Get ready for this week’s BBQ Pitmasters Kansas City Que-Off! For many BBQ lovers across the country and abroad, Kansas City Style BBQ is where it’s at. Known and appreciated world-wide for its authentic and traditionally inspired tomato-based BBQ style cooking, the city and its neighboring region’s Kansas City Style Barbecue stands as one of America’s proudest meccas of slow-cooked and locally sourced excellence. This week’s episode of BBQ Pitmasters features the following Kansas City area pitmasters:
- Michael Johnson, pitmaster for Sugarfire Smokehouse – St. Louis, MO (Olivette)
- Richard Fergola, pitmaster for Fergolicious BBQ – Gardner, KS
- Joe Pearce, pitmaster for Squeal Like a Pig BBQ – Kansas City, MO
Letting Regional BBQ Flavors Have Their Day
One of the things I love most about competition BBQ is that like no other medium, it has brought authentically prepared BBQ to the forefront in the American mindset. Yes, I know people would eat BBQ without the show being aired. But in my opinion, competition BBQ and the things like BBQ Blogs, BBQ TV Shows, and BBQ Radio Shows that promote it have really put the craft and culture of authentically prepared barbecue in the spotlight.
By the same token, barbecue competitions have a way of homogenizing barbecue in such a way that regional styles and flavors are left largely to what cooks prepare only at home or for friends outside of the competitive circuit. What ends up happening is that no matter where in the country you judge competition BBQ, the flavors tend to hover around the same general profile mark.
I won’t belabor this point, as that takes us too far afield for this article. Allow me to simply say that in nearly every case – when people visit competitions to sample the barbecue being vended, they often get something that’s more akin to a general BBQ flavor profile that’s based loosely on the Kansas City Style rather that what might be popular in their region.
And maybe that’s a good thing if folks are in the Carolinas and are a little tired of their vinegar based ‘cue. The competitions give them a chance to sample good old rockin’ Kansas City flavor!
Where This Season of BBQ Pitmasters Shines
Right from the start, I have to say that this season of BBQ Pitmasters, unlike any other, is exceptional for one reason: the producers and directors are really letting the tastes and flavors of each region they visit shine.
In Georgia, we got a vinegar-based flavor profile smoked with peach wood. In Texas, we got spicy, slow heat, to sweet flavors on beef smoked on oak and some mesquite. Now, with the Kansas City style, it’s time to showcase that sweet molasses and tomato based tangy goodness with just the right amount of heat.
Big Beef And Yardbird Both Make For Fair Game
Every episode of BBQ Pitmasters presents competitors with a cut of meat that falls just outside of what they might expect to prepare at a competition or, in some cases, even at home or at a catering event. These guys know that there’s a long list of what they “might” be asked to cook come game time. It’s just a question of what winds up in the cooler. You might call this the “Chopped Factor.”
Kansas City is Beef Country, and this week competitors are presented with a prime rib of beef with the flap on and the chine bone attached. Technically, I believe what they are working with is formally called a North American Meat Packers #109 cut, but it might be the #107. Given the time frame allowed, the competitors have to decide whether to cook the whole prime rib Kansas City Style or break it down a bit. Either way, we’ll see if they have the chops to do so.
The other protein these pitmasters get to prepare is a whole yardbird. That’s right… chicken. The original white meat. As a judge, I love the chicken entry portion of competitions. Most of the time, we’re presented with thighs and maybe legs, as the darker meat resists drying out.
In some cases, brave souls present breast meat in their turn in boxes. Sometimes this works out to their advantage, sometimes it doesn’t. In the case of these three Kansas City Pitmasters, it will be cool to see how they tackle it. As was the case with last week’s Lone Star Smoke War, Buedel Fine Meats and Provisions provides the protein for this week’s episode.
Smoked Prime Rib… It’s What’s For Dinner
If you’ve ever had the good fortune (or just plain good sense) to attend Rub Bagby’s Swamp Boys Q School competition barbecue cooking class, you know that on Friday night of the two-day course Rub feeds you very well with a meal featuring smoked prime rib. To date, I’ve not tasted prime rib anywhere else that even comes within a cat’s whisker of touching what Rub does with this large primal cut of meat. (Note: Rub has a Swamp Boys Q School class coming up on July 12-13 in Calhoun, GA if you’re interested!) The thing about prime rib in its true NAMP# 109 form is that it’s a dang big hunk of meat. Like Dinosaur Big. Not all BBQ pitmasters are experienced with this large cut of beef, and you may not be either. So, as I’m all about sharing the knowledge – here’s a primer on what a NAMP# 109 Roast Ready Beef Prime Rib is all about.
Prime Rib 101 – The Full Monty
Here’s how a standing rib cut 109 is defined by National Association of Meat Packers (NAMP): A Standing Rib Roast, often referred to as Prime Rib, most often refers to a Beef, bone-In Roast, NAMP 109, from the Rib Primal Cut that can be cut from as little as 2 to as many as 7 ribs. If cut right it should literally be able to stand on its vertebral end with the rib bones pointing up into the air.
