Season 5 of BBQ Pitmasters came to an end last Saturday night with Rescue Smokers taking the title of Grand Champion, $50,000 purse and an exclusive invitation to the prestigious Kingsford Invitational later this year.
Rescue Smokers and Squeal Like a Pig competed in a final showdown where they were challenged to cook an unprecedented four different meats for one turn-in box: chicken, spare ribs, brisket point and pork shoulder. At four hours out from the finish, a surprise “one bite challenge” for whole shrimp was added to the mix for a chance to win an extra point.
Rescue Smokers also won that challenge with a bacon wrapped grilled shrimp. Judge Myron Mixon told the team afterward it was risky adding “an extra protein” to the challenge because it had to be “cooked perfect too.” Squeal Like a Pig’s Pitmaster, Joe Pearce had never cooked shrimp before the challenge.
Robby says he knew their turn-in box looked perfect and affirms you have to be a hit with “appearance” because that’s where the judging begins. Pearce, the youngest competitor, to ever make it to the show’s finals, lost by an undisclosed margin. “Joe is an accomplished Pitmaster for his age,” says Royal, “and I respect him for that.”
Where Joe Pearce actually competed with his brother, Robby says he and teammate Raymond Poore are definitely like brothers. “There’s always a front man, and I have the gift of gab,”describes Royal, “but Ray and I are equals…we also argue. You didn’t see this on air, but we had a disagreement in every episode.” Royal says it’s easy to disagree on things because it’s very frustrating when you have to cook something you’re not familiar with.
“The team that Robby and I used to compete on before we created Rescue Smokers believed that one man made it all happen, ” recalls Poore. “So when we got started we never put the “i” in team. If I need to do a comp and Robby needs to do a comp, we are confident that we both can make it happen. And if I make a change or Robby makes a change, we trust each others’ decision whether good or bad.”
Royal and Poore always knew each other, but never had a relationship before BBQ. Royal says he got into it because of his father. “My dad joined a cook team and my brother and I would go hang out with them. When my dad died in 2002, Ray came to me and asked if he could take my dad’s place.”
Their relationship blossomed as a social hobby at first. “When we originally started, it was Ray and our wives, then another couple joined us, and a younger couple was also with us for a while.” Both couples eventually dropped off according to Royal because, “…it doesn’t give you anything back. You’re lucky if you break even – it’s just been the four of us for the last 5 years. BBQ is a passion – it’s not about the money. I’d love to do this full time, but it doesn’t pay the bills.” And, there’s only one Myron Mixon, right? “Exactly!”
When they’re not competing, Royal says he and Poore’s family get together in their backyards. “Our families taste test for us.” Their children take on the role of spectators, “They love BBQ, and they love to hang out.”
Having lost by a miniscule margin in the semi-finals last year, Robby professes the biggest difference between BBQ Pitmasters Season 4 and 5 was that he and Ray came back ready and prepared to cook anything. “We took swings to hit a home run and it paid off.” Some of that renewed readiness may be attributable to an experience they had late last year when Destination America was filming a new cook show in their home state of Georgia.
BBQ Pitwars would have four top crews (including Myron Mixon and Pitmasters co-judge, Moe Cason), competing against each other during BBQ circuit competitions. When Royal heard Pitwars would be filming at the Big Pig Jig® in Georgia last November, (his “home cook”), he called the show producer to tell them they better keep their eye on Rescue Smokers while filming because they were going to “take Myron down.” The gauntlet was somewhat brazen at the time given the fact that Rescue Smokers had come in 2nd behind Mixon for the last three consecutive years in a row at the competition.
Placing 9th in Ribs, 4th in Shoulder, 1st in Chicken and 1st in Whole Hog out of 130 teams, Robby and Ray did beat Mixon and won the 2013 BPJ Grand Champion title. [You can see the win in Episode 3 of BBQ Pitwars.] How did Myron react? “He was happy for us,” says Royal, “as he would be for himself.” After that win, Rescue Smokers was invited back to BBQ Pitmasters for Season 5.
Beating Mixon was a full circle moment for Robby who says it wasn’t until he went to Mixon’s cooking school in 2007, that he truly learned how to cook BBQ. “We never won anything before that time and at the very first competition after that, we won a state championship!” Royal is also quick to point out that winning championships Myron competes in is absolutely essential. “You want Myron there. If we’d won [the Big Pig Jig®] without him there, it would be like Barry Bonds’ home run record – there’d always be an asterisk after your name.”
In competitive BBQ, “you have to be extremely consistent,” offers Royal. “Don’t change anything, try it again – be very careful with timelines, and get the product out at the right time. Be confident, have fun, be consistent, and get lucky …in judging.”
In 2007, Ray and Robby each put in $1,000 and have never put in anything since. “We’ve been blessed to have it pay for itself,” says Royal, who says they’ve been able to buy their equipment, supplies and cover expenses with their winnings.
In 2012, Ray opened a restaurant in Ashburn, Ga., Rescue’s Smokehouse Grill, on the same day Robby received a promotion to Director of EMS and County Fire Chief. Poore says winning BBQ Pitmasters has meant the world to him and his family, “…not only is it nice to see your dad or husband on TV, but it has greatly helped out my restaurant.” He likes “making people smile with great food” and the challenges that come along with that. “I have one customer that wants his steak med-rare with no blood, who would figure?”
Prior to restaurant openings and promotions, Rescue Smokers used to compete over 28-30 weekends a year, now they limit it to 10-12. Royal says it’s always been a stress release for him, “The average working life in EMS is only 7-8 years. You see a lot of awful things.” He says the guys at the station have always been supportive of the team, “…and now I’m their boss.”
The team’s winning track record, BBQP experience, and lighter weekend travel schedule has also paved the way to new opportunities. Ray and Robby are getting ready to launch a line of sauces (in July) and have plans to open a cooking school in the very near future. “We don’t just cook in one sanction – we cook them all across a 3-4 state area,” points out Royal. “We were the first team to win in four different sanctioning bodies; your flavor profiles change so much by cuisine, region and requirement. We are one of the most versatile teams in the nation.” [Read more about sanctioning bodies here.]
Royal is looking at the new endeavors as an opportunity to “make a little bit” from their competitive efforts. He also made a point in saying that Rescue Smokers has never had any sponsors until recently – kinda. “Last December, my wife and I bought a camper. Several weeks later, the guy we bought it from invited us to lunch. He wanted to know why with all the BBQ competitors in our area, he wasn’t selling more trailers.” Royal ended up buying a new trailer for Rescue Smokers (which they’d planned on doing) by striking a “better” deal with the dealership in exchange for putting their logo on the trailer.
That’s a Wrap
BBQ Pitmasters was filmed last January and February over a five week period. “Every 3-4 days they did a new round,” describes Royal, “we were there from sun up to sundown – at one point it was 32 degrees – it was really cold!”
After the final episode was filmed, they brought their check home and hid the trophy. It wasn’t too tough keeping quiet about the results until after the first episode aired in April when people kept asking them how they ended up in the competition. Robby tooled a standard reply: No matter if we won or lost, we met some great people, cooked some great product and had a great time.
Royal says they didn’t do anything special for the first airing of the final episode last Saturday night. “We had a bigger crowd. I smoked some sausage; Ray cooked some pizzas. Afterwards, it was a blast.”