Behind the Scenes with Primal Grill


Dear Up in Smoke Reader:

An e-mail circulated last week by Maryland Public Television contained some great news: “Primal Grill with Steven Raichlen” now airs in over 95 percent of households that are within signal reach of a PBS station.

That means almost anyone in the U.S. who has access to a television can tune in to Steven Raichlen’s dynamic new show, Primal Grill.   Talk about a cure for mid-summer grilling doldrums!  C’mon, folks…people are getting sick of hamburgers, hot dogs, and even pulled pork shoulder.   (Well, maybe not the latter.  And notice I didn’t mention steaks.  Steven’s “Tubac T-Bone,” a recipe he dedicated to the host of “Primal Grill,” the Tubac Golf Resort in Tubac, Arizona, is a recipe I never want to lose.)

We hope you’re already a fan.  If you haven’t seen the show yet, log onto for more information and air times.   Then take the cyber trip just to see the wealth of printable recipes archived there.  We’ve reprinted two below, just to whet your appetite.  The Tubac T-bone recipe is there, too.

In the meantime, we thought you might enjoy a “behind-the-scenes” peek at what’s involved in producing a show like “The Primal Grill with Steven Raichlen.”  For the straight story, I interviewed two key players:

Matt Cohen, producer of “The Primal Grill with Steven Raichlen,” is the head of Resolution Pictures.  He’s a seasoned veteran of food shows, and has multiple “Emmys” and James Beard Foundation Awards to prove it;

Steven Schupak is the Senior Vice President of Content Enterprises for Maryland Public Television, the producing station and PBS sponsor of “The Primal Grill.”  (Note: MPT also presented four seasons of Steven’s popular show, “Barbecue University,” which still airs in some markets. Check local listings, or go to

I didn’t ask the obvious question: “Does the food get eaten?” I’ve been privileged enough to be on Steven’s sets before, and I can tell you, the answer is (strongly), “Yes.” In fact, a you’ve never seen eating until you’ve watched a TV crew devour an 18 pound Texas-style smoked brisket.

Yours in great grilling,

Nancy Loseke
Features Editor
Up in Smoke

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Matt, we know you work with Steven. Tell us about some other cooking shows you been associated with.

Matt Cohen: Well, there’s “Lidia’s Italy” with Lidia Bastianich.  And I followed Todd English to Japan for an episode of “Food Trip with Todd English.” We filmed segments on sushi and Kobe beef, and the show won a James Beard Award.  But I’ve done work for other networks, too—including “My Country, My Kitchen,” which aired on the Food Network in the 2001-2002 season.  I did it with Moroccan host-chef Rafih Benjelloun; it also won a Beard Award.

What were some of the challenges you and the crew faced on the set of “Primal Grill with Steven Raichlen”?

Matt Cohen: We were shooting on a tight schedule, right up until the day before Thanksgiving.  And of course, everyone wanted to get home for the holiday. Extending the shoot wasn’t an option.  Fortunately, the weather in Arizona cooperated, so we were lucky there. Usually, that is a factor on a multi-day shoot.  Adjusting for changing light is always tricky, though, when you’re shooting from sunrise to sunset.

Other challenges?   Hmmm…  Keeping the fires going in the grills and the smokers requires work and coordination.  The smoke on the set is a deterrent, but you still have to be conscious of flying insects as you don’t want them on camera or on the food.  Another thing: We didn’t have any running water on the set, which made things more difficult for the kitchen and prep crew, meaning water had to be hauled in in large containers.  And we had to keep an eye on the cows in the background! They always seemed to be curious about what it was we were doing.

Describe a typical day on the set for us, Matt.

Matt Cohen: Days started before sunrise.  The film crew would eat a buffet breakfast and talk about the day’s shooting schedule, then we’d head to the set, uncover the equipment, which we kept in tents, and set up.  Meanwhile, the prep kitchen, which was also in a tent, would have to have the food ready for the first segment of the day—usually something that could be direct-grilled quickly in real time.  Long-cooked dishes were generally saved for later.  We’d try to get at least one complete episode shot per day, but were there until nightfall sometimes.  Then you’d have a quick dinner, go to bed, and set the alarm for another early morning.

