In that daydream we call the “job we’d like to have if we could have any job we wanted,” mine is something I did not know existed until the day I spoke with John Markus.
“Creative barbecue consultant,” he replied when I asked him to verify his title.
“Really?” I said. “What does a ‘creative barbecue consultant’ do?”
“I suggest contestants, combinations of meats, regions, good mixes of contestants,” said Markus, 56, who wrote for “The Larry Sanders Show,” “The Cosby Show” and “Taxi,” among other television comedies. “I always think of story and character.”
Markus is referring to “BBQ Pitmasters,” for which he is better known as executive producer. The show premieres on Sunday, Dec. 16, at 9 p.m. on Destination America, and will air for six episodes in the Sunday 9 p.m. time slot. The program was slated to begin on Nov. 17, but Superstorm Sandy knocked out the power to the facilities where the show is edited, delaying the premiere.
The same three judges from last season will return: barbecue circuit competitor Myron Mixon, who recently opened a restaurant in Miami; competitor and Richmond-area restaurateur Tuffy Stone; and Austin barbecue restaurateur Aaron Franklin. Like last season, three contestants vie against one another in each episode.
But as is inevitably the case with “Pitmasters,” the new season is significantly tweaked. For starters, unlike past seasons, there is no grand champion. There is a winner on each episode, and that’s it. No grand champ means no grand prize. Each episode’s winner takes home a trophy and $2,000, a far cry from the 2010 season’s $100,000 purse or even last spring’s $50,000 top prize.
Another change is that this time around the focus is on regional barbecue. The regions are Texas, North Carolina, Kansas City, Atlanta, Kentucky and Tennessee. There will be at least one true barbecue superstar among the competitors: pitmaster Sam Jones of the legendary Skylight Inn in Ayden, N.C.
An expert from each region explains the area’s barbecue history and specialty. In the premiere show, for example, Wayne Mueller, owner of the highly regarded Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas, discusses beef brisket and other aspects of Lone Star State barbecue.
The show travels to barbecue festivals and contests in each region where the three pre-selected contestants compete. They represent yet another change: Many are not from the competition circuit, but instead hail from restaurants; some are from both worlds.
“Destination America urged us to open our world up a little bit more,” Markus said, “and I think that was a very good suggestion. [The change] gave us an interesting wrinkle. It provided a new type of character and storyline.”
In the premiere, for example, caterer and circuit veteran Ernest Servantes of Burnt Bean Co. will compete against Harold “Buzzie” Hughes, owner and pitmaster at Buzzie’s Bar-B-Q in the Texas town of Kerrville, and Will Fleischman, pitmaster at Lockhart Smokehouse in Dallas.
Competition barbecue, which is regulated by a national body, is about what might be called a “national barbecue.” The largest sanctioning organization, the Kansas City Barbeque Society, requires contestants to cook beef brisket, pork ribs, pork shoulder and chicken.
While following the rules of KCBS-sanctioned contests (no gas or electricity; judging is blind), the reality program will be able to delve deeper into each region’s idiosyncrasies. “We really wanted to highlight the essential barbecue character of each region,” Markus said.
How well that is accomplished remains to be seen. A news release says that in the Texas episode, contestants compete with beef brisket and cowboy steak. Steak, cowboy or otherwise, is rarely seen in traditional Texas barbecue joints. More true to the state’s barbecue would be sausage, typically piquant and made predominantly from beef.
Noting the changes from season to season, I asked Markus why “BBQ Pitmasters” didn’t keep the same formula, like, say, “Real Housewives” does.
“Unlike ‘Housewives’ or whatever, these people have to have actual skills,” Markus said. “We pay a great deal of respect to the methods and demands of this kind of cooking. We aren’t making a show to create train wrecks. Our show is not based on rubbernecking. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen. People burn their food. They inject themselves instead of the meat. We show that. But it isn’t what we’re going for.”
And his favorite barbecue region? He paused for a long time, perhaps calculating the fuss his answer could kick up.
“My favorite region. . .,” he began, and paused. “It is apples and oranges, so it’s hard to pick.” After another long pause, he said: “But I love Central Texas.” One more pause. “And I love Kansas City.”
I imagine all the Tweets that his response will generate from excluded regions — and I feel better that even a dream job has its nightmares.
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