Why Calling Someone A ‘Pitmaster’ Doesn’t Always Mean Their Barbecue Will Be Good

“He had cooked 10,000 pounds of brisket. …The barbecue was terrible. He certainly hadn’t mastered the pit.”

By Casey CheekJanuary 17, 2019 12:29 pm,

What does it take to become a barbecue pitmaster? There’s an entire mythology surrounding the term, mainly because everyone from backyard enthusiasts to the folks running the top meat joints in Texas aspire to be the best at their craft. But Texas Monthly’s Barbecue Editor Daniel Vaughn says only a select few barbecue chefs can be deemed a master of the pit.

Vaughn says a master is someone who truly “knows their way around a barbecue pit,” and not every proprietor has earned that title, including one at a now-defunct restaurant in Victoria.

“He had cooked 10,000 pounds of brisket. …The barbecue was terrible. He certainly hadn’t mastered the pit,” Vaughn says.

He says in Texas, there’s only a few true pitmasters, including Bobby Mueller of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor. Vaughn says Bobby’s son John also thinks of his dad that way. Bobby died in 2008.

“Certainly, I would agree with that,” Vauhgn says.

But Vaughn says the term “pitmaster” is a fairly new one.

“It really became popular in the early ’80s. Before that, you would see other terms like barbecuer, barbecue cook, barbecue chef. But my favorite was ‘master barbecuer,'” Vaughn says.

Despite the growing popularity of barbecue in culinary circles, pitmasters don’t have the same fame as other top chefs. Vaughn says that’s partly because there aren’t as many awards available to them.

“They either make [Texas Monthly’s] top-50 list, or they are recognized alongside chefs and judged against chefs in awards like the James Beard Award,” Vaughn says.

He says the closest thing is the Barbecue Hall of Fame, which has honored new inductees every year since 2012.

“That’s a really, really select few pitmasters out there,” Vaughn says. “I think it’s worth exploring a term, or at least something to recognize the folks who really know what they’re doing.”

Written by Caroline Covington.