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An Interview with Charles Pinsky

Dear Up in Smoke Reader,

In a departure from the format of past newsletters, we thought we’d give you an insider’s view of what it takes to shoot and produce a television series. You might think it’s a simple process. Not so, as you’ll learn in this exclusive interview with Charles Pinsky of frappé, inc., director and executive producer of BBQ U. “Charlie” has been a fixture on the set of BBQ U since the beginning. In his trademark baseball cap, usually barefooted, he micromanages, to great effect, every detail on the set straight through production, a process that takes months. He has worked on food-related programs with Maryland Public Television (the sponsor of BBQ U) for more than 20 years. Charlie has won five James Beard Awards and was recently nominated for a sixth.

The fourth season of BBQ U began airing April 1 in select PBS markets. The roll-out of the new series will continue in the coming weeks. The season features more than 50 all-new recipes by Steven (two previously unpublished recipes are reprinted for you below). You’ll also see bold new themes, novel ingredients, ingenious techniques, and the latest equipment. To check dates and times in your viewing area, log on to BBQ U. Nancy recently interviewed Charlie for this newsletter.

Charlie, you filmed 13 30-minute episodes of Season 4 of BBQ U last September. Please tell us what happens in the months between the show’s taping and its airing on PBS this Spring.

The taping of a TV series like BBQ U is literally the tip of the iceberg. We shot 53 recipes this season, and each and every take has to be screened in real time. We screened 106 hours of tape to arrive at the final 6-1/2 hours of tape. Next, using special software, we log the recipes and the exact time (down to 1/30th of a second). The editor then transfers the media from tape to digital disk—a process called “digitizing”—for each of the five cameras. The resulting material is roughly edited and returned to the producer. Steven also reviews these “roughs,” which have the audio and four different versions of video. One video version is selected, then each show is compressed until it’s exactly 26 minutes and 46 seconds long. Each show takes over 20 hours of sound-mixing. We make Steven’s words sound as clear as possible, and add music, “tease,” announcements, etc.

Once we have a “master,” we send it to the National Closed Captioning Institute in Virginia. Standard and high-definition versions are created. Then Maryland Public Television technically evaluates every single second of every show. (We always pass their stringent tests!) Finally, two copies are forwarded to the distributor and they are beamed via satellite to the PBS stations. As I said, shooting is just the tip of the iceberg.

Tell us about the equipment.

Essentially, we recreate at remote Howard’s Creek the technical capabilities you’d find in a big city studio. This requires a lot of engineering and a lot of equipment, which we truck to the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. In the control tent, we have computers and 12 monitors that capture each image in “isolation” from five cameras. One camera—the one that gets the overhead shots as well as the sweeping views of the Greenbrier property— hangs on a jib arm that can extend 32 feet. The operator controls it with something that looks like bicycle handlebars, although operating the jib is a bit harder than riding a bike. . . . Two additional cameras shoot from other angles. We also have two “micro-cams” that are operated remotely by a specialist in the tent.

Literally miles of cables are needed to hook up all the equipment. Add lighting, and the power requirements are gigantic. We work with the Greenbrier engineers to set up the circuits required to handle the huge electrical demand.

What’s the story on the GrillCam?

GrillCam started as a crazy idea in my head. I didn’t know whether it would work, or how, but Weber, one of Steven’s sponsors, got very excited, so prototypes were built. Over the last three seasons, we’ve learned a lot, including how to do time lapse. We can also show what’s happening inside a grill even when it is covered, although lighting it is tricky. Sometimes, we even tell Steven when the food is ready to flip since we can see what is happening from underneath.

GrillCam works so well that our audio man rigged up his own “at home” version so he can see what is happening on his grill while he preps for dinner in the kitchen.

Have you and the current crew worked together before, and how many people are on the set during the shoot?

We have an experienced crew when we show up each season to shoot BBQ U; most of us have been working together for years. Four camera operators (3 men, 1 woman) control five cameras. We have an audio man who monitors Steven’s wireless microphones and a stage director who relays information from the “truck,” although technically, the “truck” was swapped out years ago for a large tent, which is more comfortable. In the tent are the director/producer (me), the technical director, the remote camera operator, and someone who logs everything that happens on a computer. This person also has copies of Steven’s books and recipes so we can confirm quantities and cooking times.