In the show, the cooking segments are interspersed with fireside interviews with Steven by someone off-camera. Why are these chats important to the show?

Matt Cohen: The idea is that the viewing audience doesn’t necessarily know Steven or the interesting back stories behind the dishes he prepares or the techniques that he demonstrates.  To some people, he might just be the guy who can show you how to achieve “killer grill marks.” But I wanted to illustrate the extraordinary historical and world dimension Steven brings to the food and to the show, to add a subtext to what he does. The chats became a way for people to get to know him better and to understand why he does what he does, and with such passion.

“Primal Grill” was taped in November. Does it really take 6 months to bring it to the air?

Matt Cohen: Yes, it does.  The real work begins once we’re back in the studio. We have to edit the content from three cameras that are not switched live on the set; this usually takes at least one week per episode. Then we have to add in music, graphics, background shots, rolling credits, and advertisements from the show’s sponsors. Closed captioning—where everything said is translated to text at the bottom of the screen—also takes time. Meanwhile, Maryland Public Television begins promoting the show to other stations in the American Public Television family. Once stations select “Primal Grill” for their spring/summer line-up, we have to set up a “feed” so they can download all 13 episodes. It’s quite a process from beginning to end.

Steven (Schupak), how does “Primal Grill with Steven Raichlen” differ from his long-running show, “Barbecue University,” also on PBS?

Steven Schupak: From my perspective, “Primal Grill” is the next logical step for Steven. The concept is the most important element, of course, and this series was based on Steven’s extensive research and travel around the world. This new series gets to the roots of barbecue, including flavors, aromas, equipment, techniques, and cooking styles.  It is a chance for his devoted followers—of which I am one—to easily recreate these recipes on their own grills, but to also understand and appreciate the origins of these dishes.  Plus, we had some really cool new grills.

What does the show mean for Maryland Public Television, and where does it fit in your line-up?

Steven Schupak: Maryland Public Television has a long history of cooking and how-to programs, including working with Julia Child in the 1970s.  “Primal Grill with Steven Raichlen” is a featured series in our current national line-up. The series was released just prior to Memorial Day, and we know it’s a hit.  Not only are 95 per cent of all public television stations carrying the series, but viewer response has been excellent.

On the set, Steven makes it look so simple. How many people are actually involved behind the scenes to make the show possible?

Steven Schupak: It’s a big group, more than 25 people. It starts with Steven, of course. His vision, his recipes. Behind him is the collective expertise of MPT, as well as Matt Cohen and his creative team at Resolution Pictures. Together, we shape the program content, design elements, graphic look and format into thirteen dynamic episodes. In addition, there are camera operators, lighting professionals, make-up people, photographers, audio people, food prep people, food coordinators,  fire-tenders, and even cattle wranglers in golf carts, who move the cows in and out of background shots!

Critical to the production was the gracious staff at the Tubac Golf Resort and Spa who took care of everyone’s needs, especially the young kitchen team that prepped all the food shown on camera.

Last, but not least, nothing in public TV happens without our sponsors.  We had a fabulous group of sponsors, including Weber, Reynolds Wrap, The Companion Group, and Workman Publishing.

How important are book sales through MPT?  What do the revenues from sales help to fund?

Steven Schupak: Book sales are essential to public television stations like MPT. We count on these sales to cover the costs of funding a big series like “Primal Grill.” (Go to to buy some of Steven’s titles) Part of the proceeds help us market the series so people know it’s on!

We understand a DVD featuring all episodes of Primal Grill plus extra footage has been produced.  Tell us about it, Steven.

Steven Schupak: We are really proud of this DVD; the layout of the episodes is really well done. Volume 1, which includes episodes 1-7 plus extras, has just been released. It includes two of my personal favorites: Shoulders and Butts, which helps anyone conquer the panic of cooking large hunks of meat; and Fish Without Fear, which helps you overcome all the insecurity of grilling seafood.  Volume 2, which will include the remaining six episodes plus even more extras, will be released soon.


