The CultureMap Interview

Move over, Alton Brown: Bryan Caswell debuts as Food Network host on Best in Smoke

Move over, Alton Brown: Bryan Caswell debuts as Food Network host on Best in Smoke

All the fans who rooted for Bryan Caswell on The Next Iron Chef are in luck. The popular Houston chef behind Reef, Stella Sola and El Real Tex-Mex is heading to the small screen once again — this time as the host of a new barbecue competition show on Food Network called Best in Smoke.

Filmed last fall, the show premieres on May 8, and Bryan Caswell gives CultureMap a run-down of what to expect.

CultureMap: How was the television experience different being a host rather than a contestant?

Bryan Caswell: It was completely different ...  there's much more of a focus from camera standpoint. You're paid to do job and be a mediator, try to get into character — well not a character, per say, but it's a completely different thing. They're waiting on you to not fumble your lines. But coming from Next Iron Chef it would have been very hard for me to be hypercritical, having been there a couple months before that in the same position.

CM: Tell me more about what to expect on the show?

BC: The premise is great, it's an interesting idea. It's a little different because of the contestants, only a couple had restaurants, the rest work professionally in the barbecue circuit, which is something only a very small percentage of population is familiar with. It's a lifestyle, they travel and cook competitively.

The most interesting thing is how they got to do their own rig and each one is totally different, with different types of machinery. Barbecue is a simple thing, it's time and temperature, some sort of meat, some sort of spice, and yet it's so easy to mess it up.

We filmed in Liberty State Park (in New Jersey) just on the other side of the river from Battery Park, so there's different challenges in the city that are fun as well as some crazy weather.

CM: What's your barbecue background? Do you have a preference for Texas-style or did you have to put that aside?

BC: I mean, I'm from Texas, and I've been barbecuing all my life. I think what's interesting about barbecue is you have the seven distinct styles from all over the country and you don't really see Texas barbecue outside of Texas, or South Carolina outside of South Carolina, unless you go to New York City and open a place with five different styles, and that's not really how it's done.

The first time I had a pulled pork sandwich in Little Rock I was like, "Holy shit! This is barbecue." That's what's interesting, it's a food that's automatically going to draw out food memories and the experiences are completely different.

CM: What other judges were you working with? Did you get a vote?

BC: Tim Love knows barbecue, being from Fort Worth, he's very opinionated. I learned a lot from Amy Mills, who comes from Kansas City, her dad is a barbecue legend. Amy would say something like "This is exactly what competition barbecue is supposed to be," and I would think "I don't want to go to a competition then." Mitchell Davis, who's the vice president of the James Beard Foundation and comes from Manhattan, he was kind of a wild card because he just likes what he likes.

As for me I tasted and commented, but I didn't have a vote, similar to Alton Brown on Iron Chef.

CM: How did you get ready to be a host?

BC: I think they were looking for a normal person to be themselves and show personality. I'm a little nervous because my inner redneck might have come out a little bit. It's such a totally different experience ... it's still amazing to me.

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Bryan Caswell is heading back to the Food Network, this time as a host. Photo by Damon Gambuto