Finally, there is a culinary team of four chefs who prep all the food, and a coordinator who interfaces between the two prep kitchens and the set. One person handles the formidable task of getting 50-some different grills and smokers assembled and delivered We also have “floaters” who keep the fires burning (including the one in the outdoor fireplace that appears in the show behind Steven), run errands, or do whatever is necessary. Usually, there are between 15 and 20 people on the set. Sometimes we have visitors—curious golfers, fishermen (there’s a trout stream next to the set), or horseback riders who are attracted to the scene out of curiosity or by the smell of good food. As you can see, BBQ U is truly a team effort.


How do you cook a turkey or 18-pound beef clod in a 30-minute program?

Take your turkey example: The kitchen would prep at least 3 turkeys; maybe they’d even have spares. One would be raw, one partially cooked, and the third completely finished. The latter two are called “swap-outs.” A lot of forward thinking and coordination go into the successful filming of a recipe from start to finish.

What’s new in Season 4?

We’ve had four years together as a team, and have our “act” together. There are new graphics, new music, and new special effects. Also, the season was shot in 16 by 9 aspect ratio format so it can be broadcast in regular and hi-definition versions. Steven’s got a new look—he dropped the denim shirt for a chamois-colored one. He’s enthusiastic about demo-ing new techniques on new equipment (such as a Weber ‘Q, a Grand Turbo, and a cool built-in outdoor kitchen). You’ll see new recipes, too, some not in his books.

What are the unique challenges of directing and producing BBQ U?

Steven has to perform in front of the camera while risking life and limb (or maybe loin) to live fire. For me, the biggest challenge is maintaining technical control over an outdoor set. There’s not just the threat of inclement weather; there’s the ever-changing sun. We never want the sun to shine directly on Steven or the set. Instead, we light those areas to be in balance with Mother Nature’s backdrop. As the sun moves, we have to move. We use a giant “silk”—a sheer piece of white fabric suspended on a frame—to simulate natural light. The irony is that it takes a lot of work just to make the scene look “natural.” We want the viewer to see what the food really looks like at each stage of preparation. That requires a lot of skill and timing.

The food always looks fantastic on the set. Tell us it doesn’t go to waste.

If you’d ever been on a TV shoot, you’d know that TV crews are chronically underfed and over-hungered. They get first crack at the food, and if there’s anything left (there usually isn’t), it’s contributed to the staff meal at the Greenbrier.

Do you have a favorite recipe from Season 4?

I love anything pork, so the shows “Rib Master” and “High on the Hog” were right up there for me. (One of Charlie’s favorite recipes is below.)

Is it possible to buy copies of our favorite BBQ U episodes?

Not at this time, but we produced a DVD with highlights from the first three seasons of BBQ U which is available through the Barbecue Store. Next year, we’ll do the same for Seasons 4 and 5.

Charlie, you’re a multiple James Beard Award winner. Do you work exclusively on food-related projects?


Every year I try to do at least one non-food related project. I’ve produced entertainment-related shows such as one for PBS about the history of sit-coms based on Carl Reiner’s life. But my bread and butter is food, and because each series is so different from the others, I never seem to tire of doing food TV. Shooting and staying at the Greenbrier is right up there for me and the crew—great digs, great food, and more relaxing than when we are traveling the world and taping the famous restaurants. It’s a tough life but somebody has to do it.

Thanks, Charlie!


Con Mucha Cerveza

This recipe utilizes a hip, relatively new cut of steak called the flatiron. Also known as a “shoulder top blade,” it’s cut from the chuck in a way that bypasses the connective tissue that runs through the center. The result resembles a flank steak in shape. Crosswise cuts are made to create steaks. They’re reasonably priced, and have a very rich beefy, meaty flavor

Method: Direct
Yield: Serves 4
Advance Preparation: 2 hours for marinating the steaks

2 flatiron or skirt steaks (about 2 to 2-1/2 pounds, each about 3/8- to 3/4-inch thick)
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 bottle (8 ounces) dark Mexican beer
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 to 2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and finely chopped (for hotter steaks, leave the seeds in)
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 bunches scallions, trimmed
4 to 8 jalapeño peppers
4 flour tortillas
Lime wedges
Your favorite salsa in an attractive bowl

You’ll also need:
2 cups wood chips or chunks (preferably mesquite or oak), soaked for 1 hour in water to cover, then drained

Generously season the steaks on both sides with salt and black pepper. Place the steaks in a nonreactive baking dish just large enough to hold them and drizzle the olive oil over them. Turn the steaks a couple of times, rubbing them with your fingertips to coat with oil

Combine the beer, lime juice, onion, garlic, chopped jalapeno(s), and cilantro in a nonreactive mixing bowl and stir to mix. Pour the marinade over the steaks and let them marinate in the refrigerator, covered, for 1 to 2 hours, turning them a couple of times so that they marinate evenly.

