Smoke Signals: Art Smith and 'Pitmasters'
Last spring, the docu-reality program followed barbecue masters (pit-estants?) at various cookoffs around the country. The new version shifts to an "Top Chef"-esque head-to-head competition arbitrated by a three-judge panel. The winner will take home $100,000.
The barbesphere is fired up. Bloggers blast the more generic format. They question the choice of moderator, a San Diego sports-bar owner named Kevin Roberts. Some criticize the choice of judges. Blustery competition barbecue champ Myron Mixon, okay. But retired defensive lineman Warren Sapp? And fine-dining restaurateur Art Smith?
Smith is the Chicago-cum-DC chef/owner of Washington’s Art and Soul. While not a barbecue joint, it does at least focus on Southern cuisine. The James Beard Award-winning cookbook author, longtime personal chef to Oprah Winfrey and food-TV veteran, Smith talked to me about his role on the show, the on-air fireworks and the importance of a good coleslaw:
Jim Shahin: So, OK, how did this come about?
Art Smith: After I did "Top Chef Masters," (I learned that TV is) not about winning, it’s about being memorable. A lot of America loved me on screen. Because of that, TLC reached out to me. TLC said, "We like your personality." Personality and, my whole schtick is comfort food. On television, I’m always the nice one. I’ve been kicked off "Top Chef Masters." I know what it’s like.
JS: What about the barbecue part?
AS: I’m no barbecue aficionado like Myron Mixon. Barbecue masters have their own language, about smoke rings and bark and all that. Myron knows all that. I don’t. But I do know taste.
JS: You’ve no doubt heard griping about the format change of the show. What are your thoughts about that?
AS: As Winston Churchill said, to have no enemies is to have nothing that you stood for. It just tells you how successful the show is. To own a restaurant is to accept that not everyone is going to love you.
I think TLC understands what they’re doing. It all goes back to being on the same page about people understanding what’s good barbecue. America wants to see who makes the best barbecue. That’s what this show is about.
JS: Myron Mixon was on the Barbecue Radio Show last week. Did you hear him?
JS: He was talking about how you kept going on about coleslaw and how people don’t go to barbecue places for the slaw.
AS: Barbecue, to me, is all about the little details. Sides are one of the details. To me, the sides can take it over the edge. What a side shows to me is whether a person can really cook. We have had a lot of coleslaw, and a lot of it is awful. When it is crunchy and sweet and complements the meat, it makes a huge difference.
One of the most fantastic things I had was a barbecue peach, and the difference it made with the barbecue was really delicious. To me, the sides are the shareable part of the table and create this music, this rhythm. Barbecue is a festive event.
JS: Have you been to a barbecue cookoff?
AS: No. But I’m planning to go to some. But I think I like the fact that I haven’t, so I’m not familiar with the champions. On the show, you see some very major rigs. But a true master doesn’t have to have these giant rigs. That’s the show. That’s the circus. And people love a circus. But you can cook great if you dig a whole in the ground.
JS: What is your favorite type of barbecue? Brisket, pulled pork, ribs, what?
AS: I love pulled pork. The secret to great pulled pork is to get a great bark on it, as Myron says. Get some char. A good rub (is important). Many times what I’ll do is add ground coffee into my rub, which imparts a certain flavor. What I found is that today’s barbecue pitmasters are using all types of different ingredients and maybe not traditional, but they’re taking them over the edge.
JS: Besides coffee, can you give me an example?
AS: There’s one master who perfected his glaze, like a fine lacquer. Others use apple juice as an injection. Different ones have a different desire of smokiness.
What I found interesting is that I anticipated more spice, but I don’t know what the feeling was that the spice would overwhelm the judges or what. But Warren and I, spice makes us dance.
JS: Speaking of Warren Sapp, give me a sneak preview of the chemistry between the three judges.
AS: You’ll see, there’s a lot of there’s a certain element we all bring. Myron was born into that culture. Warren Sapp, he’s a football player, a sweet and lovely guy. He gives just a real and honest description. He’s not going to go into some long explanation And there’s me from the culinary to keep Myron in place. All I can tell ya is that it’s good that Warren was there to keep us apart or there’d be an ass kickin’.
-- Jim Shahin