Published: October 20, 2011
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For this week’s Meet the BBQ Pro sponsored by Tucker Cooker, we had a chance to sit down and interview Neil Strawder who is the General Manage of Bigmista’s BBQ in LA, he is also the PitMaster and contest in Season 2 of TLC’s PitMasters and also CBS’ Ultimate BBQ Showdown.
Grilling with Rich: My first question that I always ask my guests for the Meet the Pros Series, is what made you start to barbecue?
Neil – I saw Alton Brown smoke a Pork Butt in a flower pot and figured if he could do that, I should be able to BBQ. So I went of to Lowes and bought a Chargriller pit and put it on my apartment balcony. Then I headed off to the internet for research.
What do you like most about Barbecue? and Why do you think that a lot of people love to barbecue?
Neil – What do I like the most? The eating man! And besides I get to play with fire and smoke everyday. How many people get to say that? There is something primal about cooking meat with fire. Mastering the elements and producing something delicious. I think that just strikes a chord in all of us.
This might be an odd question but is there anything that you don’t like about Barbecuing if so, what is it?
Neil – There is one thing I really hate about Barbecuing. Washing dishes.
What is your favorite barbecue food to make? and why?
Neil – I enjoy making brisket on a daily basis. It’s always a challenge to make both moist and tender consistently and even I fail at it sometimes. Every piece of meat is different. Sometimes they are ready at only 180 degrees. Sometimes they never break no matter how long you cook them. My favorite special occasion meat is beef ribs but not those notched, no meat on top of the bones ribs. I’m talking about thick, leave some prime rib meat on there, dinosaur bones. They ain’t cheap but they are worth every penny.
What do you like the most about barbecue competitions? And the least?
Neil – Believe it or not, I like the Friday night get togethers as much if not more than the contest itself. We have some great teams here in California, like Four Q, Big Poppa Smokers, Slap Yo Daddy and Left Coast Q to mention a few and we enjoy each others company. What do I like the least? Cleaning up after turn-ins. (Notice a trend?)
Why do you think that barbecue competitions have become so popular and also you get such a diverse crowd of people participating in it?
Neil – Barbecue competitions are popular, because anyone can jump in and anyone can win. You don’t need a $20000 BBQ pit or corporate sponsors or a training facility. You can cook in two barrels that you made yourself and use rubs and sauces that you bought in the grocery store or online. If you do your research, practice tirelessly and pay attention to details, you can be a champion. It’s kinda like being Batman. You don’t need super powers to be the best.
In your opinion what makes a BBQ team successful besides the obvious Awards? What was your first win, and what was your biggest disappointment?
Neil- Successful teams do have awards but they also have the respect of their peers. They are comfortable at contests. They compete hard but they still have fun. They love what they do and the people they do it with. They also love to share what they do. I’m not talking about trade secrets but they will talk to the average guy and give him tips on making better BBQ. In fact, they love talking BBQ with just about anybody.
We got our first walk at our first contest. We were four bloggers who loved BBQ but hated a lot of what was being passed off as BBQ in L.A. so we put our money where our collective mouths were and jumped into a contest after meeting in person for the first time 2 weeks prior. We got a 5th in ribs and have been hooked ever since.
What was your greatest accomplishment?
Neil – I think so far, my favorite accomplishment is being named on a list of 99 Essential L.A. Restaurants by food critic Jonathan Gold. The cool part is that we only sell at farmers markets and do catering. We don’t even have a restaurant!
What was it like to participate in TLC’s BBQ PitMaster’s Season 2? What was your greatest Challenge in participating on the show?
Neil – Competing on BBQ Pitmasters was a lot of fun. The crew was great and I loved everyone that we competed against. They tried to get us to talk smack to each other but every time we tried, we busted up laughing.
I think the greatest challenge on that show was the dust and the heat. We shot it on a ranch up in the hills between Malibu and Calabasas and it was hard keeping the dust out of the food.
I also did a show called The Ultimate BBQ Showdown. The challenge on that one was turning in ribs and chicken at the same time. That was tough!
What if anything can you take away from your experience on the show?
Neil – The friends that I have made since doing the show. People are still coming up to me and saying, “I saw you on that show!” It’s cool when they become customers. Even cooler when they become friends.
If you had to choose one grilling tool that every pit master needs to have what would it be and why?
Neil – A Thermapen. For the beginning pit tender, it a great tool for monitoring the temperature of your meat. When you become more experienced, you’ll know when your meat is done when you poke it with the probe. If it’s done, the probe will slide in like a hot knife thru cold butter. An ice pick works well for me also.
What is the single most important piece of advice that you can give to professional, amateurs about the sport of barbecue?
Neil – Take your ego out of it. You have decide if it is more important to win or to use your own creation. There are lots of award winning sauces and rubs available and the flavor profile for BBQ judges gets slimmer everyday. Stick with what works. Save your creations for your family, friends or customers.
If you had to give one piece of advice for up and coming people who want to do barbecue competitions what would it be?
Neil – Do your research, mind the details and just jump in! There is a great book about starting a BBQ team called Startin the Fire by George Hensler. Buy it.
What is one thing that your fans don’t know about YOU that you would like to share?
Neil – I have fans? Who’da thunk it?
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