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.

THIS EPISODE'S SPONSORS

Black Angus Reserve, sponsors of Manning Valley Natural Smokers, have the best brisket you’ll find, hands down!

Clean Heat Charcoal burns hot, long and is eco-friendly. Whether in the backyard or a competition, rest assured it’s ‘Made with Clean Heat.’

Pit Brothers BBQ have the rubs, spices and charcoal you need to get elevate your BBQ to legendary status. 

SHOW NOTES

  • 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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