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

A version of this post appears in this week’s Smoke Sheet newsletter, which you should absolutely subscribe to if you haven’t already.

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?

Linkdown: 9/21/16

– Pulled pork v brisket: who you got? John Lewis of Lewis Barbecue and Aaron Siegel of Home Team BBQ weigh in

AM: Which is better, beef brisket or pulled pork?  

Siegel: There is no argument there, really. It’s just a matter of preference, which seems to vary regionally. But even now, regional lines are getting blurred. We’re supposedly a pork town. But we’ve been doing beef brisket with salt and pepper and it’s one of our best selling products. So at the end of the day, it’s a fun argument. But it’s not valid.

Lewis: I think there are things about both that make them stand out. Beef has a stronger flavor than pork. But what pork has is marveling, which gives it a juicier taste. In Texas, there’s an order called the “Holy Trinity,” which includes sausage, beef and pork on the same plate. So I’m really just a fan of it all. It’s all about personal preference.

– The Charleston Post and Courier likes what they eat from  Lewis Barbecue

– Buxton Hall recipes online (presumably from the upcoming cookbook): hush puppies at Bon Appétit and chicken bog at Garden & Gun

– The North State Journal previews next month’s Barbecue Revival (paywall)

“Barbecue is sacred to the people of North Carolina,” says Dickson. “If you’re going to do this, you have an obligation to be a good steward of our state cuisine. I can’t think of a better way to do it than this.”

– I may have missed this, but The Pit is servicing barbecue sandwiches at NC State’s Carter-Finley Stadium this football season

– Grant makes an unplanned stop at Countryboy Cafe in Pennington, VA

– Texas Pete is getting a new look

– Finally, I  spotted an appearance by NC barbecue on last week’s episode of “Mr. Robot”

Linkdown: 10/28/15

– Calvin Trillin of The New Yorker heads down to NC with John Shelton Reed and Dan Levine in search of true ‘cue

For some years, I’m now prepared to admit, I somehow labored under the impression that Rocky Mount is the line of demarcation that separates the two principal schools of North Carolina barbecue. Wrong. The line of demarcation is, roughly, Raleigh, sixty miles west. The Research Triangle—the area encompassing Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill—is a sort of demilitarized zone, where someone who’s been concentrating on the barbecue scene, as I was on my most recent visit, half expects to see the distinctive blue helmets of United Nations peacekeepers.

– Frank Scibelli of Midwood Smokehouse is going fast casual with Midwood Smokeshack in a TBD location

– Charlotte Business Journal has a few more details on the new venture:

Scibelli says Midwood Smoke Shack would offer 70% of Midwood’s menu that features hand-pulled pork and chicken as well as brisket, ribs, sandwiches and burgers, plus side items such as mac-and-cheese and BBQ baked beans, and for dessert, peach cobbler and banana pudding.

– A couple more barbecue reviews from Marie, Let’s Eat!: Dave Poe’s in Marietta and the Dunwoody outpost of the Memphis Barbecue Company chain

– Harold Conyers is bringing SC whole hog barbecue to Nola

– Some photos from the 86th annual Mallard Creek Barbecue; we’ll have a few of our own in a post on Friday

– Does Lexington want to brand Lexington-style barbecue to prevent other restaurants outside of the city from diluting the brand?

– Queen City Q keeps on rolling, announcing a fourth location in the old Elwood’s BBQ & Burgers spot

– Chef Rick Bayless doesn’t like tv barbecue