The more things stay the same, the more they change. Or so it seems with the launch of the third season of “BBQ Pitmasters.”
Like the first season, teams travel to barbecue competitions around the country. Like last season, the teams compete against one another to win over a panel of judges; the overall winner takes home $50,000 and earns a spot in the inaugural Kingsford Invitational.
Unlike last season, they will not be cooking foods virtually no one eats, let alone barbecue plates such as alligator and rattlesnake. They will barbecue instead two meats: one a short-cook, the other long.
Last season, the judges knew which team’s food they were appraising. This season, the judging is blind, meaning the adjudicators don’t know which team’s food they are tasting. Contestants are not spared real-time reactions, though, as they watch the assessments on monitors.
There are again three judges. But this 2.0 version replaces chef Art Smith and football player Warren Sapp with actual barbecue guys: Virginia’s competition champion and restaurateur Tuffy Stone and Austin’s much-lauded owner of Franklin Barbecue, Aaron Franklin. Returning for his third “Pitmasters” season (first time as a contestant) is the redoubtable “winningest man in barbecue” Myron Mixon.
An advanced screener showed a playfulness between the highly opinionated Mixon and the mild-mannered Stone, who have clearly established a rapport after years of competing against one another. In the screener, Stone yanks Mixon’s chain by saying that one of the teams is hobbled because it’s from Georgia, Mixon’s home state.
“They just don’t know that much about barbecue down there,” Stone taunts. Without missing a beat, Mixon moves his fisted hand toward Stone. “Kiss the ring,” the three-time world champion shoots back.
Franklin, younger than the other two and not a competitor, is odd man out. He often watches, smiling, as the other two clown around. Even Franklin’s attire is different. Where Mixon and Stone, TV veterans attuned to branding, wear shirts advertising their competition teams, Franklin sports a simple checkered button-down, no mention of his namesake restaurant anywhere.
The teams in the screener cook brisket and the bottom of the sirloin known as tri-tip, a barbecue meat associated with Santa Maria, Calif. Competition barbecue tastes considerably different from restaurant barbecue. It’s sweeter and richer. Competitors typically inject their meat, as they do in this episode, using everything from beef broth to apple juice.
Mixon at one point asks Franklin if he injects his meats The question is larger than one might assume. Franklin’s calling card is his smoked brisket. I’ve had it, and it is a thing of wonder: Each bite yields a succulence bursting with olive-oillike richness and a deep beefy flavor, all encased by a crunchy exterior known as “bark.” He achieves his magic through nothing more than a salt-and-pepper rub and a low-and-slow smoke fueled with post-oak wood. The result is something to which all great Texas pitmasters aspire — not just great flavor, but an honesty that somehow speaks to the very idea of being a Texan. To Mixon’s query, Franklin answers simply: “No injection.”
One can only imagine what went through Franklin’s mind as he watched competitors squirt margarine and slather honey all over a brisket.
Still, he manages to judge the meats on their own terms. “I don’t think tri-tip is supposed to have any sweet flavor,” Mixon says when tasting one contestant’s final product.
“I thought the sweet was good on there,” Franklin says.
“A guy from Texas likes sweet,” Mixon responds.
“Yeah,” Franklin replies. “Go figure.”
It’s a small but telling surprise. The thing about this season of “BBQ Pitmasters” may not only be the interplay between the judges, but the ways they might change and the ways they might stay the same.
The program has moved from TLC to the network formerly known as Planet Green, now transformed into Destination America.
The show opens with a sneak peek tomorrow at 10 p.m. Eastern and premieres on Sunday, June 3, at 9 p.m. Eastern. After the sneak peek tomorrow, you can learn more about the show by participating in a live chat with executive producer John Markus at Washington-area blogger Richard Wachtel’s site grillingwithrich.com.
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