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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Big Bad BBQ Battle: BBQ Brisket Battle (Fort Worth, TX)

When I started writing this blog in November 2012, it was little more than a personal hobby and a way for me to alleviate the pressures of a very demanding and stressful career. I never imagined that it would turn into anything serious, although in the back of my mind I always secretly hoped. After about two and a half years of blogging, I've reviewed many diverse forms of barbecue at nearly 175 different restaurants, food trucks, festivals, etc. across ten states and three continents. Just a drop in the bucket as far as I'm concerned, but a worthy accomplishment nonetheless.

In February 2015, I received an email from a New York-based production company, Back Roads Entertainment. They were starting up a new "Big Bad BBQ Battle" series for The Cooking Channel, and for some incredible reason they were interested in having me as one of the judges for their premiere episode in Fort Worth. Wait...what? Admittedly, my initial reaction was to ask myself, "Is this some sort of Internet scam?" Nope, completely real!

They were scheduled to film roughly a week and a half from when we first spoke, which wasn't a lot of advance notice. Even though my wife and I had moved from Dallas to Nashville about eight months prior, there was no way I would pass up the opportunity to judge a televised barbecue competition. Of course this meant I had a 1500-mile round trip ahead of me, but it also meant that I could stop for some Memphis barbecue along the way, have a quick visit with my in-laws in Little Rock, and catch up with some Dallas friends I'd left behind. Plus I could pick up a few sacks of B&B oak lump charcoal, so win-win.

The premise of Big Bad BBQ Battle is pretty straightforward: they were bringing down Shannon Ambrosio, a classically-trained chef from Brooklyn to compete against Cliff Payne, the 32-year veteran pitmaster of Cousin's BBQ in Fort Worth, in a head-to-head brisket showdown. Cousin's has been on Texas Monthly's last two lists of the "Top 50 BBQ Joints" in Texas (and by extension, the world), so this guy had his work cut out for him. Shannon operates the Come 'N Get It gourmet barbecue food truck up in NYC, so he does have some barbecue experience of his own, but would it be enough to take on a true master like Cliff?

Shannon's showdown with Cliff wouldn't really be a fair fight without first getting a lesson in Texas barbecue. They set up a training session with local pitmaster Jack Perkins over at Slow Bone in Dallas. Jack has had immense success in The Big D with his burger joint Maple & Motor, and since 2013 he's been absolutely crushing it in the barbecue arena as well. I think Will Fleischman of nearby Lockhart Smokehouse may have given Shannon some better insight into traditional Central Texas 'que, but I also don't know the rationale for the show's choice in mentors, so I won't criticize too much. After hanging out with Jack and getting some pointers, Shannon and his brother/teammate Big Rich were heading west across the Trinity to River Ranch in the Fort Worth Stockyards to meet up with Cliff and his daughter Shannon. No doubt these guys would be up smoking most of the night, but my presence wasn't required until 1:00pm, with the actual judging taking place closer to 3:00pm. Although I intended on arriving early to schmooze with the pitmasters and the other judges before the cameras started rolling, my plans were foiled by the winter weather and the general inability of us Texans to drive in light snow.

I suppose I should just be grateful that I made it at all. One of the other two judges was supposed to be Chef Tim Love of Fort Worth, but he cancelled at the last minute due to a family emergency, and the unpleasant weather may have played a role as well. The third judge was Catherine Downes, Online Assistant Dining Editor for D Magazine, who hadn't arrived yet either. Needless to say, they were happy to see me no matter how late I was. It took considerable effort not to laugh when they gleefully introduced me to the crew as The Barbecue Fiend. I believe the televised version of the show described me as a "top food blogger" as well. This isn't a claim which I have ever made, but I happily accepted their praise nonetheless.

The director wanted this to be a blind tasting, so we weren't allowed to go outside and observe the pitmasters in action. That part was a little disappointing, but I understood the reason for it. I grabbed one pre-show fajita just to stop my stomach from rumbling and then mostly putzed around with the production crew for a few hours until it was time for judging.

