Barbecue cook-off with sweet side: Rivals bond in Netflix show in Georgia

James Grubbs of Blairsville high-fives Sylvie Curry of Ramona, Calif. All the contestants on “The American Barbecue Showdown," which debuts Sept. 18 on Netflix, seemed to be pulling for each other even as they tried to win the competition. Courtesy of Netflix

Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Reality TV competition that debuts Sept. 18 filmed on cattle farm south of Covington

People who compete in barbecue contests often speak of them as a sport, and like other sports this year, the coronavirus pandemic has burned their fun to a crisp. The National Barbecue News estimates that more than 80% of the 2,500 barbecue contests worldwide have been canceled or postponed, including major events such as Memphis in May, the World Series of Barbecue in Kansas City and the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational in Tennessee.

What’s a barbecue warrior to do?

They can get a taste of what they’re missing on Netflix. “The American Barbecue Showdown,” an eight-part reality TV series debuting Sept. 18, was filmed last year on a cattle farm east of Atlanta and features three Georgians among its contestants. If anything, the competition is even harder than it is at the big-time cook-offs.

While it’s very difficult to win one of those chin-high trophies at Memphis in May, the task calls for predictable precision using familiar smokers and traditional meats like pork, beef and poultry. In contrast, “Showdown” is an obstacle course that requires constant improvisation. The contestants use a variety of smokers — one of which they have to build — to cook a menagerie of meats that include, in addition to the classics, gamey stuff like possum, beaver and iguana.

“The toughest part was all that roadkill,” says one of the competitors, Tina Cannon of Newnan, who had never cooked some of the critters she came face to face with on camera.

“Until this show,” says another contestant, Sylvie Curry of Ramona, California, “I had never touched a raccoon.”

To make it even harder, the barbecuers had to make side dishes, some sprung on them mid-episode. And they had to cook it all on deadline, with a countdown clock and shouted reminders that time was running out. All while they were incessantly filmed and miked.

“I thank God I was a judge and not a competitor,” says one of the judges, Kevin Bludso, a Los Angeles barbecue restaurateur. “I don’t know how I would have done. This show humbled me.”

ExploreThe ultimate guide to barbecue in metro Atlanta
Kevin Bludso, a Los Angeles barbecue restaurateur with Texas roots, served as one of the judges on "The American Barbecue Showdown." The contest was so hard that he wasn't sure how he would have fared if he had been competing. Courtesy of Netflix

Credit: Courtesy of NETFLIX

Credit: Courtesy of NETFLIX

The barbecue circus comes to town

When people think of TV barbecue competitions, they probably think of “BBQ Pitmasters,” the pioneering series that ran seven seasons on cable and revolved around cutthroat competition and bad-boy attitude from judges like Georgia pit legend Myron Mixon. Despite the name, “Showdown” takes a different approach — more hugs than sharp elbows.

“We thought a lot about the tone,” says John Hesling, executive producer from Maverick TV USA. “We didn’t want a show with people screaming and fighting. You get sick of that after a while. We wanted to re-create that sense of happiness and community you feel when you’re cooking outside with your family.”

They wanted something more like “The Great British Baking Show,” a gentler cooking competition that has celebrated the ovenly arts on public TV (and now Netflix) for the past decade.

The producers also wanted context, which is where I came in. Last summer, as they were preparing to shoot on location in Georgia (making use of the state’s generous TV and film tax credits), showrunner Daniel Calin learned of my book “Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America” and hired me as “culinary historian.” I’m at the back end of the credits, in the small type that moves as fast as an ant at a picnic.

Being a historical consultant on a barbecue series meant that I spent hours on the phone with various producers talking about the evolution of smoke cooking. They were keenly interested in authenticity. What sort of game did native tribes cook when the Europeans arrived? Did they cover barbecue pits in antebellum times? Why does pork butt come from the pig’s shoulder? Where can you find gator and squirrel meat?

Seriously. They were planning an episode built around the exotic proteins indigenous people cooked on early barbacoa grills and wanted to know whether we still consumed them in the South. Not really, I said — although you can find YouTube videos of barbecued gator if that’s your thing. As far as scoring some squirrel meat, I jokingly referred them to my 10-year-old cousin Ethan, who prowls our family’s Washington County homestead with a squirrel rifle.

