Five Reasons Why This Season of “BBQ Brawl” Was Must-See TV

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Monk: During the past nine weeks, season two of Food Network’s BBQ Brawl provided the perfect summer show for fans of barbecue and grilling looking to get their fix on television. I would go so far as to say it was even “must see,” when very few network BBQ TV shows seem that way these days.

This season of BBQ Brawl featured a new co-host with chef Eddie Jackson, who joined Bobby Flay and Michael Symon as hosts and team captains. Flay, Jackson, and Symon picked among 12 contestants to be on their respective teams, and each week, one contestant was sent home. Then it was down to just three barbecuers for the exciting finale last week.

Here are five reasons why this season of BBQ Brawl was must-see TV.

Legit Barbecue Talent

While the first season had heavyweights such as eventual winner Lee Ann Whippen as well as the likes of Kevin Bludso, Carey Bringle, and Tuffy Stone competing, the second season didn’t quite have the same star power. But there’s no denying the barbecue bonafides of many of the contestants.

The first contestant to go home, Christina Fitzgerald, is involved with Sugarfire Smoke House, which started in St. Louis, Missouri, and is now up to 15 locations across the southern and midwestern US after a recent expansion to Dallas, Texas and Jacksonville, Florida.

Speaking of St. Louis, David Sandusky (one of the three finalists) is also from The Gateway to the West. He is the owner and pitmaster of BEAST Craft BBQ Company, which regularly shows up on “Best of” lists for that famed barbecue city. Notably, Sandusky has opened two additional BEAST Craft restaurants in the St. Louis area, and all three have received accolades.

Fellow finalist Ara Malekian is the owner and pitmaster behind Harlem Road Texas BBQ in Richmond, Texas, which is a small town about 30 minutes southwest of Houston. Shortly after the restaurant opened in 2018, Texas Monthly BBQ Editor Daniel Vaughn called Harlem Road Texas BBQ “worth the journey” from Houston, particularly for the beef rib which Malekian modeled after Louie Mueller.

Contestant Christopher Prieto opened Prime Barbecue in Knightdale, NC (15 miles east of Raleigh) in May 2020 after years of careful planning. I was a big fan of the food and beautifully decorated building during a media event pre-opening, and I need to make the trip back. Prime Barbecue sells out nearly every day and is doing a great job feeding the locals.

Oh, and let’s not forget famed pitmaster Rodney Scott as one of the judges. Not too much more needs to be said about the budding barbecue empire-builder that hasn’t already been said in countless podcasts, interviews, profiles, as well as his episode on Netflix’s Chef’s Table: BBQ episode. Scott brought BBQ star power to the judges’ table.

Real Challenges

Other competition shows like Chopped: Grill Masters feature pitmasters cooking in a kitchen with pre-smoked or pre-grilled ingredients. BBQ Brawl, on the other hand, was all live fire with the fun and drama that comes with cooking in the elements at the Star Hill Ranch outside of Austin.

For instance, Christopher Prieto had a chili mishap when the rocks of his campfire shifted from beneath the chili pot, spilling most but not all of his pot but unfortunately imparting a bitter smoke flavor to the chill. He managed to avoid going home that week, lucky for him.

Other contestants often encountered issues when they were assigned to cook some sort of dessert because of the unevenness of the heat when cooking over fire and coals. That is, other than the more classically-trained chefs in Taylor Carroll or Ara Malekian, who seemed to have little issue.

Then there’s David Sandusky, who seemingly majored in time mismanagement even while making it to the finale. The number of times he had to pivot his dish due to the live-fire not cooperating with his cooks could not be counted on one hand. Of course, this made for great TV as we never knew whether he was going to finish his food before the clock expired.

Representation of Women

This season, exactly half of the twelve contestants were women as well as two out of the final four. Contestants such as Lu Holter of Hudson, Wisconsin, Taylor Shulman Carroll of Southern Belle BBQ in Atlanta, and Brittani Bo Baker of Bubba’s Q Food Trucks in Tampa may not have won but they did well while making deep runs into the competition. 

Brittani was arguably the hottest contestant for much of the second half of the season, earning her the honor of being the first contestant stolen when Team Eddie got down to one contestant and stole her from Team Michael. When her time was up just before the finale, judge Brooke Wiliamson thanked her for representing women as well as she did.

Oh and did I mention that the winner and “Master of Cue” was also a woman? Erica Blaire Roby of Dayton, Ohio absolutely caught fire at the right time and got Bobby Flay his second win in as many seasons of the show. Blaire is a former lawyer and sommelier and now will have a significantly higher profile in the food world. I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next in her reign as “Master of Cue” and the Food Network Digital deal that comes along with it.

