills—the contest organizer, a three-time Memphis in May world champion, proprietor of five barbecue restaurants and co-author of Peace, Love, and Barbecue—takes care of Murphysboro like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life does of Bedford Falls. At the cooks' meeting, Mills said, "If we've got it, it's yours."
The show opened with a tour of Myron Mixon's Jack's Old South custom barbecue trailer. The unit is equipped with three temperature and humidity controlled cookers fueled by peach wood, each dedicated to one of the MBN meat categories (whole hog, pork ribs, and whole pork shoulder). I like this idea because you can cook at different temperatures and you don't have to keep opening the cookers. (Myron admits that the "wow factor" of his rig helps with the on-site judges too.)
Myron is a three-time Memphis in May world champion hog cooker and declares: "If I don't win whole hog, it's because I had some sorry-ass judges. When it comes to Myron Mixon picking whole hogs, it's like spitting off a train." Mixon picked the right train, driven by the Mennonite farmers of Yoder's Butcher Block, his meat source in Georgia.
Texan Johnny Trigg is the only competitor in the history of the prestigious Jack Daniels World Barbecue to win two grand championships. (He fesses up to using his age to lull opponents into a false sense of security.) Johnny expresses his disdain for the MBN format's "dog and pony show." He brags he can "BS with the best of them—I just hope I don't overdo it." Johnny later admitted to his on-site judge that he's never cooked baby back ribs before and they are tough (a pretty big confession in the barbecue world).
Johnny's ribs place 20th in the MBN contest. His "tender-as-a-baby's-butt" brisket takes seventh place in KCBS.
Lee Ann Whippen of Wood Chicks BBQ out of Chesapeake, Virginia, describes herself as a "woman in a man's world." She takes on the network's challenge admirably as this is the first time she's ever cooked a whole hog in competition.
(Lee Ann, call me and let's discuss ham temperatures.)
In last night's episode we find out she is the daughter of Jim "Trim" Tabb, considered by many as the patriarch of North Carolina competition barbecue. She whipped up a batch of her daddy's secret "Pig Powder," which she admits has 13 ingredients, two of which are sugar and paprika. Perhaps the colonel knows the other eleven?
Lee Ann doesn't make the finals in whole hog but bests the competition by finishing fifth overall in the KCBS contest.
Harry Soo, head cook of team Slap Yo' Daddy BBQ in Diamond Bar, California, has only been barbecuing competitively for two years yet has the distinction of being the only team to ever claim first place in all four categories at a KCBS event. His team also uses two Weber water smokers that cost less than the computerized fan attached to them.
Harry has researched the palate of the judges in the south and concludes they like their barbecue "sweet, candy sweet." His pantry this week included honey, karo syrup, molasses, brown sugar and maple syrup. What, no agave syrup or demerara? While tasting his chicken he says, "I hope they like sweet. This is really sweet."
His chicken finished eleventh out of 44 teams.
This episode we didn't see Paul Petersen, executive chef at Rick's Chop House in McKinney, Texas. Last week, in his first ever contest, Paul learned three valuable lessons: to travel with a spare tire, to avoid letting your fire go out, and to use garnish. He improved from dead last to third from last place. At least we didn't have to put up with his tong twirling "this is barbecue, it's not rocket science" antics.
Tuffy finished seventh overall in the KCBS contest.
Myron's Jack's Old South placed first in all three MBN categories and tenth overall in KCBS. I guess Myron had the right judges.
Stay Tuned Next Week
I'll discuss some of the techniques used by the winners and recap the third episode from Riverfest in Decatur, Alabama, where the teams try unproven recipes and Paul steals Myron's muffin tin chicken recipe.
A Clip From Last Night's Episode
About the author: The self-taught Robbie Richter learned how to barbecue on a backyard kettle grill that paved a path to a home-based catering company and restaurant career. In 2000 he decided to take his show on the road and formed a competition BBQ team and catering company called Big Island Barbecue, competing several times a year in national and regional barbecuing contests. Since then he has competed in over 50 barbecue competitions winning over 150 awards.
In 2007 Robbie was recruited to open Hill Country Barbecue, a Manhattan restaurant dedicated to the flavors of Texas Hill country. Currently Robbie is working with Chef Zak Pelaccio on the soon-to-open Fatty 'Cue in Brooklyn.