Metro Atlantans are used to seeing yellow signs indicating something is filming in the area. This was the sign for Netflix's "The American Barbecue Showdown," which was originally called "Smoked." Jim Auchmutey for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Jim Auchmutey

Credit: Jim Auchmutey

When I visited the set last September, I expected to find an oversized documentary crew of maybe two dozen. I underestimated the operation. Exiting I-20 at Covington, I followed a trail of those mysterious yellow movie production signs (SMKD, for the working title: “Smoked”), turned into the farm where the shoot was under way and saw close to 100 cars parked in a field. Rows of trailers, tents and refrigerated units surrounded a huge barn of recent construction. Smoke drifted across the property like someone was burning off a pasture.

James Brooke, a producer with All3Media America who also teaches TV production at Georgia State University, gets credit for finding the location. When he was scoping out sites, he heard about wedding barns, rustic event facilities that have popped up around the edges of metro Atlanta. He scouted two dozen of them before the higher-ups chose one on a 500-acre cattle farm south of Covington.

Owners Drew and Brittany Smith had recently built an impressive 36-foot-tall barn for special events and were just beginning to market it under the name EnChanning Occasions. “Showdown” was their first paying customer.

The couple were thinking about taking a vacation during the shoot, which began early last August and lasted through September. Brooke advised them not to leave because they had no idea how big this was going to be. As one of the advance crew warned, “The circus is coming.”

“You wouldn’t believe all the stuff they hauled in here,” Drew says.

Day after day, trucks rumbled onto the farm dropping off appliances, movie equipment, grills and smokers, pallets of food. The barn was subdivided into prep kitchens, the bride’s dressing room converted into a walk-in pantry. Pavilions were erected outside and barbecue pits dug on the lawn where the Smiths envisioned the betrothed taking their vows.

“We tried to stay out of their way,” Brittany says.

Other farm residents were less polite. When the crew cleaned out a storage barn to use as an interview set, three 6-foot black snakes wriggled out of the shadows and sent a production assistant running.

Cue the contestants

A barbecue contest is only as good as its contestants, especially if it’s a TV show. To find the right mix of skills and personalities, the casting staff scoured the cook-off circuit and social media and considered more than 1,200 candidates nationwide. The people who made the short list had to audition.

“They sent us ingredients and had us cook all these dishes,” says James Grubbs, a semiretired machinist and barbecuer in Blairsville. “I had a Skype meeting with a psychologist. They did a background check and even went through my social media and asked me to take down something I’d posted in 2013.” Something about Elizabeth Warren.

Grubbs was asked to report to the set as an alternate. He ultimately was selected as one of the eight contestants, his cause helped considerably by a good backstory. Not only does he bill himself as a North Georgia “grillbilly,” but he suffered a heart attack in 2018 and had to change the way he cooked by reducing sodium.

The cast was rich with backstories.

Ashley Thompson, a good old boy car salesman from North Carolina, was competing to honor the memory of his best friend and barbecue team partner, nicknamed Big Worm, who had died of a brain tumor. “I’m making Big Worm’s baby back ribs,” he tells the camera. “This is an emotional shoot for me.”

James L. Boatright, a high-spirited barbecuer from St. Louis, sang as he cooked. “Barbecue and the blues go together,” he explains in the second episode. Turning his attention to some pork chops he’s prepping, he breaks into a tender ballad: “I’m gonna rub you, baby, and smoke you all night long.”

Michael "Shotgun" Collins of Fayetteville, N.C., said that he likes to imbibe when he's barbecuing. One of his first submissions on “The American Barbecue Showdown”: beer-can chicken. Courtesy of Netflix

Credit: Courtesy of NETFLIX

Credit: Courtesy of NETFLIX

Michael “Shotgun” Collins, a big, boisterous fellow from North Carolina, wore a luxuriant beard and a mohawk that seemed inspired by another TV character, Mr. T. “Barbecue for me is a party,” he says on Episode 1. “I cook better when I’m drinking. My go-to drink is Colt 45 Double Malt.” Naturally, he cooked beer-can chicken.

