045 Ralph – Ralph’s Pink Flamingo BBQ

Ralph's Pink Flamingo BBQ

045 Ralph - Ralph's BBQ

Alrighty, this episode is the last in our US Road Trip series and sees me finish up with an interview recorded live in a BBQ joint in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Ralph from Ralph’s Pink Flamingo BBQ is something of a legend in that corner of the state. He was making so much money at BBQ competitions that he quit his job as a banker and opened up a BBQ joint. There is a trophy cabinet in his restaurant that stretches an entire wall, and his place is so popular that CNN comes in once a week to record a sports chat show in there. But how did he get there? Let’s find out.


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  • He generally doesn’t cook at home but he thinks the last thing was probably pork loin
    • The one trick with pork loin is to not over-cook it
    • If you over cook it, it will dry out and get grainy
  • He has a grill for doing steaks on but he has a mobile competition cooker that he takes home from the shop to cook on
    • It’s a custom-made stick burner
    • He always used sticks with lump charcoal, not briquettes
    • The charcoal is for the heat and the wood is for the flavour
    • He doesn’t use briquettes because he doesn’t like the additives
  • He was a banker in a previous life
    • 1st exposure to competition was at a local contest put on by the bank he worked at
    • The next year they entered the comp and won ribs
    • It was a guy’s-getaway when he first started
    • They started doing just 5 or 6 comps per year
    • Then they started winning
    • He finished competing after 9 years
    • In the last three years that he competed they finished 17th, 13th and 11th in the entire KCBS US ladder
    • He was doing 27 to 28 competitions per year, travelling around the States in a motorhome
    • He’d often do 2 comps in a weekend – set up Friday, hand in Saturday, drive to the second event, set up Saturday, hand in Sunday
    • They never had any sponsorship
  • An advantage of cooking KCBS comps is that you know exactly what you need to do every time
  • At Memphis in May, competitors turn in a box
    • If you make Top 10, the judges come by the site and the Pitmaster gives them a pitch, explaining what they did and how they did it
  • The highlight of his competitive career
    • The 1st ribbon they ever won – 4th place brisket at Parson’s Kansas Katy Days Festival
      • It took them a year before they started getting top ten finishes
    • The 2nd was winning the sausage category at the Royal (about 600 teams)
      • The Royal has more than the regular KCBS categories
      • They buy a commercial sausage, served at the restaurant
      • They cut it, smoke it, drown it in sauce and simmer for a 2-3 hours
    • Got to represent Arkansas at the Jack
      • 3rd place Brisket and 3rd place dessert with the chocolate pecan pie
  • The name Pink Flamingo
    • He and his friends came up with three things they wanted a name to encapsulate their image: cheap, tacky, and you don’t want them on your lawn
    • It’s a very memorable name that stands out from the bunch
  • He uses Cookshack Pellet Smokers at the restaurants
    • He’s got two so if one breaks down, he can still cook and make money
    • He uses the hickory/oak blend
    • As far as he knows, all pellets are blended with oak for the BTU’s – oak burns hotter
    • The blend is for the flavour e.g. apple, hickory, mesquite etc
    • He chose that smoker as:
      • it’s extremely consistent
      • It’s very safe – no gas line
      • It’s a very green fuel – they’ve found a use for sawdust
      • Overall, it gives a better product as nothing’s burning but wood
  • A story from his BBQ life:
    • His son grew up with him on the BBQ circuit and has now opened his own restaurant (non-BBQ) near to Ralph and he has a very close relationship with him
    • His other son is an architect who designed and helped build the store
    • His wife is an absolute saint for hanging with him through the BBQ circuit
  • Define Arkansas BBQ
    • It’s not Carolina BBQ – Mustard or Vinegar base
    • It’s definitely a tomato based sauce, on the sweeter side with a little heat on the back end
      • Closer to a Kansas City style
    • A particular protein or cut for Arkansas
      • Most people think about chicken when they think about Arkansas thanks to Tyson – a big chicken processing facility
