Sunday, June 24, was the last of the prelims of the Kingsford BBQ Pitmaster series, and now we know who the five finalists will be.
The broadcast was shot in late April in Salisbury, MD, at Pork in the Park. The Maryland-Delaware peninsula is a virtual henhouse with more than 3,500 chicken farmers, and in the Salisbury area, more than 20,000 people work in the chicken industry, according to Jim Perdue, who made a cameo appearance on the show. So it was not surprising that the competition's organizers chose whole chicken along with bone in pork loin for this week's test. No crabs, no fish.
This week's cooks were, in order of finish:
1) Danielle Dimovski, Diva Q BBQ, Barrie, Ontario.
2) Rob Marion, 2 Worthless Nuts, Cleveland, OH.
3) Randy Hill, Southern Krunk Burn One Boys BBQ, Little Rock, AR.
Next: The finals
That sets up a highly competitive final on July 8 with the following pitmasters answering the burning question, who goes home with the $50,000? Here are the finalists in the order I predict they will finish.
1) Johnny Trigg, Smokin' Triggers, Alvarado TX.
2) Danielle Dimovski, Diva Q BBQ, Barrie, Ontario.
3) Melissa Cookston of Memphis Barbecue Co. in Nesbit, MS.
4) Corey Brinson, Fatback's BBQ & Rib Shack, Fayetteville, NC.
5) Solomon Williams, Carolina Rib Kings of Georgetown, SC.
Trigg, Dimovski, and Cookston are the three best cooks left standing, and it could go to any one of them. Although there are more women on the circuit in recent years, teams captained by women are still rare, so it is interesting that two of my top picks are pitmistresses (and no, I haven't been given a sneak peak at the finals yet).
But a lot depends on what the producers ask them to cook. If it is whole hog like last year, Cookston can't lose. If one of the dishes is beef, Cookston and Dimovski might slip, for they are the queens of pork, in fact Cookston cooks mostly on the Memphis Barbecue Network (MBN) circuit, which is only pork.
If they go with something safe like pork shoulder and ribs, Trigg could run aways with it and Brinson might even have a chance.
One can never overlook the fact that Trigg is a close friend of the judges, that Cookston and Judge Myron Mixon have feuded in the past, and Dimovski is not well liked by many because she is new to the circuit and she talks trash. Yes it is supposed to be a blind judging, but the judges see enough of the prep they almost certainly have an idea of whose food they are tasting.
There, I think I've covered enough bases that my predictions shouldn't embarrass me. Unless Williams wins it.
Where were the heavy hitters?
But this begs the question, where were the other great barbecue champions? The ones who are the big money winners in the past couple of years and who rank high in the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) Team of The Year standings every year? None of them was in the series. Only Cookston is universally regarded as a top pitmaster.
The season has been entertaining and educational, the best ever, but few of the superstar teams were represented in the series. Where were Mike & Beth Wozniak of Bar-B-Quau from Illinois? Where was Harry Soo of Slap Your Daddy from California? Where were Mike & Debbie Davis from Lotta Bull from Oklahoma? Where were Rod & Sheri Gray of Pellet Envy from Kansas City? Where was Todd Johns of Pork Pullin' Plowboys from Kansas City? Where were Joe & Kim Beland of TippyCanoe BBQ Crew from Iowa? Where was David Bouska of Butcher BBQ from Oklahoma? Where was anybody from Kansas City, Austin, or North Carolina?
The answer, it seems, is that in order to be selected you had to get wind of the casting call, which was sounded mainly on the internet, and then you had to send in an audition video. The window for submitting was about a month. One of the producers, John Markus, told me that they were looking for established cooks who were at ease in front of the camera, authentic, people who viewers will want to watch, talent who the audience can root for or against." This is showbiz, after all, and they are in the business of selling cars and beer.
Alas, I fear many of the top cooks either never heard about the call for video, they didn't have access to hardware and software, they didn't have time to script something clever, or they just didn't have the personality the producers wanted.