This was the first time I've ever seen a TV show being filmed, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Everybody was much more laid back than I anticipated. The production manager and I chatted a bit while the crew ate. They had a tentative May 31 air date, and ordinarily I suppose they'd try to make it seem like the cookoff was being filmed around that same time. Today, however, there was no hiding the solid white blanket of snow covering all of DFW. All you can do is address the weather early-on with a lighthearted joke and hope the home viewers move past it. Oh well, I'm sure the live bull and the ten-gallon-hat cowboy (Steve Murrin, the unofficial "Mayor of the Stockyards") would be enough of a distraction. They ended up nixing Steve's entire on-camera interview, which I think was a huge mistake. He had some really interesting stories to tell, and he delivered them with the kind of old-Texas panache that's hard to find nowadays.

All we were told in advance about the food was that it involved brisket and sides. Good enough for me. I anxiously watched while two unidentified plates of amazing barbecue were set before me, labeled only as "A" and "B". It wasn't all fun and games though. If you've never had two dozen people staring at you while you eat in complete silence, let me just say that it is incredibly awkward.

First up was the entry for Team A: brisket, broccoli salad, and beans.

Although this was supposed to be a blind tasting, the homestyle presentation of the Team A plate was a dead giveaway for Cousin's BBQ. The brisket also had certain Central Texas qualities to it which likely weren't the product of Yankee culinary skills. Here's a little behind-the-scenes secret: The final version of Big Bad BBQ Battle which aired on TV seemed to indicate that I found Cousin's brisket lacking in the flavor department, which I assume was done for entertainment value and to ensure that our comments matched up with the end result of the competition. To the contrary, the deep black bark contained a seasoning that, despite its simplicity, was bursting with flavor. This is my absolute favorite kind of brisket, since it doesn't mask the natural meat and it allows the spices that are present to really shine. I also found the meat to be very smoky, with a bright red smoke ring to match. The fattier portions of my brisket were quite tender, while the leaner portions were just a bit dry, but that's really my only complaint.

I wish the Team A sides had been as spectacular as the brisket. The beans were a little mushy and really didn't have much flavor at all. There was a slight hint of spiciness every now and then, but it faded quickly. [NOTE: I think my comments regarding Team A's bland beans ended up getting spliced onto the end of my televised brisket critique] Unlike the beans, the broccoli salad was excellent. The raisins gave this side a pleasant yet mild sweetness, while the nuts added a great crunchy texture. I believe my exact comment was, "The broccoli, I loved." Never before have I uttered those words, nor will I ever do so again. A few days after filming I discussed the show with my grandma, and I learned that she makes her broccoli salad almost exactly the same way as Team A did. Wow, talk about a missed opportunity for an awesome TV sound bite.

As much as I wanted to keep eating the first plate, it was time for Team B's entry: brisket, mac and cheese balls, and sauteed kale.

Even if I hadn't seen the other plate of food first for comparison, Team B's plate obviously had the sophistication of a trained chef rather than a Texas pitmaster. This brisket also had a nice dark crust, but no visible smoke ring. I couldn't taste any smoke either. What I did taste was a honey-like sweetness, almost like a rib glaze. Later I discovered that the brisket had been seasoned, injected, and glazed with some combination of honey, coffee, Guinness, and Jameson whiskey, although honey was by far the only noticeable flavor. I'm not a proponent of using flavor injections to enhance barbecue, which didn't seem to have accomplished much here anyway. Shannon also explained that his brisket had only been smoked for a few hours before being finished in the oven. That certainly explains the lack of smoke ring, but I've made brisket this way myself and still managed to produce a ton of smoke. The Team B brisket was tasty in general as a meat dish, though I'm not sure about it in terms of actual barbecue. According to Shannon's on-camera comments from the show, Texans strive to create a "juicy, fall-off-the-bone texture" in their brisket. I can't quite wrap my head around this statement, since a brisket has no bones to begin with (at least not the USDA-approved cut available for commercial purchase). Confusion aside, his brisket was definitely tender.

