Chicago native Chuck Thomas is the ultimate foodie. A veteran media professional, Thomas feels fortunate to be able to marry his love of food with his day job as producer and host of Eat This!, a digital weekly covering the “local foodie scene” based out of Philadelphia.
Most recently, Chuck attained KCBS Master Certified Judge status, further cementing his dedication to the barbeque food category. He loves to cook, says he makes a “mean German Sticky Bun” and has traveled to more than 250 BBQ restaurants across 24 states, D.C. and Canada developing his palate.
How did you get into food media?
I’ve always been in newspapers. I worked my way up to photo editor and then ended up in Philly. It naturally evolved when the company [Calkins Publishing] realized they needed digital presence, product coverage and so forth.
We started with “Man Up” where I’d go and do manly things – I learned how to smoke a cigar, get a ‘manly shave’, etc. But that didn’t work out the way we wanted it to. Considering I had done food segments before, [Chuck was the “Cookie Man” in the Quad Cities when he worked there], competed in chili cook-offs, have my own barbeque sauce, etc., it seemed natural to regroup toward food. The next thing I knew I was creating my own food news.
Working with restaurant owners and chefs, what does the industry climate look like?
Everyone seems very positive for the future. Philly is quickly evolving to be a Chicago. It’s tough for us since we’re so close to New York, but some people are coming here from there now for dinner. We have great chefs, Jose Garces is here, Steven Starr and others.
Right now it’s thriving. The Pineville Tavern is going to be on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, (they drop the whole turtle in the pot [for their Snapper Soup]), and they are also opening up a drive-thru BBQ and a chicken place. I see a lot of the new owners who’ve seen this boom. It used to be you went to a chain restaurant or went to the city – the dining out market is strong.
What do you see as the biggest trend?
Farm to Table; really cashing in on fresh, local, regional foods. For example, you don’t get brats or sausage out here like you do in Chicago. Chefs are looking for special ingredients they can be creative with.
How about BBQ?
In the ‘burbs they come and go; in the city they’re doing really well. High end BBQ especially – dinner only and other like places.
Pictured above: Chuck on location for Eat This!
What made you want to become a KCBS judge?
My first job was in Texas out of college. My dad was a great cook, but not a real BBQ’er. When I arrived in Texas, I quickly learned what BBQ was about – it was fabulous.
When you love food, you experience what the area has to offer. When Johnny Trigg challenged me on who had the best BBQ, and I said, ‘Clem Mikeska’s Bar-B-Q’, [in Temple, Texas] he was surprised because he didn’t think I’d say that – it’s his best choice too.
I did my 30th comp the first week of May this year. I did it [master certification] all in one year too; people were shocked – I also did it across 13 different states. I love doing this, and it also helps me with my job. My company helped me get my certification and with some of the travel.
Once you get out there, you get involved with the teams and spend time after judging hanging out with them. (There’s no conflict since you never know what team’s box you’re judging.) I can be in the middle of West Virginia in a tiny town and see people I know now, and many of the guys have restaurants too.
Pictured Rt: Trigg and Thomas mugging up at a competition.
Do you agree with the notion that the only way to win brisket is with wagyu?
NO! That’s not true! There are people with Creekstone beating them. It still comes down to a nice tip, good point and decent fat content. The top teams enter slices and burnt ends – unless they are dead on with those slices, sometimes those burnt ends can raise it a point. I think the best teams can do it without wagyu – they know how to smoke, season and re-season.
How do you feel about injections?
Injecting brisket doesn’t win. The best briskets are a good piece of meat with a good rub and decent fat content. You’ll see teams trim all the fat off. The best briskets we see, have a little fat on them.
What turn-in tips can you offer?
* Don’t sweat the greenery so much. We hate parsley stuck to the meat product! It drives me nuts when I can take a whole salad off a rib. If you’re picking the greens off, it’s in your head. There are some judges that will mark down for this. Don’t use red tipped lettuce either; use the proper greens, like green leaf lettuce and iceberg sliced thin. It should be about “putting green for the meat”, the meat is the star. And, NEVER put cilantro in the boxes – it will lend a flavor to what it touches.
* Nothing should be swimming in sauce – or mess to pick up. We’re not supposed to judge sauce, but you can lose points quicker with sauce. The good teams know there’s a balance, not too spicy – you want to please as many people as possible.
* Be consistent with your meat product. When I watched Tuffy cut his ribs, he used an electric knife and put them back together so well they looked like they’d never been cut. Make it look as good as it can possibly look.