Messing with BBQ: The Evolution of BBQ Pitmasters

There are many ways to make BBQ and even more opinions on sauces and side dishes. Yet, regardless of geographic allegiance the one key to making good barbecue that everyone agrees on is “don’t mess with it.” Dress the meat however you want, put it on the smoker and then leave it alone.

That mantra hasn’t been part of the production of BBQ Pitmasters – a show that began on TLC in late 2009. Now in it’s 4th season, the show has undergone significant changes each year. What started as a reality show following some of America’s best BBQ chefs to competitions around the country has morphed into a more familiar competitive cooking show in the vein of Chopped. While constant changes and tinkering with the format might signal a show that has lost its way, BBQ Pitmasters has emerged from its growing pains with quite possibly the best format in competition cooking. So how did this happen?

The first season of the show was like reality television 101. The show introduced six teams of BBQ pitmasters and had all the “characters” that you expect. There was the rockstar – Miron Mixon, the winnngest man in BBQ, the old respected legend – Johnny Trigg, and then plenty of non-traditional BBQ teams trying to make a name for themselves. These included Tuffy Stone, a classically trained chef now competing in BBQ, Lee Ann Whippen, representing the small but growing number of women leading their own pits, and Harry Soo, a weekend BBQ pitmaster from California.

Each episode followed the teams competing at prestigious BBQ festivals around the country among dozens of other competitors. The episodes broke down into teams arriving, cooking and then judging. For fans of the one hour BBQ specials that Food Network used to produce it was a revelation, and while there were plenty of social moments and “reality issues” with the show, the festivals and food shined. While the teams and their interactions were interesting, anyone tuning in was there to gauge the smoke rings on briskets rather than pass judgment on if someone was trying to steal a cooking technique.

Of special note is the season finale, which saw all of the pitmasters invited to the home of Johnny Trigg for a special competition, which featured the pitmasters actually watching the judges’ reactions, a wrinkle that would become part of the show’s evolution.

For whatever reason, this format only lasted one season. When Season 2 began, gone was the reality style, and in its place was a BBQ cooking competition that resembled the format used for Johnny Trigg’s challenge in the season 1 finale. The only holdover from Season 1 was Mixon, who served as the lead judge along with Chef Art Smith, and former NFL player Warren Sapp. Kevin Roberts served as the host of the show.

In each episode four pitmasters would compete in a classic BBQ category, with a second, more exotic protein usually included that had to be turned in first. Half-way through the episode one pitmaster would be eliminated based on the exotic challenge and the remaining three would complete their meals and try to earn a spot in the finale.

Judging took place face to face with the judges, tasting and commenting on the entries one at a time. Some of the other pitmasters from Season 1 did appear as contestants, including Johnny Trigg who made the finale.

The season lasted just six episodes, with the five winners from the previous episodes meeting in the finale for $100,000. In many ways this version of the show was again steeped in the cliches and format of most cooking competition shows. While the bbq watching aspect was still present, it wasn’t all that exciting. Also, it seemed that in a BBQ competition, where cooking the meals required long periods of time, that eliminating people while they still had meat cooking was weird and wrong.

Starting with season 3, the show moved over to “Destination America” and again the format got a tweak. Tuffy Stone returned as a permanent judge with Mixon and Aaron Franklin, a top bbq man based out of Texas. Finally the show began to embrace more of the tradition of BBQ and actually infuse it into the show. Each episode took place at a different, real BBQ competition site, around the country, with pitmasters focusing on delivering meals that fit with the prominent bbq of the particular location. The format was also changed to only include three teams, and did away with any sort of mid-episode elimination nonsense.

In another move, that was reminiscent of the season 1 finale, the competitors would sit and watch the judges eat and discuss their meals via television set. The voyeuristic element gave the chance for the competitors to provide their own commentary on each others dishes, while also gleaning some insight from the judges’ reactions and comments.

It also keeps the show moving since we don’t have the awkward pauses and exchanges between judge and competitor, the judges can simply roll into the next dish, but we can still see and hear the competitor’s reactions.

Season 3 and 4 have been mostly the same, though in season 4 Mixon and Stone are the only two permanent judges, with other BBQ luminaries rotating into the third judges spot each episode.  The only other real change has been a stronger commitment to having each episode location dictate the food that is being served, such as pork picnic in Georgia, or brisket and cowboy steak challenges in Texas.

The judges do a great job of providing commentary throughout the episode to explain what the traditional versions of each meal would look like and even some chatter on how they would go about preparing a particular protein.

One of the more interesting changes to the format in the latter two seasons has been the removal of the host, opting to have judges like Mixon and Stone take on the role of explaining the rules and special challenges. In season 2, Kevin Roberts served as the MC of the show, standing around helping to count down chefs and calling our relatively useless tidbits during the competition. Somewhere a producer realized that it was dumb having a host for a cooking show when you have charismatic judges who do most of the talking anyway.

In fact, more shows would be improved by the removal of hosts who do little more than provide witticisms and remind chefs to watch the clock. (Note: this does not apply to Ted Allen, Gail Simmons or Padma, we love them all and want them to come hang out and cook with us)

It is unclear exactly why the show took on such drastic changes season to season (a request to interview a producer from the show by Castles & Cooks was not returned). While we might say they were messing with BBQ, the better analogy might be that they were trimming the fat over time. It may have taken three seasons and some significant tinkering, but BBQ Pitmasters has become the best cooking competition on television and is trying things that many other shows ought to look into, or perhaps aren’t willing to embrace. Whatever the reason or the method, this BBQ is can’t miss and on point.

The first two seasons of BBQ Pitmasters are available on Netflix.