A day with the Pitmasters

By Norman A. Cukras

“I’m not sure why I was invited to compete in the TV show BBQ Pitmasters,” Rob Bagby head cook of team Swamp Boys told me recently.
I guess it could be due to his winning  over 40 Grand Championships and 30 Reserve Championships during his competitive years and being ranked nationally again this year as the Number 1 team in the country by the National BBQ Ratings.

Rob goes by the nickname “Rub” due to a ‘slurring’ of his given name on the first Friday night of his venture into the competitive BBQ world in 2004, a world he has since come to dominate.

BBQ Pitmasters is a made for television reality series that follows BBQ cooks as they compete for cash and prizes. The show’s objective is to introduce the public to the “high stakes world of competitive barbecue.” The top prize is $50,000 so the show can attract the top BBQ teams in the country.

“But it’s not as easy as it looks,” Rub says. “You have to wear a mike and you are followed by camera crews all day long. They tend to upset your routines, and you have to be very careful of what you say even if you’re standing 100 yards away from them.”

And routines are what separate the winning teams from the also rans.

“The secret to competitive BBQ success is consistency,” Rub advises. It’s also technique, he continues. “For example,” he says pulling numbers out of the air, “if a cook team has 90 steps to go through before submitting a sample, the winning teams have 100. And what happens during a reality show is that somewhere along the line, a cameraperson will say, “Can you do that over again, I didn’t get a good shot of it.”

Another thing to upset a cook’s routine is a change of menu. For the preliminaries in Martinsville, VA, the Swamp Boys were charged with cooking a whole turkey and baby back ribs, while at the semi-finals in Westmont, IL, the challenge was pork shoulder and meatloaf. Sadly, the team never got to cook the final’s menu. They were eliminated in Martinsville.

It’s a Different BBQ
Teams that are invited to compete at Ribmasters are told what meats might be included on the menu, be it turkey or venison or even bison. But they don’t know what they will be cooking until the morning of the event. When the Bagbys saw meatloaf listed, they took note of it, but not too seriously.

“It was different than any barbecue we had ever done,” Amy said with a chuckle.

And it may as well contributed to their downfall.

Twenty-seven teams started, nine advanced to the semifinals, and three will compete for the top prize later in August (after this publication went to press).

“Still we did well in the semis,” Rub said. His team came in second, only a half point behind the first place team.

Yet the rewards were there. As a prize at the Virginia contest, the winning team was introduced to NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr., and the Bagbys were given a pit pass allowing them access to all the areas devout racing fans can only dream about.

“I had the biggest smile on my face,” Rub said of the special award. “It was an amazing experience,” his teammate joined in. “In fact,” Amy continued, “the whole event was an amazing experience.”

Who is this Competitor
Rub, 51, was born and raised in the Central Florida community of Lake Wales just a brisket’s throw from Winter Haven where he and Amy, his wife of 17 years, currently live. They have two daughters. He graduated from the University of Florida and for the past 25 years has been a teacher at an academy for ‘challenged’ children.

“Our goal,” he says with feeling for his students, “is to graduate tax payers not tax burdens.” Amy, a graduate of Kent State in Ohio, also teaches at the same academy. It’s also where the couple first met.

The academy life is what led the personable man to his alter ego: a top BBQ competitor and caterer.

“We have an annual BBQ fundraiser at the school,” he related, “and 10 years ago I got tapped to cook the chicken. It was a mess.” So being the educator that he is, he began to research the fine art, or sport if you prefer, of barbecuing. The next year, 2004, he entered his first contest, he earned his nickname, and he coined the team’s name Swamp Boys. After all, we are Floridians, and even though it’s a one-man team, it would be hard, he rationalized, to convince customers that a one-man team could cater a 750 person event.

Even though Rub is in effect a one-man-show, Amy is always available, like for the BBQ Pitmasters event where it was required that a competing team consists of two team members. It was only natural that Amy, who pairs with Rub in at least 10 shows during a season, be the sous chef at the BBQ Pitmasters cook-off.

And rest assured, in spite of the temporary setback at Ribmasters, team Swamp Boys hasn’t thrown in the sauce brush yet on a big money win. They have advanced to the Sam’s Club Regional competition to be held on September 14th, and if they continue along the path they followed last year, they’ll be competing in the finals at Bentonville, AR, on October 19th.

What’s the Future Hold
Rub will continue to compete in his chosen sport, traveling to 25 to 35 events and putting upwards to 25,000 miles a year on his familiar red truck. And he’ll continue to add trophies to his growing list. Along with the Sam’s Club challenge is The Jack. Team Swamp Boys took its 7th Grand of this season at the Mountain High BBQ Festival in Franklin, NC, in early August which gives it an automatic invitation to the classic contest. The seven Grands rule is in recognition of Jack Daniel’s trademark Old No. 7.

And while the personable man with the well-groomed goatee emerging from the smoke of his cooker hasn’t said it, I could see him sitting on the Pitmasters’ stage judging other barbecue hopefuls.

Photo by Norman Cukras
Swamp Boys team with Pitmasters judges at Westmont, VA.
From left (rear): judge Tuffy Stone, Rob ‘Rub’ Bagby, Jenna Bagby and
Amy Bagby. Seated: judges Myron Mixon and Melissa Cookston.

Photo by Norman Cukras
Rub with the Swamp Boy’s kitchen on wheels.

Photo by Norman Cukras
The Swamp Boy’s mobile kitchen as seen at 25-35 shows
during any given year.

Photo by Norman Cukras
Rub’s most unique Grand Champion ‘trophy’: A 300 pound,
10 foot long carved alligator awarded at the KCBS contest
in Felda, FL, on January 1, 2009.



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