Everybody knows that contest-based reality shows give out different roles to play and that level of casting certainly extends to the judges. After all, American Idol all but invented the boosterish judge (paging Paula Abdul), the urban cool-cat judge -- as in Randy Jackson, and, of course, every fan's favorite scowler you love to hate, Simon Cowell.
Food Network's latest cook-off challenge, Best in Smoke, has among its triumvirate of barbecue experts its very own snide Simon. And he's none other than Fort Worth's Tim Love -- the local chef whose surname belies how much affection he doles out to the six contestants on the opening round of Best in Smoke.
Several years ago, after Love emerged victorious against Masaharu Morimoto in an Iron Chef chile peppers confrontation, Love clearly felt the urge to be on the tasting side of these ubiquitous contests. Surprisingly shorn of his kitchen's trademark cowboy hat, but with his 400 kilowatt grin and brush cut very much intact, Love has shown up on Best in Smoke as the judge who is rather parsimonious with his praise.
It's certainly a high-stakes platform from which Love re-enters the television spotlight. Best in Smoke involves six of the country's either most established (Famous David Anderson, founder of Famous Dave's of America, and a proud representative of Native American culture), or most promising young grillers as like Brad Orrison, of the Shed BBQ in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, whose big straw hat and molasses drawl qualify him as the possible spawn of Mayberry's Opie. And they're all vying for a whopping $50,000.
During Best in Smoke's debut contest, the challengers had four hours to prepare a single bite of 'cue. Their second test would be to take four hours to grill up finger foods for a snooty New York gallery event. Before beginning their timed grilling, the contestants had to hoof it across a small field to a Buckhead Beef meat refrigerator truck where they would all but claw at each other to secure the best of baby back ribs, chicken thighs, pork and lamb chops, elongated pork loins, and roseate salmon. They then would apply all manner of sugary or coffee-infused rubs, marinades and secret spice blends to their cuts of meat while battling such obstacles as uncooperative smokers, insufficiently scalding grills and not one but two Biblical thunderstorms.
But perhaps their greatest adversary was chef Love.
Though Love shared equal billing as judge with Amy Mills, author of Peace, Love & Barbecue, and Mitchell Davis of the James Beard Foundation, he clearly relished having an open mic with which to express a definite point of view. Indeed, behind Love's ever-present grin lurks a direct, even unsparing, barbecue critic.
Early on, he dismissed one particular entry of pork loin, hiding behind a façade of baked beans and cornbread, apricots and apples, as nothing more than "mystery meat." Even before one of the contestants had presented his final bite, Love was already pessimistic about his ability to fire up his enclosed grill to the temperature sufficient for his baby-back ribs.
Love's skepticism continued when addressing a contestant's cooking her salmon: "Why not hold off so it's nice and moist when it comes off the grill?" Love wondered aloud. And he had grave doubts, again well before sampling the final dish, of whether short ribs could be translated into passed-appetizer finger food.
Not that Love couldn't offer some praise. But it often came with a negative kicker. While he cooed over one person's sauce and admired the use of chiles to counterbalance the dish's overall sweetness, he wondered why the ribs weren't more moist. To another contestant's beef short ribs entry, Love was efficient in his praise ("flavor was good") and equally quick to cut the dish down: "But it had way too much chew." Another contestant's baby-back ribs didn't even get a compliment from Love as he lamented them as tasting "almost candy-ish."
On this show, Love brings much in the way of famous Texas charm, even when he's sugar-coating what is sure to be a stinging put-down. For one contestant's chicken thigh "bite," Love's critique was not going to end well when he started out with the oh-so-folksie: "Chris, I gotta tell you, buddy..." And then followed it with pointed observation that the chicken felt like it had been "cooked a long time ago." Translation: It was as rubbery as a spare tire.
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To be fair, Love's pre-sampling commentary could be very instructive. In observing a lamb chop entry, he was particularly curious to see how the contestant would render the fat, keeping it juicy yet also achieving a nice crisp crust on it -- not an easy balancing act, yet a true test of a grill-master. And he allowed that any chef who chooses to work with pedestrian-looking sausage, needs to "do something outstanding with it in order to change the dynamic of the meat."
But back wearing his judge's hat, Love seemed intent on doling out very few garlands of praise. The sausage appetizer ended up being, to Love's palate, "very flat. That meat is just not fun and not even smoky." But he saved his most acidic put-down for the beef short ribs with pineapple: "It's not fall-apart tender, but the pineapple shouldn't even be there. In fact, it's rank."
And sure enough, that Love-ian pineapple put-down was enough to send the chef of that dish packing. Tough Love indeed.