Masters of the Pit: John Markus
May 15, 2012
As part of Grilling.com’s ongoing “Masters of the Pit Series,” editor Clint Cantwell sits down with the man responsible for countless barbecue and grilling related television programs in recent years — from OLN’s “All Star BBQ Showdown” in 2005 to the third season of “BBQ Pitmasters” airing soon on Planet Green and several others in between.
Thank you, John, for taking the time to speak with the Grilling.com community today. I know things are a little hectic for you right now as you and the “BBQ Pitmasters” production team rush to get the new season filmed and edited before the (hopefully) late-May premier.
While you’ve done some amazing things in the sitcom world, your true passion lies in sharing the world of competitive outdoor cooking with the masses via television. Did you grow up around barbecue and grilling?
Actually no. I grew up in London Ohio, population 6,000, and later moved to California to attend college. It wasn’t until I began writing “LateLine” with Al Franken in 1998 that I actually discovered and fell in love with barbecue. Al claimed to be the best rib cooker in the Northeast and would marinate them in soy sauce, sugar and a few other things before cooking them in about 40 minutes on a really hot kettle grill. They were awful but I knew BBQ was a beloved cuisine and that I needed to learn how to do it right. Two years later, I found myself learning from the Baron of BBQ himself, Paul Kirk, as the two of us competed together at the Lenexa BBQ Battle.
I then went out and bought my first cooker and began making ribs for friends every single weekend.
Well I’m sure they were great given your mentor. Chris Lilly help out with your cooking techniques as well, correct?
That’s right. Al Franken was doing this radio show for Air America in 2002 and I was a correspondent traveling the South in search of good barbecue and people who were opposed to Al’s point of view. Eventually I ended up at Big Bob Gibson in Decatur Alabama doing a segment called “Good Ribbin”. I was able to spend a lot of time with Chris and he taught me a lot. I truly believe he is the greatest pit master out there…his understanding of temperature, smoke and flavor combined with the legacy of the BBG brand is untouchable.
So when did you decide to combine your knowledge of the television world with your passion for outdoor cooking?
Again, Chris played a big role in my first BBQ related television project. He had this concept for something called “Cast Iron Chef” that he pitched me, I reworked it, and eventually it became the “All Star BBQ Showdown” which aired on OLN in 2005.
Yes, I still watch those episodes. Two professionals versus one amateur team in one category. Then there was the Versus Network’s “BBQ Championship Series” a year or two later which was more in the spirit of Iron Chef with an actual outdoor stadium, three celebrity judges and competitors cooking two traditional dishes and one wild category.
Fast forward to 2010 and your first season of “BBQ Pitmasters” on TLC. I loved those episodes and actually got to see you in action when I was cooking the American Royal Invitational that year. It’s funny though, there were so many people on both sides of the fence over the format of that season, the competitors, and anything else they could pick apart. Then the format changed to more of a live theater, “BBQ Championship Series” type format in 2011 and suddenly everyone was a fan of season one!
Yes, unfortunately you’ll always have supporters and detractors when it comes to conveying competition BBQ through television. You’ve got the purists on one side who you try to satisfy, but you also have to appeal to the recreational backyard cooks who are a huge part of our viewership. It’s not easy and this season is actually the sixth incarnation of this show if you count OLN, Versus and last year’s CBS special, “Ultimate BBQ Challenge”.
So we’re going to see a new format this season?
Yes, season three of “BBQ Pitmasters” will be a return to a more authentic competition BBQ format with 15 teams, two categories per week and one final showdown in week six. Season one was unique in that it was almost a documentary in style. The viewer really got to know those six competitors in real contest settings but I’m not sure that exact format had long term sustainability plus it wasn’t easily accessible to non-competitors. In season two, we opted to have more control over the outcome with three teams going head-to-head each week and the winners squaring off in a finale. Again, not everyone was a fan of that format and the way in which eliminations occurred but the ratings were solid and my primary goal was to simply keep the project alive for another season. We’ve had some hits and we’ve also had some misses but hopefully viewers will give the revised format a chance!
And I noticed in pictures from the set that you have three judges, two of which are straight from season one (Myron Mixon and Tuffy Stone) and a new one, the much talked about pit master out of Austin Texas,Aaron Franklin of Franklin BBQ.
Yes, Aaron is a very impressive young man who has proven his ability to produce a consistent product on a large scale day in and day out. I think viewers are really going to enjoy his fresh perspective.
Now finally, I know you’re also wrapping up a project that has been very close to your heart, your BBQ documentary from Kuwait. Can you share a bit about the project with the Grilling.com community?
Definitely! We filmed it in September 2010 and the rough cut is being reviewed now by the US Government and the Department of Defense with hopes set on some type of premier this summer. You really need to see it to get the full impact of the piece but Myron, Tuffy, Johnny Trigg, Jamie Geer, and Nicole Davenport really did an amazing job bringing these troops a little slice of home in the desert. We were out there cooking barbecue on Ole Hickory pits for over 4,600 soldiers at two different bases in 120 degree heat, with a cooling truck that broke down and almost shut our whole operation down. The team pulled through though as true competition cooks always seem to do and I’m really proud of what the documentary shows about the troops serving our country and how barbecue could play a small role in their daily lives over there.
I can’t wait to check it out and, as always, thanks for your continued work in spreading the good word of outdoor cooking!
- Clint Cantwell, Grilling.com Editor