Sneak preview! Here’s a recipe from “Primal Grill with Steven Raichlen” that hasn’t been posted yet at

Method: Indirect grilling
Serves: 8

8 Vidalia or other sweet onions, peeled
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 slices good-quality bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 cup your favorite brand of sweet red barbecue sauce
Freshly ground black pepper

You’ll also need:

8 pieces of aluminum foil, twisted into 2-inch rings or grilling rings
1-1/2 cups of wood chips or chunks, soaked for 1 hour, then drained

Using a sharp paring knife and working opposite the stem end, cut a cone-shaped cavity in each onion by angling your knife toward the center and cutting in a circle. Finely chop the onion you’ve removed. Set each onion on a foil ring with the cavity facing up.

Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the bacon and chopped onion and cook over medium heat until lightly browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain the bacon in a strainer over a bowl. Place a spoonful of the bacon mixture in the cavity of each onion. Cut the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter into 8 equal pieces. Spoon 1 tablespoon of the barbecue sauce into each onion and place a piece of butter on top. Sprinkle with pepper.

Set up the grill for indirect grilling and preheat to medium. If using a gas grill, place all of the wood chips or chunks into the smoker box or a smoker pouch and run the grill on high until you see smoke.
Then reduce heat to medium. If using a charcoal grill, place a large drip pan in the center and preheat the grill to medium, then toss all of the wood chips or chunks on the coals.

When ready to cook, place the onions on their rings in the center of the hot grate, over the drip pan, and away from the heat, and cover the grill. Cook the onions until they are golden brown and tender, 40 to 60 minutes. To test for doneness, pinch the side of an onion; it should be squeezably soft. If the filling starts to brown too much before the onions are fully cooked, cover the onions loosely with aluminum foil. Transfer the grilled onions to a platter or plates and serve at once.


Simplify the preparation of these ribs by substituting Best of Barbecue “Five Spice Barbecue Rub” and “Shanghai Barbecue Sauce” for the homemade versions here. Find both at

Method: Indirect grilling
Serves: 4 to 6
Advance Preparation: 4 to 6 hours for marinating the meat

3 to 4 pounds beef short ribs, bone-in

For the rub:

2 tablespoons Chinese 5-spice powder
1 tablespoon fine grained sea salt
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons ground white pepper

For the Shanghai Barbecue Sauce:

1 cup hoisin sauce
1/3 cup Chinese rice wine (Shaoxing) or dry sherry
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar, or more to taste
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon peeled, minced ginger
2 scallions, white and green parts minced

You’ll also need:
1-1/2 cups wood chips or chunks, soaked for 1 hour in water to cover, then

Make the rub: Combine the 5-spice powder, salt, sugar, and pepper in a small bowl and whisk to combine.

Make the barbecue sauce: In a nonreactive saucepan, combine the hoisin sauce, wine, soy sauce, sugar, ketchup, vinegar, garlic, ginger, and scallions. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until the sauce thickens (5 to 10 minutes).

Generously sprinkle the ribs on all sides with the rub. Cover the ribs with plastic wrap and refrigerate them while you set up the grill.

Set up a charcoal grill for indirect grilling and preheat to medium. Place a large drip pan in the center of the grill. When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Place the ribs in the center of the grate over the drip pan and away from the heat. Toss half of the wood chips on each mound of coals. Cover the grill and cook the ribs until they are well-browned, cooked through, and tender enough to pull apart with your fingers, about 1-1/2 to 2 hours. When the ribs are done, the meat will have shrunk back from the ends of the bones by about 1/4 inch.

Just before serving, brush the ribs on all sides with the Shanghai Barbecue Sauce and move them directly over the fire. Grill until the sauce is sizzling, 1 to 3 minutes per side. Watch carefully so the sugars in the barbecue sauce don’t burn. Transfer to a large platter or cutting board and let rest for a few minutes. Serve with the remaining barbecue sauce on the side. [Back to top]

Yours in righteous grilling,
Steven Raichlen, Grill Master and Editor-in-Chief
Nancy Loseke, Features Editor

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