Set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat to high. If using a gas grill, place all of the wood chips or chunks in the smoker box or in a smoker pouch and run the grill on high until you see smoke. If using a charcoal grill, preheat it to high, then toss 1 cup of the wood chips or chunks on the coals.

When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Place the scallions and whole jalapenos on the hot grate and grill until nicely browned on all sides. This will take 2 to 3 minutes per side (6 to 9 minutes in all) for the jalapenos and 3 to 4 minutes per side (6 to 8 minutes in all) for the scallions. Transfer the grilled vegetables to a plate.

Remove the steaks from the marinade and drain, discarding the marinade. If using a charcoal grill, toss the remaining 1 cup of wood chips or chunks on the coals. Place the marinated steaks on the hot grate and grill until cooked to taste, 4 to 6 minutes per side for medium-rare, rotating each steak a quarter turn after 2 minutes on each side to create an attractive crosshatch of grill marks. Season the steaks on both sides with salt and pepper. To test for doneness, use the poke method: the meat should be gently yielding. Transfer the grilled steaks to plates or a platter and let rest for 3 minutes.

Warm the tortillas on the grill, about 15 seconds per side, and transfer them to a cloth-lined basket. Serve the steaks with the grilled jalapenos, scallions, and tortillas and salsa on the side. To eat, wrap bite-size pieces of steak in a tortilla with some of the scallions, jalapenos, and salsa.

With Piri Piri Relish

Here’s one of Charlie’s favorite recipes from Season 4 of BBQ U. It comes from Steven’s latest book, “Raichlen on Ribs” which will be released next month by Workman Publishing.

Method: Spit-roasting/rotisserie
Yield: Serves 4
Advance Preparation: 4 to 12 hours for marinating the ribs

1/2 green bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into 1-inch pieces (save the other half for the relish)
1/2 medium sweet onion, such as Vidalia, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces (save the other half for the relish, recipe follows)
3 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half
Fresh ginger (1-inch piece), peeled and cut into 1/4-inch slices
2 teaspoons coarse salt (kosher or sea)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/2 cup coconut milk or 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch fresh cilantro (or parsley), washed, shaken dry, stemmed and finely chopped (reserve 3 tablespoons for the relish)
2 racks of baby back ribs (4 to 5 pounds)
Piri Piri Relish (recipe follows)

Place the bell pepper, onion, garlic, ginger, salt, and pepper in a food processor fitted with a metal chopping blade. Puree to a coarse paste by pulsing the machine. Pour the lime juice and the coconut milk in through the feed tube and pulse again to mix. Add half the cilantro and pulse the machine to mix.

Remove the thin, papery membrane from the back of each rack of ribs: Turn a rack meat-side down. Insert a sharp implement, such as the tip of a meat thermometer, under the membrane (the best place to start is right next to the first rib bone). Using a dishcloth or pliers to gain a secure grip, pull off the membrane. Repeat with the other rack. Place the ribs in a roasting pan. Pour the marinade over them, turning several times to coat both sides. Cover with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or as long as overnight—the longer, the richer the flavor.

Drain the ribs well and thread the ribs onto the rotisserie spit. Using a sharp, slender knife, and starting on the bone side, make starter holes in the meat between every two ribs. Twist the knife blade to widen the holes. This makes it easier to insert the spit. Use an over-and-under weaving motion to thread the ribs, through the holes, onto the spit. Set up the grill for spit-roasting and preheat to high.

When ready to cook, attach the spit to the rotisserie mechanism and turn on the motor. Grill the ribs, covered, until golden brown and cooked through, 40 minutes to 1 hour, depending on their size. The ribs are done when the meat has shrunk back about 1/4-inch from the ends of the bones. Transfer the spit with the ribs to a cutting board. Carefully pull out the skewer. Cut each rack of ribs into 2 bone segments. Spoon a little Piri Piri Relish over the ribs, serving the rest on the side. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve at once.

Piri Piri Relish

Yield: About 1 cup

1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, finely chopped
2 ripe tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped
2 to 4 piri piri peppers (or other pickled hot peppers or fresh chiles), minced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons fresh chopped cilantro
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) or freshly ground black pepper

Place the onion, pepper, tomatoes, piri piri peppers, olive oil, lime juice, and cilantro in a bowl and stir to mix. Add salt and pepper and additional lime juice, if needed, to taste.

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

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