A Standing Rib Roast will include portions of the rib “Eye” as well as the outer, well-marbled muscle (spinalis dorsali) known as the beef rib “Cap.” Leaving the Cap on can add flavor and protect the moisture in the meat as it cooks. It can also add unwanted pounds of fat to your purchase.
Whether to have the Cap on or off is something to consider. A Standing Rib Roast may also come with a thick Seam of external fat, also known as a “Lip,” attached as a Standing Rib Roast-Lip On, NAMP 109E. Again there are pros & cons to purchasing the Standing Rib Roast with a lip on or off. A similar cut from a pig, lamb or sheep would be called a “Rack.”
VIDEO: Chef Paul Malcom Breaking Down
a 109 Roast Ready Prime Rib
A Standing Rib Roast, if sliced when still uncooked, would yield a number of Rib Steaks. Rib Eye Steaks would result if the Rib Steaks were de-boned and trimmed of their tails.
A seven-bone Standing Rib Roast can be quite a lot of food and perfect for a crowd. A 2 or 4 bone roast might do better for a family. For the Standing Rib Roast, the rule of thumb is to count ribs and figure that for each rib on the roast you will be able to feed about two people. Read more at SmartKitchen.com.
As I said, you’ll see whole and parted out rib roasts on Saturday. I won’t go into total detail as to who did what, but I will say this. In a killer Q&A interview with George Mahe over at St. Louis Magazine, Michael Johnson of Sugarfire Smokehouse talks about having an edge in that he brought along Casey Jovick from Sugarfire who not only has experience as a pitmaster at both Pappy’s and Bogart’s in St. Louis. What’s more, he’s a certified butcher. So, while some of the competitors might choose to go whole prime rib roast, you can guess what you might see the pitmasters from Sugarfire do with it.
Let’s Take A Closer Look At The Kansas City Que-Off Teams
Each BBQ Pitmasters episode does a great job of helping us get to know some of the back story behind each team that’s featured. This Kansas City Que-Off episode is no different. Let’s take a look at each of these competitors.
Michael Johnson – Sugarfire Smokehouse
Michael Johnson brings an extensive fine dining and a career as a professional chef and serial dining entrepreneur to Sugarfire Smokehouse. You can find a list of his previous restaurants here. He’s worked with some of the very best chefs in the industry, starting off early as a teenager under Emeril Lagasse, to whom Johnson considers one of his key mentors.
Sugarfire Smokehouse BBQ Pitmasters Audition Video
It’s always fun to see what teams turned in for their BBQ Pitmasters audition video. Check out what Sugarfire Smokehouse submitted to land them in this episode.
As a total food nerd, I’m a big fan of what Michael brings to the table as far as his culinary chops are concerned. You’ll note also in the audition video that Michael’s cook partner Casey Jovick has mad experience as a certified butcher and proclaims himself a “meat nerd.” Hey Matt Pittman of Meat Church BBQ… I think you’ve found a kindred spirit!
I also really appreciate Johnson’s deep appreciation for the artisan craft of barbecue, as well as the subtle complexities that must be mastered in order to render a truly authentic product. When asked “Why Barbecue?” in a St. Louis Magazine article earlier this year, Johnson put it like this:
It’s tactile and old-school. It’s fire and meat. And it’s a lot harder than people think because every piece of meat cooks differently. Some pieces take hours longer in the smoker, even if they all went in at the same time. Each brisket—and each slab of ribs, for that matter—must be inspected. Barbecue is more challenging than any other type of cooking—and it’s not even close.
The food Johnson puts out at Sugarfire Smokehouse is legit. Both Richard Fergola and Jeremy Williams from Fergolicious BBQ have had the opportunity to eat there. When I asked them for their honest appraisal of Johnson’s BBQ quality, they both answered with a resounding “It’s freaking amazing!” These are two Kansas City BBQ purists, folks. If they give Sugarfire their seal of approval – you can bet it’s damn good.
BBQ Gear of Choice:
For this episode, Michael Evans will be cooking on an insulated gravity fed smoker (like a Stumps or Backwood’s Smoker) using a mix of charcoal and chunks of cherry wood to add sweetness to his flavor profile.
Richard Fergola – Fergolicious BBQ
Richard Fergola and his cooking partner Jeremy Williams are a couple of characters – for real! As you’ll see from their Pitmasters entry video submission, they never stray far away from exactly who and what they’re all about — which is exactly what you want to see in die-hard BBQ Pitmasters.
I mean, c’mon now! Good BBQ is at least 25% or more about the attitude you bring the the pit!
I covered Fergolicious BBQ the other day here on the blog based on an article from their local Gardner, KS paper sharing the fact that they are going to be in this Kansas City Que-Off episode. In talking with Richard and Jeremy personally just yesterday, they shared that their mission is to render BBQ that leaves no margin for questioning whether it’s the bottom line example of authentic Kansas City-style BBQ: a sweet ketchup-based sauce that brings a little tang and a little heat. Check out this perfect bite rib!