Interestingly, the batter on Team B's mac and cheese balls was crumbled ginger snap cookies, with cinnamon and nutmeg mixed right in. This combination of ingredients added a really delicious array of sweet flavors to the macaroni. It also created a pleasant crunchy texture, which was a nice contrast to the gooey cheese. On their own, the mac and cheese balls were amazing, but when served alongside the sweet brisket, it was just too much sugar for my liking. I'm not much of a vegetable person in general, so I mistakenly pegged the kale side dish as collard greens. They should be lucky I even know what kale is. Either way, I found it fairly bland with a bitter aftertaste. Dark greens tend to be a tad bitter in general, but these unpleasant flavors can usually be alleviated somewhat if the greens are blanched prior to being sauteed. I don't know whether or not Shannon blanched his kale before tossing it in the saute pan, I just know that I didn't like the end result.

Our judging points were to be assigned based simply on 1) Taste, 2) Texture, and 3) Appearance, rather than traditional barbecue criteria. Personally, I don't think that the meat and the side dishes should carry equal weight in terms of the competitors' total scores. It was a barbecue competition after all. Cooking some tasty macaroni and cheese isn't even half as difficult as smoking a good brisket, but that wasn't my call to make. The judging sheet I was given also required me to score the side dishes together, rather than individually. I had initially created two separate columns and gave the sides individual points, but I was told to go back and combine them. Since each plate had one good and one poor side dish, this forced me to estimate an average for the two. Additionally, I believe that there was too much of an emphasis on appearance and plating. I've given solid five-star ratings to barbecue joints that serve meat wrapped in butcher paper and sides in little styrofoam cups. Even Shannon's Texas mentor, Jack Perkins at Slow Bone, plates his food on what are essentially modified cafeteria trays.

Nevertheless, I assigned my points as instructed, and in the end Cliff's awesome brisket and Shannon's tasty macaroni balls resulted in an even tie from me. My fellow judge was apparently more partial to Shannon's food (particularly the mac and cheese) than I was, so her scores gave him the three-point edge he needed to win the battle. If Cousin's beans had been less mushy, more flavorful, and plated better, Cliff would have easily come out on top. It seems pretty ridiculous that Cliff lost a barbecue cookoff because of his beans rather than his brisket, but I digress. The final version of the show which aired seems to have officially trimmed this competition down to "brisket and one side dish," even though each plate of food clearly had two sides on it. It looks like they should have used my individual side dish scores after all. I'm not sure if this would have affected the end result, but we'll never know.

Both of these guys did a tremendous job, no matter the outcome. After the judging, Shannon explained to me that people in New York are so unaccustomed to tasting smoke in barbecue that their palates usually find those flavors very unappealing. I can appreciate that his food is geared toward his specific customer base, but that's really just an explanation rather than an excuse. Even though I'm still not sure that New Yorkers know what real barbecue is, Shannon had some interesting twists on traditional 'que. I think his win was more about culinary innovation in general than it was about barbecue prowess. Regardless, he should be proud of the meal he created, as should Cliff.

Public speaking doesn't usually intimidate me too much, but having to voice my opinions on the fly was much harder and much more stressful than I expected. Mrs. Barbecue Fiend's only advice was "Be yourself, don't be douchey." Although that's great advice for just about any situation, I was still a bit nervous. I'm used to going home, reviewing notes, writing, and reading over everything before I post. This was completely different, and in the end I feel like I wasn't nearly as eloquent on camera as I wanted to be. As much as I would love to have met Chef Tim Love, I'm actually a little glad that he didn't show. Undoubtedly he would have made me look even more amateurish than I'm sure I did already.

I'd love to judge more episodes for Big Bad BBQ Battle, but I don't know if that's in the cards. Based on my after-the-fact Internet research, it appears that this "series" has been reduced down to a two-episode television special. No matter what, I'm completely ecstatic that I was given this amazing opportunity, and I'm incredibly grateful to The Cooking Channel, Executive Producer Colby Gaines and Casting AP Jessica Gill of Back Roads Entertainment, Co-Executive Producer/Director Todd Broder, production manager John Wilcox, and all of the hardworking members of the production crew. Most importantly, I'd like to thank Shannon Ambrosio and Cliff Payne. Without their hard work and commitment to barbecue despite the freezing temperatures outside, none of this would have been possible. Well done guys, well done.

