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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 04/17/2012

Smoke Signals: Reigniting ‘BBQ Pitmasters’


New judge Aaron Franklin, the Austin restaurateur, will not be so easily steamrolled by Myron Mixon's opinions on "BBQ Pitmasters." (Jim Shahin for The Washington Post)
Out with the (kinda) old and in with the (sorta) new.

BBQ Pitmasters” recently announced that it would return for another season, in the process moving from TLC to a new network called Destination America, which rose from the ashes of the now-dead (or “rebranded”) Planet Green.

Sitcom producer John Markus returns as ringleader of the reality show, and Myron Mixon is back as a judge. But there have been changes, and they are, I think, for the better.

Gone is Art Smith, the Chicago chef behind Washington’s Art and Soul. As a judge on the previous season, Smith, who’s no barbecue expert, functioned as an agreeable foil to Mixon, the brash self-described “winningest man in barbecue” and a longtime competitor who knows his smoked meats.

Also gone is former football player Warren Sapp, whose primary qualification seemed to be that he had an ample girth. Replacing Sapp and Smith are two real barbecue guys: Aaron Franklin, the young Austin phenom whose eponymous operation, Franklin Barbecue, last year was named “Best BBQ Restaurant in America” by Bon Appetit, and Tuffy Stone, the Virginia competition champion and restaurateur.

The new judges make for some potentially interesting dynamics. Where Smith was often deferential to Mixon, Franklin will likely be opinionated. Franklin and Mixon are men who know their barbecue — and their minds.

Moreover, they represent two different barbecue worlds: the kind served in restaurants vs.the kind judged at competitions. Hang around competitors and restaurateurs long enough (like, 15 minutes), and you discover that each views the other with some condescension, even contempt.

Competitors claim their barbecue is superior because they baby the meat, injecting it, misting it, carefully tending the fire all through the night, something that restaurateurs do not have the manpower or economic resources to do.

Restaurateurs claim that competition guys are “one-bite wonders” whose goal is to create a bite powerful enough to wow the judges, but one so sweet and so “layered with flavor” that the essence of the meat and smoke is lost and, in any event, couldn’t be duplicated in the world outside the hermetically sealed competition event.

Franklin’s parents owned a barbecue joint in College Station, Texas, and he worked at legendary Texas pitmaster John Mueller’s restaurant, the now-closed John Mueller’s BBQ, before opening a food trailer, which led to the opening last year of his small sit-down restaurant in East Austin. (Mueller has recently opened a place called JMueller BBQ.)

Mixon, meanwhile, has dabbled in the restaurant business, but his claim to fame is his long and distinguished career in barbecue competitions. A native of Georgia who learned how to barbecue from his father, Mixon has a bone-deep understanding of barbecue.

It will be interesting to see if he and Franklin clash over the flavor of the food they’re judging.

A buffer between them may be the third judge. Stone is equal parts champion competitor and restaurateur. His competition team, Cool Smoke, has won several grand championships in recent years. Meanwhile, he has opened three successful Q Barbeque restaurants, two around Richmond and the third in Hampton, Va. Along with his experience, Stone’s genial personality may help him function as a conciliator.

That is, if any of what I am speculating to occur actually happens. For all I know, the season will be “BBQ Pitmasters: The Age of Aquarius.”

Whatever the case, I think the three judges bring enough knowledge and differences to make this season of “BBQ Pitmasters” the most intriguing yet.

“BBQ Pitmasters” premieres June 3, with a sneak peek on May 30.

Free food at Sam’s Club. Well, not exactly. From April 27-29, Sam’s Club is sponsoring a Spring Taste of Sam’s Club, a kind of grilling-oriented weekend. Members and non-members alike can participate, and there is no “guest upcharge” for items featured in the tasting. More details here.

BBQ Sauce Contest reminder. The deadline is fast approaching for the second annual Smoke Signals Barbecue Sauce Recipe Contest. For a chance to win bragging rights and prizes, e-mail your sauce recipe to food@washpost.com by Wednesday, May 2. Read the fine print here.

Send your tips, ideas, opinions to jimshahin@aol.com. Follow me on Twitter @jimshahin .

By  |  07:00 AM ET, 04/17/2012

Categories:  Smoke Signals | Tags:  Jim Shahin

 
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