Overall Presentation

If I’m being honest, Food Network shows aren’t always known for their production quality. Thankfully, BBQ Brawl as a TV show took a step up in production in season two, notably in set design, cooking montages, and music.

In terms of judges, season one of BBQ Brawl featured an all-star barbecue panel in Amy Mills, Chris Lilly, and Moe Cason while season two mixed it up to great effect. The aforementioned Rodney Scott filled out the barbecue role on the panel while Top Chef: Charleston winner Brooke Williamson could intelligently critique the more technical details of the food.

And love him or hate him, Carson Kressley of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy fame added levity to the seriousness of competitions with his bubbly demeanor and sometimes-groan-inducing-but-nevertheless-clever puns.

You Can Actually Try the Contestants’ Food

Watching food competitions is one thing, but being able to taste the food from the show is even better.

In episode four “Gameday BBQ,” Prieto created what he called his “Triple Threat Wings” that are smoked, fried, and then finished on the grill. These wings actually won the advantage challenge for Team Eddie and now they are a Wednesday special at Prieto’s Prime Barbecue in Knightdale, North Carolina.

Ara Malekian smoked his famous beef rib in the finale, which wowed the judges. You can taste for yourself at Harlem Road Texas BBQ in Richmond, Texas.

You can also try a giant 30 oz. version of David Sandusky’s pork steak from the finale at Beast Craft BBQ in St. Louis, Missouri.

All in all, BBQ Brawl certainly fit the description of “must see TV” this summer for barbecue fans. In an era when very little TV is truly “must see” due to splintered audiences across network, cable, and the ever-growing number of streaming platforms, this was one show I consistently tuned in live week to week. I have yet to see whether Food Network has renewed it for a season 3, but I certainly hope we have some more BBQ Brawl to look forward to next summer.

What was your favorite part of BBQ Brawl Season 2? Are you hoping for a season 3?

Recap: BBQ Brawl S2E9 – “Future ‘Cue” & S2E10 – “Master of ‘Cue”

Monk: In a bit of a change of pace, I’m going to try my hand at TV recapping for the second season of BBQ Brawl, which airs for *checks notes* 10 episodes *gulp* on Monday nights at 9pm ET on Food Network. 10 episodes? Well let’s see how this goes…

Well barbe-cuties, it’s come down to this. After nine weeks and 10 episodes, the successful second season of BBQ Brawl came to a conclusion this week with a double episode season finale. Who will outlast the other competitors to win the title of “Master of Cue” and get a Food Network Digital deal? Will it be the quiet assassin Ara, his teammate David the Beast, the arguable MVP contestant from the second half of the season Brittani, or the resurgent Erica? Only one way to find out…

On what looks to be a very cold Texas day, Eddie announces that the advantage challenge is a “Classics Remixed” for the contestants to add smoke to a dish that normally doesn’t have it. So a chance to show some creativity in their dishes.

This advantage would be big for Team Bobby and Team Eddie because if one of them loses in the team challenge, then they are officially out of the competition. It seems after losing his number 1 draft pick last week in Christopher, Eddie is still feeling out the working relationship with Brittani. Which is a little odd, because she has proved herself time and time again, particularly when she was still on Team Michael.

In the end, Erica’s grilled peaches and cream with smoked nuts beats out Ara’s cold smoked ceviche, David’s smoked spaghetti and meatballs, and Brittani’s “angeled” (not deviled) eggs with blackened shrimp. That gives Team Bobby a head start in the “A Whole New ‘Cue” challenge to create a new style of barbecue in 2 hours. This will really be an individual challenge for each contestant to showcase their own version of what the future of barbecue is.

Erica’s “Heritage Feast” combines Moroccan and Cuban flavors, the two parts of her heritage. The mojo pork tenderloin was nicely cooked by Bobby and is “the perfect bite” according to Brooke. Her Moroccan-rubbed chicken playing off a tagine is tasty, while both her carrots in North African spices with yogurt and Moroccan-spiced oranges get plaudits.

Brittani’s “fruity cue” will have a fruit component in each dish. She goes with surf and turf but her citrus-poached lobster tail that isn’t quite fruit forward enough and her charred pork chops with peach barbecue sauce that is tasty but a little overdone. Her pasta salad is “a little basic” while her ambrosia salad with smoked apples and pineapples doesn’t wow the judges either.

