The third season of “BBQ Pitmasters” officially debuted Sunday, its format altered yet again. (See last week’s Smoke Signals.) An element returning from last season, though, is the three-person panel that judges the food prepared by the competing teams.
Even that, of course, has a couple of differences. One, the judging is blind. Last year, the adjudicators knew whose low-and-slow meats they were evaluating. This year, they (theoretically) don’t. (I say “theoretically” because the judges watch the teams cook; it doesn’t seem a stretch to believe the judges could identify whose food is whose.)
Two, the judges actually know what they’re talking about. Myron Mixon, a cookbook author and one of the competition circuit’s top dogs, is the only one returning from last year, and he presides as a sort of Chief Justice. He is joined by two judges with unassailable pedigrees: phenom Aaron Franklin, whose Franklin Barbecue in Austin was called the “Best BBQ Restaurant in America” last year by Bon Appetit, and top competitor and restaurateur Tuffy Stone, who is in the process of opening a fourth restaurant in the Richmond area. Quelling criticism of last year’s unorthodox panel, the pair replaces chef Art Smith and football player Warren Sapp.
“These [competitors] are being judged by barbecue people,” Mixon told me in an interview. “If I was a competitor, I’d want to be judged by people who know barbecue.”
But don’t think that because the three are seasoned barbecue guys, they see — or, rather, taste — things the same way. Mixon’s contest background is vastly different from Franklin’s restaurant experiences. Stone straddles both spheres.
The highly opinionated Mixon, whose outsized personality has made him a celebrity in the televised barbecue world, asserted there was a “difference of opinion in the lingo.” Asked to elaborate, he said: “Aaron doesn’t understand what we’re talking about. We explained it to him like he was the [dummy] at times. That’s part of our job. Like [the term] ‘money muscle.’ He does pork and pork ribs, but he’s known for brisket. That [money muscle] is just something that competition people know about.”
The phrase refers to a particularly flavorful and tender section of meat opposite the bone side of a pork butt; competitors say it “brings home the paycheck.”
Franklin, in a separate interview, refuted Mixon’s claim, asserting that he did, in fact, know the term “money muscle.” He went on to take a swipe of his own. “With competition stuff, people use nitrates and all sorts of weird chemicals and MSG,” he said, noting that a lot of flavor must be packed into a single bite for judging. “I make barbecue that you can actually eat.”
Boys. Boys. Play nice now.
“Aaron has a great restaurant,” Mixon said.
“I had some amazing stuff [during the filming of the show],” Franklin said. “I got a little more used to that style. My opinions maybe changed a little throughout the show.”
Stone, a laidback guy known for his conciliatory personality, said that he and Mixon had established a good chemistry over the years of competing against one another. “Aaron, who I had never met before, was really enjoyable to be around,” he said. “He’s a really smart guy. Great personality. We enjoyed a camaraderie.”
Franklin summed things up this way: “As the season went on,” he said, “we jelled.”
Mixon, for his part, just seemed happy to be critiquing barbecue rather than the ridiculous oddities contestants were required to cook last season. “I don’t want to eat all that...stuff,” he said. “I don’t really like rattlesnake.”
“BBQ Pitmasters,” which awards a $50,000 grand prize to the overall winner, airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. Eastern through July 8 on Destination America.
Ode to ‘cue. Check out the winners of the second annual BBQ Bus DC barbecue haiku contest.
The poetry of ‘cue
Makes me crave low-and-slow meats
Haiku winners here.
Party Weekend. Patrons at barbecue contests don’t generally get to taste the foods prepared by the contestants. Two reasons: health laws and expense to the competitors. The way around that? Make everybody a vendor. For $8 per plate, ‘cue hounds can stuff their faces with smoked meats served up by pitmen from around the country at this weekend’s 10th annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. From 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., June 9 and 10, Madison Square Park in Manhattan. Free admission.