I also love the way they jump into the massive Prime Rib having never before tackled such a beast! Check out Jeremy’s excitement here!
Richard and Jeremy both work in the education field, with the added edge of Richard being a retired wrestling coach and Jeremy currently functioning in that capacity. You can bet that the fire that fuels their competitive wrestling spirit will be evident on the show this Saturday for sure – especially as the heat begins to build and a little smack talk ensues.
Fergolicious BBQ Pitmasters Audition Video
You just can’t get a true picture of what these guys are all about until you see their audition video. Hell, that video was the whole reason I posted the last article on them! Be sure to watch it through to the end, and I dare you not to either fall on the floor laughing or at least resist the urge to.
You see what I mean? Two words… Dancing Santa. Boom.
BBQ Gear of Choice:
Fergolicious is cooking on insulated gravity fed smokers using a mix of charcoal and chunks of oak.
Joe Pearce – Squeal Like a Pig BBQ
Joe Pearce and his brother Mike hail from Kansas City, MO. As the only team that resides within Kansas City proper, there’s a certain degree of pressure for them to try and get as far in this year’s competition as possible. Rod Gray of Pellet Envy BBQ won BBQ Pitmasters last year repping Kansas City.
I know these guys would be stoked if they were able to bring home a repeat win for the city! Time will tell as the episodes pan out! The trend this week of newer teams being featured on Pitmasters continues with Squeal Like a Pig. Despite the fact that they’re pretty new to competition BBQ (starting as a cook team in 2013), they do however bring a ton of Kansas City BBQ history to the mat.
I talked with Joe yesterday and he shared that as a team, they really do function as a unit focused on producing the finest example of Kansas City-style BBQ possible. As a team, they even designed a “Jambo Clone” type pit with special consideration to things as small as carefully designed heat deflectors emanating from the fire-box to ensure maximized air flow and even heating capacity.
Like many teams in competitive BBQ, each of the Squeal Like a Pig team members brings a special talent and area of focus to the effort. Mike Pearce is the logistical and analytic mastermind of the group, keeping things focused and on track.
Team member Brandon Whipple is a ribs wizard, with the skills to pay the bills. Joe was clear about this, as he shared the following: “Brandon’s ribs blew Mike and me away when we first tried them.The quality of what he put out from the start was pretty much on point with what we know wins in professional BBQ competitions.”
Joe is the passionate one of the bunch, and he’s dead serious about his practice, preparation, research, and application of only the finest aspects of Kansas City BBQ. This is evidenced by the fact that he’s taken the whole hog break down class offered by local artisan and slow food butcher shop The Local Pig not once, but twice!
Watch This Cool Video On What The Local Pig Is All About
Before you watch the video just know that I’d kill to have an artisan based, slow-food, humanely inspired butcher like The Local Pig anywhere within 50 miles of me here in Central Florida. Hell, I don’t think t here’s one in the state that can go toe to toe with what these guys are doing from both a quality and sustainability standpoint. Watch this video, and I think you’ll get what I mean. If you have a place like this near you, PLEASE leave a comment below with the info for it so I can support them here!
Squeal Like a Pig BBQ Pitmasters Audition Video
While there’s part of me that sort of likes the raw footage style video many teams turn in – using minimal pan/zoom effects etc – I have to say that I’m very impressed with the professional quality of the BBQ Pitmasters submission video these guys turned in.
Each team member of Squeal Like a Pig plays a role in telling his story, giving us some good insight into what they’re all about when it comes to BBQ. These guys grew up in the Kansas City area, and they take great care to discuss the history of Kansas City Barbecue. I really enjoy this historic aspect to what they’ve done here. It’s almost Ken Burns-like!
BBQ Gear of Choice:
Stick burner all the way. Squeal Like a Pig BBQ sports a Jambo clone BBQ smoker and use hickory as their fuel. Joe explained to me that they really work to achieve the most efficient burn possible. While hickory can sometimes be a little strong on smoke, the flume from these guys’ smoker emits a smoke that’s almost invisible. Not white, not blue, but nearly transparent. They cook hot and fast, not letting the wood coals smolder.
BBQ Pitmasters Kansas City Que-Off – Final Thoughts
I really dig what Discovery America is bringing to us this season. With the airing of this Kansas City Que-Off episode, we’re going to be able to check Georgia BBQ, Texas BBQ, and Kansas City-style BBQ off the list. Of course we’ll revisit these and other areas as we move down and across the BBQ Pitmasters Bracket.
My buddy Wayne Brown has posted a handy bracket for you to use as you follow these episodes.
You can find it over at his Big Wayner’s BBQ Blog here. Just check the bottom of each of his BBQ Pitmaster Episode Reviews for an updated version! (Thanks for the work on that Wayne!)
I hope you found value in this post. If so, please share it with your BBQ friends! And as always, be sure to tune in to watch BBQ Pitmasters “Kansas City Que-Off” this Saturday on Destination America at 9 PM/8 Central!