Clearly Diva has it all. She can cook, and it appears she had the single best cook of the whole season. The Canadian mother of three put the world on notice when she won the pork category at the prestigious 2011 Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue.
And she has a biiiiiig personality. If the producers were looking for a villain, Diva was more than willing to fill the role, right down to the black hat, black stretch pants, black shirt, and black apron. She is cocky, bragging during one of those little side interviews that are so popular on "reality" TV shows, that "I think I'm the smartest one". But, in the words of Hall of Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean, "It ain't braggin if you can back it up", and she clearly won both meats, probably by a mile.
The tightly wound Diva is shown berating Marion for the way he butchered his pork loin, going way beyond trash talking and crossing into poor sportsmanship. Clearly she has been watching too much Gordon Ramsey. She even barks at her teammate, her husband, "the love of my life", by asking him "are you new?" He sulks off staring at his shoes. Later she gives him a makeup peck.
But bone in pork loin was right in her wheelhouse. This large cut is similar to the bone-in prime rib or a rack of lamb. There are two on each hog, and they are the long, tender longissimus muscles that run on either side of the spine and attach to the baby back ribs. She treated them perfectly, Frenching the bones, which means she removed the thin strip of meat between the rib bones so she had a long thick tube of meat with bones sticking out.
She cooked her loin with Canadian sugar maple lump charcoal (not Kingsford!) in a Backwoods Smoker, a small box that looks like a dorm refrigerator. She flavored the air it with hickory wood chips. Then she took it out when it was slightly undercooked, sliced it into thick individual pork chops, and grilled them on a Weber Kettle over high heat. But her secret weapon was a product called GrillGrates, an after market grate system made of aircraft aluminum. They are the best grates on the market and they make killer grill marks. Click here to read more about Grill Grates. She then dunked the chops in a cherry habanero glaze and presented the judges with magnificent shiny pork chop lollipops.
Whole chicken is a challenge. White meat can go from juicy to cardboard in a hurry, right in the 165F range, and that is the number that microbiologists and the USDA say is the minimum safe number. So to make sure there are no salmonella crawling around on the judging table, you have to walk a tightrope with white meat, taking it off at about 160 and letting the heat rise while it waits to be served. Click here to see my award winning meat temperature guide.
The dark meat is more juicy and tends to be best in the 170F range, but it has a wider latitude before it dries out. It is harder to overcook. One would think that you could cook the bird whole or in halves and the two parts would finish about the same time since the thigh is thinner, but that often doesn't work out. So the best strategy is to cut the bird into parts: Breasts, wings, thighs, and drumsticks. That way you can monitor the temp and browning of each individually and remove each part when it is perfect.
The other challenge for chicken is to get what the judges call "bite through" skin. The kiss of death is when a judge bites into your chicken and all the skin comes off in one sheet. The goal is to make the skin crisp enough that your incisors penetrate and thus you get skin with every bite. Bite through is really hard to do.
Diva first brined her chicken, a step that adds moisture and flavor. In addition to her pork lollipops, Diva decided to make lollipops from the drumsticks as well. She chopped off the top of the fibula bone, where it connects to the ankle, releasing the skin, then with her thumb and forefinger pushed the skin down, bunching the meat in a ball, and then cuts off the lump of cartilage that remains on one side. This helps cook the meat more evenly because it is round and there are no thin parts to be overcooked. Chicken lollis are also great for parties, because the bone makes a great handle. But here she made her one mistake of the day, she forgot to wrap foil around the bone, and it blackened badly during the cook.
She then put all the parts in pans with about 1/8" of melted butter, maybe more. And yes, she used real butter, not the ubiquitous Parkay Squeeze that so many competitors lean on.
The pans went in the smoker at only 180F for about an hour. It is hard to get smoke into meat sitting in a pan, it tends to waft on over the top. So she is both smoke roasting and braising. Then she removes the breast, debones them, dunks them in a thin cherry habanero glaze, and slices the breasts across grain so they will be tender and so there will be no issues with the skin.
