Bravo's Top Chef Tackles Barbecue
A Side Show in the Lowcountry
Posted December 30, 2016
I'm not so sure about that.
In case you haven't seen it, Bravo’s Top Chef is a reality show that pits sixteen chefs against each other in a series of cooking challenges. At the end of each episode the worst performing chef is sent home, and whoever makes it all the way to the end of the season wins a satchel of cash and a big spread in Food & Wine Magazine.
This season the competition takes place in Charleston, South Carolina, and for the final challenge in last night’s episode the producers brought in one of the Palmetto State’s most famous barbecue cooks: Rodney Scott of Scott’s Bar-B-Cue in Hemingway and the soon-to-open Rodney Scott’s Barbecue in Charleston. The chefs break into three teams and compete against each other to prepare a whole hog feast for 150 guests.
(If you’ve not seen the episode yet and don’t want the ending spoiled, you can watch the full thing online here.)
Top Chef is part frenetic timed cooking competition, part psychodrama in the Big Brother ”throw everyone in a big house for weeks on end and see who snaps” mode. In recent years it’s also become a travel show, with each season set in a different locale and attempting, amid all the cooking and backstabbing, to give a little flavor of the place and the local food culture.
For the barbecue episode, Rodney Scott accompanies the contestants as they “travel deep into the country,” as host Padma Lakshmi puts it, and visit two of South Carolina’s legendary whole hog joints—Sweatman’s in Holly Hill and Scott’s own Scott’s Bar-B-Cue in Hemingway. They tour the pit room at Sweatman’s and watch Jonathan Brunson and Douglas Oliver at work, asking a lot of questions then sampling some of their mustard-sauced hog. Then they head up to Hemingway and do the same thing at Scott’s before racing back to Charleston and launching into the competition.
The chefs have 14 hours total, with each team staying up all night to cook their pig and preparing three side dishes to go with it. There’s drama: haggling over what sides to make, disputes over ingredients, sniping at each other over the doneness of the beans. There are vivid shots of sparks shooting up from burn barrels, hogs being flipped onto pits, contestants racing around trying beat the ticking deadline clock. Finally, as the feast is served to the gathered guests, we watch the contestants sweat as they approach the judges’ table and await the verdict.
It was all good fun, and I enjoyed seeing glimpses of my hometown and watching folks like Rodney Scott, Jonathan Brunson, and Douglas Oliver getting their turns in the spotlight. But as the credits rolled, something was nagging at me. I was left unsatisfied—hungry, if you will—though I wasn’t sure exactly what for (and it certainly wasn’t for contestant Katsuji Tanabe’s gland-soured beans—more on that in a moment.)
Finally it hit me: I hadn’t gotten enough barbecue. I went back and replayed the episode on my DVR, and it confirmed my suspicions. Despite being declared the star, the pig didn’t get a whole lot of attention.
In the one hour show (minus ample commercials), only a minute and a half of cooking at Sweatman’s made it into the final cut. We learn these nuggets of information: Brunson and Oliver put coals directly under the ham and the shoulder, sauce the pig just one time, and cook it at 175 degrees (Contestant chef John Tesar actually asks them “What’s your temperature profile?” I can only assumed they edited out the blank looks and the laughter when the cooks finally figured out he was asking how hot their pit was.) We also learn that their mustard sauce has yellow mustard in it.
Up at Scott’s Bar-B-Que, we get all of 30 seconds on the making of barbecue, focused mainly on sauce ingredients, before the teams sit down at the picnic tables outside Scott’s pit room and spend two minutes of air time scribbling notes and arguing over the plans for the side dishes they are going to cook in the competition.
Barbecue is at best a bit player during the actual cooking segment, too. In a fast-cut 30 second montage the contestants “break down” the pig (as one chef puts it, meaning prepping it for the pit with a power saw), set some kind of wood on fire in some barrels, and flop their pigs onto some black metal pits. Shovels full of hot coals get carried around, but no one actually explains what they are doing with them. The closest we get is a little abstract chatter about how barbecue takes time, is a constant process, etc.