UPDATE (June 7, 2016): Despite my initial predictions regarding the future of Big Bad BBQ Battle, there appears to have been enough buzz about the show for The Cooking Channel to resurrect it. However, this iteration has taken the form of "Big Bad BBQ Brawl". I'm not sure why they felt that a name change was necessary, but I am glad that the network brought it back either way.

Along with its new name, Big Bad BBQ Battle/Brawl has undergone a slight format change. Rather than showcasing and learning from other local pitmasters, there was much more of a focus on Shannon and his brother Big Rich, who now took their samples and tips directly from their impending competition. In this episode, Shannon's barbecue sandwich throw-down to the guys at Murky Waters Blues & BBQ in Gulfport, Mississippi specifically included a side dish that was both sweet and savory. No doubt that was meant to play right to Shannon's strengths, given the sweet mac and cheese balls that he served me as a side dish during the premiere episode last year. I also find it interesting that they did away with the second side dish requirement that the show was so eager to hide during the premiere's post-production editing.

Shannon's barbecue sandwich of choice was hardly what I'd call barbecue: a smoked roast beef poboy topped with cornmeal fried Gulf shrimp. In order to mimic roast beef as closely as possible, Shannon only smoked his hunk of beef (which he then started calling prime rib rather than roast beef) long enough to achieve medium rare. Murky Waters, on the other hand, served up a delectable double-decker sandwich of pork shoulder and barbecue chicken, with a thick slice of Texas toast right in the middle! Obviously I didn't have the opportunity to eat either of these offerings, but I can definitely tell you which one I would have picked, and it's not the surf-and-turf.

The sides were about what I would have expected from these two teams. Shannon and Big Rich concocted some sweet and spicy pork rinds, using a spicy Tabasco honey of Shannon's own design. Murky Waters took their standard barbecue nachos and sweetened them up with baked beans and a sugary barbecue sauce. Each side dish had its charm, albeit in vastly different ways. If they both tasted as good as they looked, I'm sure it would be a dead heat for the judges.

Neither of the two judges were exactly barbecue experts (although one was in fact a local chef, his co-judge was a radio host), which appears to be a running theme for Big Bad BBQ Battle/Brawl. That being said, these folks didn't consider Shannon's sandwich to be a poboy any more than they found it representative of barbecue. Conversely, they seemed to really enjoy the savory smoke and tender, juicy meat to be found in Murky Waters' double-decker. As I anticipated, the judges appeared to think equally highly of both side dishes. Reminiscent of my own judging experience, the judge with the lowest degree of barbecue credentials favored Shannon's quasi-barbecue to the extent that an even tie was declared, forcing a tiebreaker vote by the onlooking crowd (who, based on what I observed behind the scenes last year, could very well have been members of the production crew). I thought for sure things were going to lean Shannon's way again, but Murky Waters emerged victorious, as well they should have. It was a barbecue competition after all, and if you're not going to cook actual barbecue, you shouldn't expect a win. Nonetheless, it's nice to see Shannon and Big Rich back in action. Who knows, maybe they'll make a Nashville episode someday, for which I'd be more than happy to offer my amateur judging services.


Big Bad BBQ Battle
"BBQ Brisket Battle"
May 31, 2015

Shannon Ambrosio
Come n' Get It Gourmet BBQ
Brooklyn, NY (various locations)
(917) 939-0743
(201) 725-6787

Cliff Payne
Cousin's BBQ
6262 McCart Ave
Fort Worth, TX 76133
(817) 346-2511

Back Roads Entertainment
7 Pennsylvania Plaza
Suite 1105
New York, NY 10001
(646) 360-2592

The Cooking Channel
9721 Sherrill Blvd
Knoxville, TN 37932
(865) 694-2700

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