At the end of last week, a new cooking show premiered on Netflix with little-to-no fanfare. The American BBQ Showdown slid into Netflix on the down-low — an eight-episode reality competition centered around home BBQ cooks and pitmasters, all vying to be named the best (home) pitmaster in America. With little promo thus far (sometimes Netflix slow plays shows and then gives them shine later in the cycle), I can’t imagine a ton of people watched this series already. But I watched it, and I found it to be a bit of a hidden gem — full of earnestness, BBQ porn, and bombastic characters.
The show is a pretty straightforward food competition. Eight competitors assemble in summery Georgia at a barn to cook backyard barbecue for a panel of esteemed judges. They’re not reinventing any wheels here. The cast is a rag-tag group of home barbecue chefs and award-winning barbecue pitmasters from the barbecue circuit. Some of them are trained cooks, but none of them are full-time professional chefs. Actress Lyric Lewis and car restorer / TV host Rutledge Wood share hosting duties and serve as the audience conduit into the finer points of smoking meats. The judging responsibility falls on two living legends from the scene — Compton’s own BBQ champion Kevin Bludso joins Memphis BBQ champion Melissa Cookston.
The heart of the show really lies in the relationships between the contestants. There’s definite competitiveness afoot — it is a cooking competition after all. But there’s a fun bond that forms between these competitors early on. They seem pretty genuine in their mutual support (this quality contributes to Top Chef‘s appeal, too). In between the “I came here to win” mantra repetition, there still seems to be an approachable level of friendliness found in all of these people — hosts and judges included. At no point do you feel like one of them would shoo you away from their cool kid’s table at the BBQ cafeteria.
Naturally, this being a competition show, surprise challenges abound (as we said above, there’s no reinventing the wheel found here). A 4th of July episode reminds you that this show would have likely come out over the summer, had it not been for the pandemic. Another episode deftly touches on wild game, which nearly derails all of the contestants — who are exclusively used to working with pork, beef, and chicken. (The episode doesn’t really go into why BBQ pitmasters still have such a narrow knowledge of proteins, definitely a missed opportunity.)
Though the format and framing is prototypical, the show shines a light on unique takes on barbecue (much like Netflix’s much more heralded summer BBQ show). In a standout challenge, Indigenous methods and ingredients are juxtaposed with Antebellum African American methods and ingredients when contestants are tasked with creating dishes that marry the two foodways. While the episode isn’t meant to be a history lesson, it is fun to watch pitmasters who are used to Green Eggs and barrel smokers try and use real sandpits and wooden racks to cook their meals.
By the time you reach the final episode, you’ll know that a whole hog challenge is coming — simply by the fact that they haven’t done one yet. Even then, the show throws some nice curveballs in to test the mettle of the two pitmasters left standing. When the smoke finally clears, you’re left with a Top Chef hybrid made enjoyable through equal measures of food porn and bold characters. If you’re not ready for another cooking battle that leans into talking-head recaps, editing for drama while the time runs out, and judge’s table takedowns and surprises — we totally understand.