      • They still do brisket, ribs, pork and sausage
    • The KCBS format has forced the Arkansas scene to be open to all proteins
  • Pork Ribs are his favourite – baby backs
    • It’s hard to find good BBQ ribs and BBQ in general
    • Because the margins are very thin
    • There’s a lot of meat involved so there is more profit in a Subway sandwich shop
    • You have to have people who know how to cook – not just a teenager in high school behind a broiler
      • It costs money to train people to be able to cook BBQ as it takes a lot of training
    • You can’t cook by the clock, you cook by the product – BBQ is done when it’s done
  • How could you tell the difference between a rack of Kansas City ribs and a rack of Arkansas ribs
    • A lot of places do St Louis cut ribs. You’ll find more spare ribs in Kansas City than in Arkansas
    • Ralph always prefers to cook baby back ribs because he always scored better with them at competitions
    • Spare ribs are cheaper to buy and have a better profit margin, but Ralph still does better with baby backs
  • What’s an Arkansas spice profile like?
    • Ralph has two rubs that he uses
      • Brisket rub on Brisket and Pork Loin
      • His ‘Red Rub’ on everything else
    • The Red Rub is sweeter with more sugar
    • The Brisket Rub is saltier and more similar to a steak rub
    • Most rubs are similar in ingredients but have different ratios
  • His rubs are mixed to his own recipe by a company just across the river
    • He orders 1,000lbs in a batch
    • He doesn’t have to pay freight – just drives across in a van and picks it up
  • The pellets that he uses are made in Arkansas too
    • They’re made in Pine Bluff
    • They also make non-food grade pellets for use in pellet furnaces for home heating
  • What is a Frito pie?
    • Fritos with brisket, BBQ sauce, cheese sauce, and then people can put various toppings on top at the end – onions, sour cream etc
  • What’s a normal Arkansas BBQ competition like?
    • Most of them are KCBS which makes everything uniform
      • You get your meat inspected
        • That you have the right cuts
      • Pork – butts or shoulders or whole shoulders
      • Brisket – whole or flat
      • Ribs – pork, baby back or spare
      • Chicken – can use anything, even a Cornish game hen
      • The meat must not have been seasoned yet
      • The meat must be being held at the right temperature
    • First thing you do is start trimming and rubbing
    • He felt like he was taking a couple of pork butts to a day spa the last time he went to a competition
    • There is a trend in the US that he doesn’t like
      • People have started buying incredibly expensive briskets – Kobe, Wagyu etc
      • A lot of times the prize money isn’t even as much as they’ve spent on the product
      • He thinks that the sport is already very expensive without raising the bar to that cost level
    • KCBS comps even have standard turn i-in times:
      • Chicken at noon, Ribs at 12.30, Pork at 1pm, Brisket at 1.30pm
      • There’s a ten minute from 5 minutes before to five minutes after
    • Ribs and chicken are harder to hold than pork and brisket so getting the timing right with those two is trickier
    • He’s surprised that pellet smokers were allowed into competitions, and now it’s too late to kick them out
    • At a BBQ comp, they might have a separate competition the day or night before, but KCBS comps are always the same
      • Some comps have side dish or beans competitions
  • How have competitions affected his restaurant menu?
    • He serves up the same 4 proteins from his KCBS comps with some extras like pork loin and sausage
  • Brisket – Fat side Up
  • Chicken – Thighs for comps
  • Ribs – Baby Back
  • Sauce – some meat has the sauce on it. Others, the meat is on the side
  • Temperatures – low’n’slow
  • Nemesis Cut – Brisket has traditionally been the hardest, but now he’s got it worked out
  • Something he wishes he’d known earlier – he wishes he’d done a Master Class from a winning pitmaster – it would have saved him a lot of time and money
  • Next Trend – It’s going to get a lot more expensive and more high-end. BBQ ‘Joints’ will fade out and BBQ will get dressed up
  • Pellet grills in comps – yay
  • BBQ Fantasy League – his son Jeff Taylor, Mike Davis from Lotta Bull, Johnny Trigg and MIke Hayes the former president of the KCBS


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