The semi-finals begin this weekend on BBQ Pitmasters. Of the original 18 teams, only six Pitmasters remain Robby Royal – Rescue Smokers (GA), Junior Urias – Up in Smoke (TX), John Coon – House of Q (AL), Joe Pierce – Squeal Like a Pig (K.C.), Ken Wood – Charcoal Cowboys (Memphis) and Carl Lewis – Big Show BBQ (N. Carolina).
Most of the semi-final teams work in the food industry, producing BBQ related food products, as professional competitors, caterers and/or restaurant owners. (John Coon is a construction contractor turned caterer who hopes to make barbeque his full time profession this year.) Robby Royal is a third generation Fire Chief and Ken Wood and his partner work in IT.
This coming Saturday night, (5/31) Royal, Urias, and Coon will compete in the first of two semi-final episodes called, “Ribs, Ribs, and More Ribs” on the Destination America network at 8 pm CST.
Bring Your A Game
Week after week the Season 5 BBQ teams had to come prepared to cook anything – a twist outside of the normal competition circuit where competitors know what meats they’ll be cooking ahead of time. Ken Wood says his team knows all the exact times for the meats they turn in and have everything prepared at regular competitions. “We spend a lot of time looking for the perfect competition meat, going to meat wholesalers and butcher shops to find the right cuts for competition.”
On more than one occasion, the Pitmasters were also challenged by things they never cooked before. In Episode 6, John Coon was the only competitor to recognize the racks of lamb in the meat reveal at the beginning of the show (the other competitors thought they were “ribs” and had never cooked lamb before).
In the second episode of the season, none of the teams had even seen a Vegas Strip Steak, let alone cook one. Junior Urias never had to cook something he was unfamiliar with before in competition. What did he think when this happened? “I was super excited,” says Urias, “a steak is a steak in my eyes …just cook it!” In addition to the Vegas Strip and Rack of Lamb, the Pitmasters also cooked, Pork Shoulder, Pork Butt, Prime Rib Roast, Ham, Beef Brisket, Spare and Baby Back Ribs, whole Chickens and Turkeys in the episodes leading up to the semi-final – plus one big surprise…
“When I opened that cooler and saw three Salmon, beautiful as they were staring back at me,” recalled Robby Royal, “I looked at Raymond and said, ‘Holy Crap!’ I won’t lie, the adrenaline and nerves hit hard. I have cleaned and cooked fish my entire life, but salmon, hell no. I’m truly fortunate our ham turned out great because my thoughts for that entire prep, was on what to do with that damn salmon – I must have flipped that fish over 25 times trying to figure out what to do. Finally I said [to myself], ‘You know what? I’m a South Georgia Boy. Do what you do, filet it, and cook it. KISS!!! Keep It Simple Stupid, make it taste good, and you will be ok.’ They were beautiful fish!”
Equipment weighs heavily into preparedness; multiple cookers were present at each competitor’s station. There were Gravity Fed Smokers, Pellet Cookers, Rotisserie Pits, Water Cookers, Indirect Water Cookers, Direct Cookers, Stick Burners, Offset Stick Burners and more. In the “Kings of Carolina” episode, Carl Lewis’ rotisserie pit broke down, and he was forced to cook his pork shoulder the old fashioned way – on a plain old backyard type charcoal grill, referred to as, “direct cookers” on the BBQ circuit.
Choice of heat source is just as sacred to Pitmasters as the meat, seasonings and secret sauces they use in competition. John Coon says his cookers are “sheer perfection”; he uses only Ole Hickory Pits. “They are indirect as not to char the meat, but also are very well insulated to hold my temps for a long duration. Some people fight fires, but we enjoy the cook knowing our temps are right where they need to be.” Coon says what makes this experience different from other competitions is that BBQ Pitmasters, “is a true “skill” contest where you need to know more than standard BBQ meats to excel.”
Good Luck & Good ‘Q!
Ken Wood says he’ll do nothing different to prepare for the semi finals than he did in the first round, “We will adjust to the request of the judges.” Coon thinks what helped him win the first round was his, “quality of butchering and attention to detail in presentation.” Junior Urias says he would not cook without a Gravity Fed Smoker.
Rescue Smokers have been to this party before, losing out in a semi-final round of Season 4 by 1/16 of a point to the Pitmaster who went on to win. Reflecting on the current season, Robby Royal says the most important thing a Pitmaster needs to do is, “Stay consistent. Competition BBQ is 50% consistent BBQ and 50% luck in the judging area – you must pay attention to every minute detail. With Pitmasters, you have to be ready to cook any and everything possible. You have to be confident no matter what’s in the cooler, even if there are three Salmon looking back at you.”