067 James Cruse – Central City BBQ

067 - Central City BBQ


This is Episode Two of Season Six, my U.S. Road Trip Part II. In this episode I head downtown to the #1 voted BBQ joint in New Orleans – Central City BBQ. There I met James Cruse, the head Pitmaster of Central City and also team captain of the all-conquering Aporkalypse Now Competition BBQ team. After a tour of the very impressive facilities, we grabbed a couple of local microbrews and a plate of pulled pork egg rolls and chatted at length about what goes into running the #1 BBQ joint in a city voted #1 for food in the world, and I even managed to get James to give me a step-by-step run through of how he does his competition-winning pork ribs. And for those of you wondering, those egg rolls were to die for!


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  • Hanger steak tacos were the last thing he cooked for himself
    • He was playing around with some local made tortillas and prime hangar steaks
    • At home he has a DIY Drum, a PK360, and sometimes the Icon ceramic style grill
    • The PK360 – you can sear or smoke and everything in between
      • The Grill Grates are essential for steaks
    • His history with BBQ
      • 21.5 years ago he was playing in a recreational football league
      • He decided he was going to cook some ribs for his friends
      • He had a gas grill and some beef soup bones
      • His uncle Ronnie was always the family BBQ smoker. Ronnie took him under his wing
      • The exact date was Labour Day 1997, September 7, when he smoked his first rack fo ribs
      • He’s never looked back
    • What keeps bringing him back to BBQ
      • He likes the challenge and you’ll never know everything about BBQ
      • He likes the competitive atmosphere of the competitions
      • He’s a math guy and he likes the variables and factoring them in
      • No two meats are ever the same so it’s different every time
    • He likes to get his meat from the midwest, especially beef. 
      • Pork – he likes Compart
        • From Durack in Minnesota
        • Look for marbling, just like beef
      • He’s not particularly married to a brand but rather looks at each piece of meat
    • When it comes to styles, he’s a mutt – he’s travelled all over the country for BBQ events and picks up bits and pieces from everywhere
      • Texas guys think they’re the best. So do Memphis, Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia
      • He likes researching where the recipes originated from
      • His briskets lean towards Texas
      • Ribs – Memphis / Kansas City
      • Pork – Carolina / Memphis
      • Take a little bit from everybody and form your own style
      • Baltimore has their pit beef, which is a style of BBQ
        • It’s almost like pulled beef
      • He wants to do Italian beef like Chicago, and TriTips like in California
      • He likes to grill a lot
    • Aporkalypse Now
      • In 2013 he was competing against Aporkalypse Now
      • The team he was on went in a different direction and AN was looking to expand
      • In 2014 he joined AN and took RGC by a tenth of a point
      • They won GC in 2015 and 2016
    • The importance of everybody heading in the same direction
      • For big comps, it’s essential
      • A Pitmaster and a Pitmaster’s Assistant are a great idea
      • The PA’s job is to keep the Pitmaster on task
      • James keeps all his time and details in his head. They’re not written down anywhere
      • Focus is essential, so the team needs to be focussed on the same thing
    • They’re going into Hogs confident to win and are now seen as ‘the favourite’ to win
      • It can be a pressure, but they ignore it
      • This year’s team line up is probably the best it’s ever been
    • They’ve had the same core team members since 2014
      • As a result, there’s no more guesswork
    • Central City BBQ
      • He’d known the owners for a while and started as a consultant, training their pit staff etc
      • They then made him an offer to be the pitmaster and face of the business
      • He’s about to hit the market with a few rubs
      • They have 30-odd employees who all have a tonne of restaurant experience
      • They only use high-quality meat which is a good start
      • They go through about 300+ briskets per week depending on the week
    • Coming up in the future
      • More experience at Central City BBQ
      • He wants to get back on the competition trail
        • Memphis in May is on the list
        • Last year they did surprisingly well as a first time MiM competitor
        • It’s their presentation that needs work
      • He runs the same recipes every year
  • He prefers St Louis ribs
    • The marbling is good and the flavour is richer than other types
    • The bite is meaty
    • It rides next to the belly, where the best meat is
    • American ribs get a bit crooked
    • They average 12 to 14 bones on a rack of St Louis ribs
    • Belly has become more popular in the States recently so the St Louis ribs have suffered
    • They had to spend a bit of time finding a reliably consistent rib from a supplier – they’re virtually hand picked for Central City
    • The ribs are specced to within a ¼ pound of each other
  • When looking for ribs
    • Looks for the white specks – the marbling
    • Look at the thicker side of the meat so you can see a white line going across the rack
  • Rubs
    • He always uses Mustard as a binder
    • At the restaurant they done
    • He uses a thin coat of mustard
    • He layers
      • The first layer is salty and spicy and goes on the night before
      • The second rub is coarser and sweeter and goes on 30 minutes before the ribs go into the smoker
      • When it looks wet, he gives it a second coat of the same second rub
  • He will wrap or not depending on each individual rib
  • Competition Ribs
    • He starts with the same process
    • In contests colour is important
    • The bark can’t be too tight
    • Can’t have a bacon type texture
    • The bite needs to be the same all the way through, like a piece of bread or marshmallow
    • He spritzes about every hour to an hour and a half to keep the surface wet
    • He wraps according to individual racks 
    • There’s always something wet, something sweet and something savoury in the wrap
    • He judges doneness by picking up the rack and feeling the give in his fingertips
    • He has a glaze and sets it, spritzes it again if necessary
    • He never brines the rib before starting – you run the risk of curing the rib which is a no-no
    • No phosphate injections – his tenderness all comes down to the cooking process
    • Presentation depends on each contest. Some contests have a certain arrangement
      • BCA and IBCA have certain arrangements
        • BCA if 50 teams or less = 4 bones down and 4 on top
        • If more than 50 teams, 5 on the bottom and 4 on top
      • KCBS – you  can design it however you want
      • He likes running two rows perpendicular to the hinge
      • Memphis in May requires two bone sections
      • Knowing how judges judge is important – different bodies judge in different ways
    • He’s a kale guy when it comes to presentation
      • It’s easier to set up
  • Brisket – fat side up
  • Chicken – thighs if smoking, breasts for every other style of cooking
  • Ribs – St Louis
  • Sauce – on the side
  • Temps – Hot’n’Fast around 300F
  • Nemesis cut – doesn’t like pork for competition but chicken is tricky
  • One tip or trick – probing on brisket, not temping
  • The next trend in BBQ – pork belly is going to take off in the States
  • Pellet grills in comps – Yay
  • Fantasy BBQ League – Mark Lambert


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