What do professional Pitmasters have for Holiday dinners? At Robby Royal’s house, they smoke a turkey and “do a ham” on Thanksgiving to go along with cornbread, dressing, deviled eggs, gravy, butter beans and sweet corn. “I inject it [the turkey] with creole seasoning and smoke it ‘low ‘n slow’ overnight at 225,” attests Royal. “On Christmas, we usually grill steaks, prime rib roast, or fry fish.”
Royal says they grill year round. His wife Stephanie cooks at least twice a week on their Green Mountain Smoker or Holland [gas-burning] Grill – even when it’s “32”, which Royal notes is cold for them in Georgia.
The Rescue Smokers competition team has racked up 89 1st Place rankings over the last five years among countless other wins. Since claiming the Season 5 BBQ Pitmasters title last June, Royal and his partner, Raymond Poor, have met with unexpected notoriety and new opportunities.
At a recent Georgia “cook” a 9-year-old boy and 6-year-old girl from Tampa made a beeline for the team’s trailer to meet the guys who won BBQ Pitmasters. A Dad from Lakeland, Florida, drove his kids, 10 and 13-year-old junior barbeque competitors, up north to shadow the team for a weekend. Surprised but delighted by the unexpected attention, Robby is quick to point out the kids on Junior BBQ teams absolutely “know what they are doing. They are great young Pitmasters,” he subscribes.
While there aren’t many junior level competitions (yet), Robby likes the idea of kids cooking outside versus being glued to “indoor technology” for hours on end. “I grew up around the grill – grew up hand-churning ice cream – we were outside all the time. Kids need to get out again!”
Royal has three grown daughters, 22, 25 and 26, and two granddaughters, ages, 5 and 7; Poor has two children, ages 14 and 19. Both men feel very fortunate to have “great wives” who support the competition lifestyle. Royal says his granddaughters are starting to show participatory interest, (and possibly a son-in-law), but is quick to warn, “when you start cooking 28-30 times a year, you may want to back off, so you can keep it fun.”
Outside of the competition circuit, the team is busy “ tweaking flavor profiles” for their own bottled sauce slated to come out next year in four varieties: Original, Sweet Heat, Mustard and Vinegar. Royal says the mustard sauce is inspired by his partner’s restaurant chicken dish. “Ray’s restaurant is doing very well – we have seen a wider variety of people coming in [since their TV win]. There’re only 9,500 people in our county, but Ray has lots of great reviews on Yelp from people travelling through!”
Royal and Poor also created a weekend barbeque school model to help others develop competitive skills. They had their first session last September, where they talked about the quality of rubs, sauces, and meats, demonstrated a variety of tried and true techniques and cooked eight different products over the course of the weekend.
“We can cut the 3-4 year learning curve it normally takes to be competitive and potentially save people 30-40 thousand dollars in the process. Every competition you go to, costs – you pay for travel, entry fees, ingredients, etc. So you’re investing about $1,000 on average every time you go to a competition.”
Poor and Royal have spent as much as $10,000 on one competition – something he says they didn’t realize would be quite that expensive until they were fully committed to it.
They hope to offer the weekend session two to three times a year, and are looking to do the next class sometime in the Spring. Royal says they couldn’t do it without the help of Butcher BBQ, Stub’s BBQ, Swamp Boys, and others, who sent samples of their products to use for their first session. “They’re all great; we help each other.”
Helping others is what “it’s all about” according to Robby. “If we can help someone else get in the top 10, or get a win. To see folks get their first call, see them walk the stage for the first time… it’s about wanting to win, but also being happy for others.”
Royal feels the biggest difference for him between backyard and competitive cooks is that he isn’t necessarily cooking what he likes to eat in competition. “Judges lean toward the sweeter side. I put Montreal steak seasoning on my ribs and a little bit of butter – I want to taste the meat.”
When it comes to Dry Ribs, Royal claims they don’t compete well. “Judges are trained for sauce – they’re judging for flavor – even if they know that’s not what they want, they’re judging what’s in front of them.”
On the subject of sauce, Robby offers the main difference between tomato, mustard and vinegar based sauces is strictly, “100% regional. It boils down to what you were brought up on. We do sweet/vinegar sauce. The Carolinas and Virginia are going to be vinegar; in South Carolina and Kentucky they like mustard based sauces.”
Robby professes if he and Ray had cooked just for Myron [Mixon aka The Winningest Man in BBQ] they wouldn’t have won. They tried to cook with a more Mid-Western flair (Kansas City, Iowa, Colorado) to appeal to Tuffy’s and Moe’s backgrounds because they needed to consistently win over two of the three judges on the show. Their “secret sauce” was strategy.
Would they want to do Pitmasters again? Royal says he’d love the opportunity and would like to see an all stars version of the show. “If they call, we’d absolutely go!”
The team will always do their home cook, the Big Pig Jig, which they’ve won before, in addition to an annual KCB event in the area Royal currently organizes. He doesn’t think they’ll quit, but may scale back. He forecasts they’ll probably do 8-10 events next year, but quickly hedges over the fact there are 15 to 20 events in Georgia they still haven’t done.
Robby feels he and Ray have been very blessed. They are extremely appreciative of the support they have from friends, family and sponsors. He feels strongly about being proud of others and enjoying seeing them be happy.
“There are a lot of Pitmasters that love to see people do well and others that don’t like to see others win. We shake everyone’s hand even when we’re bummed we didn’t win. Be proud of others and enjoy yourself seeing other folks happy!”