Ara combines fine dining techniques with old school barbecue for his platter. His lavender lamb chops that were cooked sous vide then grilled lacks the lavender punch and the Asian seafood stew is flavorful if not a little overcrowded with too many flavors. Ara finishes with a grilled red cabbage salad with smoked trumpet mushrooms.

David believes that direct grilling with sustainable ingredients is the future of barbecue. Like Ara, he also does lamb chops but direct grills them by adding height to a kamado cooker with a metal ingredient basket. I’m not sure how much this actually changes the direct grilling dynamic that removing the deflector plate from the kamado cooker doesn’t already accomplish, but he’s feeling good about it. The judges love his smoked roasted carrot with fish sauce but his grilled calamari with charred kale isn’t cooked all the way through, resulting in a rubbery calamari. His “trumpet mushrooms pulled pork” gets dinged for not being anywhere close to tasting like pulled pork despite a similar texture.

Team Bobby is named first (again) which means Erica is going to the finale! Then, in a slight twist, Carson notifies the remaining three contestants that they are all in the bottom and have to go to the judges shed. After briefly recounting each remaining contestant’s journey and some of the issues in their dishes, Brittani goes home but not before getting props for representing women in barbecue.

Bells for Brittani, the Floridian steamroller who is only going to get better as she increases her confidence.

And with that, I am looking forward to next week’s…wait what? That’s right, we’re rolling right into the season finale! Double header, baby.

Bobby and Michael are no longer mentors. For this finale, they are sous chefs for the 6 hour “No Rules” challenge. But in addition to dinner, there will be two more unscheduled challenges along the way.

David’s mind goes right to pork steaks, which makes sense for someone from St. Louis. Ara of course goes with Texas beef ribs and wants to put Richmond, Texas on the map with a win. Erica confidently decides to do ribs with blackberry barbecue made with her dad’s competition rib rub.

A little over an hour and a half in, the judges are hungry for a burger so call a 20 minute burger challenge with Eddie joining the judges for the tasting and drinking while abstaining from any actual judging.

Ara and David initially start out both doing smash burgers while Erica is doing a Greek wagyu burger topped with feta and tzatziki. David, once again with his timing issues, eventually pivots to a backyard grilled burger. And that ends up working in his favor, and he gets the “W.” Meaning he gets to pick the judging order which will be: 1. Erica 2. Ara 3. David.

David seems to think going last will be in his favor, but the judges wonder if going first and being able to set a high bar might have been the move. Nevertheless, the contestants continue with their cooks…

A couple hours later, Brooke announces the second challenge is a loaded bake potato challenge with the winner getting Eddie as a sous chef for 30 minutes. Erica’s delicious-sounding Italian loaded baked potato in a fried potato skin reigns supreme and she puts Eddie right to work.

For the final round of judging in BBQ Brawl season 2, the judges, mentors, and three remaining contestants all sit down to a table and eat everyone’s food together. A nice touch.

Erica kicks it off with her “Louisiana southern comfort food” with every dish having a Louisiana or southern connection. Blackened snapper with shrimp creole, beer can chicken with Cajun fire hot sauce, and competition ribs with blackberry BBQ sauce are her proteins and it seems as if the ribs are a huge hit. Her corn maque choux wth fried okra has a nice textural change up, while her Spanish lemon zest almond torte finishes off the meal nicely. I do believe she has set the proverbial high bar.

Ara goes next with a meal he would cook for his friends at this restaurant with a beef rib, smoked half chicken, smoked cauliflower, Vietnamese green papaya salad, and a bread pudding with bourbon caramel sauce. While Ara clearly impresses with his Texas beef rib, he may have counted on that a little too much as his other dishes don’t quite hit the mark. For instance, the bourbon caramel sauce on his bread pudding is a little on the sweet side, says Rodney.

With this final meal, David wants the judges to know where he comes from and his story through his food. He goes with reverse-seared pork steak, direct smoked chuck eye prime rib, creamed corn with okra, deep fried Brussel sprouts, and corn pudding with peaches. The pork steak is on the dry side but his chuck eye gets some praise. His Brussels may have sat in the vinegar a little too long and at that point I wonder if he regrets going last.

After the meal, the judges step away from the table to deliberate but I have to say that its Erica’s competition to lose from my perspective. Ara in second and David third on my scorecard.

The judges return and announce that the winner of BBQ Brawl and the “Master of Cue” is…Erica!

She is speechless and gracious in victory. Bobby admires her ability to keep her cool which really showed on the screen throughout the season (particularly in dealing with her teammate Terry). I’ll have more thoughts next week but considering the streak she was on, its no surprise to me that she came out on top in the finale.