As tough as Diva seems to be, when it came down to the top two awaiting the announcement of who would go on, she teared up. I'm sure the guys will not let her live this down for a while. I can hear them reminding her the words of Tom Hanks who said "There's no cryin' in barbecue."
From Cleveland, this cook fell back into the his comfort zone by removing the baby back ribs from the loin, which he repeatedly called the tenderloin in error The tenderloin is an entirely different muscle from a different part of the hog.
He then took the loin meat and cut it into thick chops about the size of hockey pucks, and wrapped bacon around the perimeter to "add flavor" and "make sure it doesn't dry out". To be sure the bacon wrap insulated the meat's edges against the heat and help keep it moist, but it will also prevent smoke penetration and dark color, and I doubt it left behind much flavor when it is removed, not in comparison to the rubs, smoke, and sauces he used.
He cooked them for an hour at 275F. Then he placed the medallions on a pat of clarified butter, squirted his "sweet-heat barbecue sauce" on top, and wrapped in foil. He then put them back in the pit to bring the temp up to about 150F. In my book that's too hot. A thick chop like this should come off at 135 to 140F and it will rise to 145F max via carryover cooking, especially in foil. Air heats the exterior of the meat, but the exterior of the meat heats the interior of the meat, so when you take it out of the hot air, the exterior of the meat continues to pass heat down to the center. That's why your perfectly cooked Thanksgiving turkey is still dry. It continues to cook outside the oven.
Marion injected his chicken and, like Diva, put his chicken parts in a butter bath, and after it was cooked he deboned the breasts. The thighs appear to be cooked in the style popular on the circuit nowadays. They are deboned, the skin is pulled back but not off, the fat under the skin removed so the skin will crisp better, and the whole thing reassembled and tucked neatly into a little pillow. It is then braised in butter with the top of the pan open so some smoke can land on the skin, dunked in sauce, and the bottoms dipped in agave syrup. Says Marion "one can never add too much sweet to barbecue." This may be true when presenting to judges who get only one bite, but I like to serve my dessert after the main course, not after the appetizer.
Mixon was not impressed. "I got rubber band skin" he complained.
The family doctor was the designated loser this episode. There always seems to be one poor schlub who is clearly over his head. He didn't trim much off his loin and brined it for about two hours. Two hours in a brine is not going to penetrate very far into that thick piece of meat (click here to read the facts about brining). His rub has cinnamon in it, an unusual ingredient for pork barbecue, and a risk with judges who seem to have a fixed image in their minds of what they want. As I have discussed before, barbecue competitions have little room for creativity.
But his undoing was the dumbest move of the entire season. He wanted to show the judges that he can cook a half a chicken, white and dark meat, all as one piece, so he squeezed half a chicken into the presentation box. That meant the judges had to rip it apart with their fingers, some getting only white meat, some getting dark, complete with ragged strips of skin that came off in the first bite. Judge Stone said he'd never seen anything like it, and judge Myron said he "shoulda ate the parsley" with which he garnished his box.
At a glance
5 prelim rounds on Sundays, at 9 p.m. ET, finals on Sunday, July 8, on the Destination America channel (formerly Planet Green)
$50,000 prize, winner take all, and the title "Kingsford BBQ Pitmasters Grand Champion"
Here are links to my reviews of previous episodes:
Myron Mixon, winner of 180 grand championships as head of the Jack's Old South team, and author of a best selling barbecue book "Smokin' with Myron Mixon".
Tuffy Stone, past winner of BBQ Team of the Year and owner of three restaurants named Q
Aaron Franklin, owner of Franklin Barbecue in Austin, called the best in the nation by Bon Appetit magazine.
Judges scored each sample on a 10 point scale, on appearance, tenderness, and taste. Scores were weighted with 20% for appearance, 30% for tenderness, and 50% for taste.
So who is your pick for champion?
All text and some photos are Copyright (c) 2012 By Meathead, and all rights are reserved. For more of Meathead's writing, photos, recipes, and barbecue info please visit his website AmazingRibs.com and subscribe to his email newsletter, Smoke Signals.
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