Sylvie Curry, a multiple contest winner from California who styles herself as the Queen of Brisket, was the oldest contestant, at 69, and displayed a calm, soft-spoken presence.

Rasheed Philips, an IT specialist from Gwinnett County, was the youngest contestant, at 32, and had been cooking barbecue semi-professionally for less than two years, much of it flavored by his upbringing in Jamaica. “I don’t know what I’m doing on this show,” he confides. “I guess they needed an underdog.”

Rasheed Philips, an IT specialist who now lives in Winder, relies on seasonings from his native Jamaica when he barbecues. He was so unfailingly polite that his rivals on “The American Barbecue Showdown” called him "the gentleman smoker." Courtesy of Netflix

Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Two other women filled out the field: Georgia Chasen, a backyard cook from Maryland, and Cannon, a competition veteran from Newnan who lit up the camera with her auburn hair and strands of pearls around her neck. At 5-foot-2, she was easily the smallest contestant but made up for it with an outsized personality. “I look like a little girl,” she warns at the outset, “but I sneak up on you.”

The judges were two eminent barbecue authorities: Melissa Cookston, the winningest woman on the contest circuit and holder of numerous Memphis in May titles; and Bludso, the L.A. restaurateur, whose family is rooted in the Texas barbecue country. He fell in love with Covington when he learned that one of his favorite TV shows, “In the Heat of the Night,” was shot there. “I thought it was filmed in Sparta, Mississippi,” he says.

Tina Cannon, a veteran barbecuer from Newnan, brought several good-luck charms to the competition on “The American Barbecue Showdown”: her grandfather's skillet, her mother's and mother-in-law's pearls, and a stuffed pink pig she calls Priscilla. Courtesy of Netflix

Credit: Courtesy of NETFLIX

Credit: Courtesy of NETFLIX

The competition lasted three weeks, most of it during a late summer heat wave and drought. The crew insisted that contestants pop electrolyte pills and keep drinking water so no one passed out. “It was grueling,” Philips says. “I sweated off 10 pounds. That’s right: I lost weight in a barbecue contest.”

There was no prize money or trophy at stake. The barbecuers competed for pride and publicity. To underscore the spirit of camaraderie they wanted, the producers had contestants hang out together, eat together, stay at the same motel together.

It worked. At one point, when Thompson threatened to throw in the towel, some of his rivals dropped what they were doing and talked him out of it. Another time, after hearing Cannon say that she was allergic to bee stings, Philips noticed one buzzing around her prep station as she was stuffing a fish. He snared it with his bare hand and got stung himself.

“They got to be like brothers and sisters,” Bludso says. “It was like it wasn’t a competition anymore.”

Except it was. As painful as it might have been, Bludso and Cookston had to eliminate contestants and send them home with a round of tearful embraces. Someone had to win.

The trailer

In the wee hours of the morning before the last episode was shot, Philips emailed his supervisor at Apple and gave notice that he was leaving his IT job after a decade. In the heat of the competition, he had resolved to give barbecue catering a full-time shot as a profession. “I decided to bet on myself,” he says.

Did he win the contest? I wouldn’t want to say and spoil the show for viewers. But Philips did feel like he had won something important, whatever the outcome of the tournament.

When the filming wrapped at the end of September, the trucks reappeared and hauled off all the stuff they had brought in. The Smiths had a wedding scheduled in five days — the first at their new barn — and there was no time to waste. The crew had to paint the dry, trampled grass so the bride and groom would have a green carpet for their ceremony. (The production company later re-sodded the lawn.)

Drew is a pretty good amateur barbecuer himself, so I wondered what he and his wife thought about all the ’cue cooked on their property that would soon be making a global TV audience hungry.

They never sampled it.

“All that great barbecue,” Brittany says, “and we didn’t get to taste a bite of it.”

If the circus returns for a second season, maybe they can do something about that.

STREAMING

“The American Barbecue Showdown,” an eight-part reality TV series debuts Friday, Sept. 18 on Netflix

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