We do, however, get plenty of shots of the contestants making smores over the burn barrels and pretending to take selfies with each other.
I know, I know. It’s a television show for a popular audience, not barbecue geeks. There’s only so much airtime and they can’t waste it on long drawn out exposition and explaining the history of South Carolina-style whole hog barbecue and what makes it different from, say, the offset smoked brisket you get down in Texas or any of that stuff.
But they do have plenty of time to devote to John Tesar’s freak out over mac-n-cheese. He wants to start by making a roux but realizes that he doesn’t have any flour. So he dashes around the prep stations, digging through the bins, getting quite frantic. “Does anybody have any A.P. flour?” he shouts. (I deduced on my own that this is chef’s lingo for “all purpose” flour.) “I’m screwed without a roux!”
This goes on for quite a while, and we have to go to a commercial break, which I suspect may have been by design on the part of the editors, because who the heck would dare turn the channel if they’re sitting rapt on the edge the sofa, desperately wondering, “My God! WILL JOHN TESAR EVER FIND SOME A.P. FLOUR???”
After the break, we learn that Tesar does not, in fact, find any A.P. flour, so he ends up swapping some garlic for another contestant’s Xanthan gum (because why wouldn’t you have Xanthan gum at a barbecue?) and uses that to thicken the mac ‘n cheese. But will it taste good or like a floppy rubber tire? We have to hold our breaths and wait till the judging to find out. (I’ll spare you the suspense: the judges love it.) All told, close to two minutes of airtime are spent on roux and xanthan gum and how to thicken mac and cheese—considerably longer than the amount of footage showing people actually cooking pigs.
I get it: you need drama, and there’s nothing particularly dramatic about cooking a pig. It's mostly sitting around in a folding chair and getting up every fifteen minutes or so to scatter another shovelful of coals into the corners of the pit. Unless, of course, you’re fortunate enough to have a gusher of melted fat that sets off a raging pit fire, but I guess the Bravo production crew just wasn’t that lucky.
In the end, I guess, it doesn’t really matter, for there’s one clear losing team, and they’re done in not by the quality of their barbecue (though one judge points out it’s “a little mushy”) but by the trainwreck of their side dishes and sauce.
Silvia Barban, a young Italian chef now living in Brooklyn, makes potato salad the way they do in Italy, using salsa verde instead of mayo for the dressing, impressing no one. Katsuji Tanabe of Los Angeles talks smack about another competitor’s beans then flavors his with parts of the pig’s head, accidentally incorporating some glands and souring the whole pot. Sylva Synat, having apparently learned nothing observing South Carolina’s best pitmasters at work, decides that neither Sweatman’s mustard- nor Scott’s vinegar-based sauces are sufficient. He gooses his with hoisin and ketchup and drowns the meat in it. The green team, undone by hubris, is declared the loser, and Silvia Barban gets sent home.
I do want to be clear: I enjoyed watching the barbecue episode of Top Chef. It's not a bad show. The frustrating part, though, is that it keeps falling short of being a good show, and last night's episode really missed a prime opportunity. The producers had Rodney Scott, a world-renowned barbecue king, at their disposal along with Jonathan Brunson and Douglas Oliver—two unheralded but very talented barbecue cooks. But we never really learn what they do and how they do it, much less why it matters or how it’s different from the way barbecue is cooked in other parts of the country.
Like palmetto trees and the towers of the Ravenel Bridge, the burn barrels and barbecue pits function mostly as an attractive backdrop. And then the contestants dash off in their product placement BMW X5 hybrids to whatever challenge awaits next.
Going Whole Hog
If you want to learn more about Douglas Oliver and how they cook at Sweatman's, check out Rien Fertel's recent book One True Barbecue, which contains a great profile of Oliver.
There’s one thing the entire state of South Carolina agrees on, host Padma Lakshmi announces during the opening of the Top Chef barbecue cookoff segment: “The best barbecue is done with a whole hog.” But if that’s the case, why are there only a half dozen restaurants in the state cooking it that way? See our Whole Hog Barbecue Tour to find them.
About the Author
Robert F. Moss@mossr
Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.