Congrats to Erica Blaire, and we are looking forward to seeing how your reign goes.

What was your favorite part of BBQ Brawl season 2? Are you hoping for a season 3?

Recap: BBQ Brawl S2E8 – “BBQ Around the World”

Monk: In a bit of a change of pace, I’m going to try my hand at TV recapping for the second season of BBQ Brawl, which airs for *checks notes* 10 episodes *gulp* on Monday nights at 9pm ET on Food Network. 10 episodes? Well let’s see how this goes…

While we think of barbecue as primarily an American cuisine, there are live fire traditions all over the world, and this week “BBQ Brawl” aims to explore them a little. How deep or superficial will that be? Only one way to find out…

Just five competitors left, and much like Team Eddie last week, Team Bobby is now down to one player and gets to steal a player from another team. Bobby’s thought about it and…decides to not steal anyone. He’s good with Erica as his sole contestant and she is heartened by his faith in her.

Bobby then announces this week’s Advantage Challenge – an “International Tortilla Challenge” where each contestant has to make his/her best international barbecue dish with a tortilla in 30 minutes.

Brittani is named best dish on Team Eddie for her Caribbean fish taco (overcoming the unintentional almost-sabotage from her captain Eddie) and David’s gamble to use naan instead of a tortilla pays off for Team Michael. Erica “wins” for Team Bobby (duh) and then even gets named as best dish overall.

Erica’s advantage means that instead of spinning the “Wheel of Cue” to determine what cuisine his team will cook, Eddie gets his choice and goes with “Caribbean.” Michael spins and gets “Japanese ” and finally Eddie gets “Southern American.” Two hours on the clock and the contestants are off to the pantry.

The teams game plan and Team Bobby looks to be in great shape with Erica’s Caribbean heritage. Team Michael may struggle with Japanese even if Ara spent time in Japan and worked at a sushi restaurant and I’m not sure how intimately Team Eddie knows the South American barbecue cuisine other than “meat on a grill.”

Those dynamics more or less seem to pan out during the cooks. Erica and Bobby are calm while David’s issues with time management rear their ugly head as his ramen broth is bland and he has to call in Michael at the last minute to help out. Hopefully Ara’s cold smoked salmon will keep them afloat. Team Eddie have all their meats going and don’t seem to have too many cooking issues, so perhaps I underestimated them on this challenge.

Team Bobby’s “Caribbean BBQ” platter has Erica’s Jamaican grilled snapper with lime chili butter, her moros y cristianos (beans and rice), and Bobby’s jerk rubbed pork that could use more oomph. Bobby’s rum punch spritz is well balanced with the champagne cutting the sweetness of the rum, and the judges are appreciative as always for a bevvie.

For Team Eddie’s “South American BBQ” platter, Brittani has two chicken dishes – Peruvian and Argentinian – with Peru scoring points over Argentina. Christopher’s flank steak’s is cooked perfectly, particularly with the chimichurri topping (a “perfect bite” according to Brooke), but the texture of his chorizo sausage casing is a little rubbery, much to Christopher’s visible chagrin.

Finally, Team Michael is up with their “Japanese BBQ” platter. Ara’s cold smoked tuna sashimi misses with the judges due to its over-smokiness and earthiness of the togarashi spice rub. David’s yakitori chicken which was grilled over a charcoal chimney is “yumitori” but his pork ramen broth is lacking flavor due to the condensed timeframe of the challenge. Finally, Michael’s hibachi style ribeye seared over live coals is one of the best steaks some of the judges ahve had in a while, perhaps ever.

Bobby’s faith in Erica pays off as they are the first safe team. Team Michael is next, so that means either Christopher or Brittani are going home. I have a bad feeling about Christopher…

Brittani went 1 for 2 on her chickens while Christopher also hits .500 on his flank steak and chorizo dishes. Christopher gets the axe and unsurprisingly he disagrees with the judges decision, saying they “didn’t get it right this time” and that he believes “he was the one who could have gone all the way to the end.”

Bells for Christopher, the cocky “barbecue nerd, ” #1 draft pick, and sole North Carolinian this season…

FINAL Christopher Prieto Watch

Christopher goes home this week. While he came out strong in the initial challenge, his track record has really been mixed since then. Tonight, he loses the tortilla challenge within his team to Brittani and then while they both have issues in the Team Challenge it seems as if he goes home for his chewy chorizo casing. Brooke says she learned a lot from him and can’t wait to see what he does next. Faithful readers will know that’s the successful Prime Barbecue in Knightdale, which we previewed in 2020 and recently got a favorable writeup by Daniel Vaughn of Texas Monthly.

What was your favorite part of episode 8 of BBQ Brawl season 2? Leave your response in the comments and be sure to check back next week for a recap of episode 9.

Recap: BBQ Brawl S2E7 – “Seafood Showdown”

Monk: In a bit of a change of pace, I’m going to try my hand at TV recapping for the second season of BBQ Brawl, which airs for *checks notes* 10 episodes *gulp* on Monday nights at 9pm ET on Food Network. 10 episodes? Well let’s see how this goes…

Note: I’ve corrected the episode numbers on this and all other recaps after getting tripped up whether the super-sized premiere was considered one or two episodes. Nonetheless, we should be good to go now.

After a bit of trash talk between the team captains, we are reminded that Team Eddie is down to one contestant and now gets to steal a competitor from either Team Bobby or Team Michael to join Christopher. Eddie chooses Brittani from Team Michael, who he says “has been on fire” the past few weeks. Michael bemoans losing such a strong competitor.

Eddie then chooses the next Advantage Challenge: grilled oysters. He is a Houston resident and thus is feeling confident going in for this captains challenge, but Bobby also feels comfortable with grilled oysters. Michael perhaps less so.

Eddie’s New Orleans-style chargrilled oysters with lump crab meat beats out Michael’s Asian-influenced oysters with Cleveland caviar (pickled mustard seeds) and Bobby’s grilled oyster with smoked shrimp and compound butter. So his confidence going in works out for him, and he gets his team an advantage in the seafood challenge of having the ability to steal mystery ingredients from other teams Dirty Santa-style. He takes the king crab legs from Team Michael, leaving them with the octopus. Team Bobby gets to keep their salmon.

Each team has to use their ingredient in each of their dishes in the “Seafood Showdown,” which is an abbreviated 90 minutes long. Turns out the octopus doesn’t bother Michael or this team at all and each of the contestants seem to have a background with it. The other teams look comfortable with their ingredient, so this week it will all come down to execution.

In order of judging:

Team Eddie goes with a crab theme for their platter. Eddie himself grills crab legs and tops with a gremolata. This was a big hit with the judges. Christopher’s plantain tostone with crab guisado (crab and tomato stew) is not as crab forward as judges would have hoped so looks like he won’t be in the running for top dish. Brittani’s grilled crab with sambal and spicy corn is good once the judges are able to combine all ingredients onto a forkful but her beer battered crab nuggets get dinged for not being grilled or smoked. Kind of important when it comes to a barbecue show, notes Rodney Scott.

Team Michael deals with the octopus in a Texas-meets-Mediterranean themed meal. Michael’s burnt flour and squid ink pasta with octopus sauce gets praise from judges for his technique in getting smoke into pasta. Ara’s braised octopus with lardons is on the chewy side, and David’s Spanish octopus stew gets dinged for using some of the same octopus from Ara which results in two different octopus textures in the dish.

Team Bobby’s “salmon three ways on the grill” starts with Bobby’s charred green curry salmon with crispy cowboy rice gets rave reviews from the judges. Bobby clearly was at ease cooking salmon in this challenge. Taylor’s salmon pinwheel with gochujang sauce and stuffed shishito is “very rich” which is “overwhelming” to Brook; never a good thing. Erica’s seafood gumbo lacks flavor and salt even after she got some tips from Bobby mid-cook but Erica hopes that the crispy salmon chicharrons will help save her.

After all meals are judged, there doesn’t seem to be a clear favorite since each team had issues in execution. Team Michael apparently gets graded on a curve for the difficulty of cooking the octopus and is the first safe team. Team Eddie is also safe, and Eddie avoids going back down to one contestant yet again.

That means Team Bobby will lose a teammate, and Taylor makes it two weeks in a row that a contestant goes home for a cream cheese dish (after Lu last week). Erica gets emotional in losing her best friend in the competition but will also have a new teammate soon enough. We’ll find out who Bobby steals next week for an international barbecue challenge.

Bells for Taylor, the Georgian pastry chef.

Christopher Prieto Watch

Not Christopher’s best showing this week, especially on a dish that is so near and dear to his heart. I believe this is the second time he has done plantain tostones, and I don’t think either has gone particularly well. Nevertheless, he moves on to the next week. Christopher and Brittani seemingly get along well enough this week and should continue to be a strong team in the competition.

What was your favorite part of episode 7 of BBQ Brawl season 2? Leave your response in the comments and be sure to check back next week for a recap of episode 8.