Interview with the Champs – Old Colony Smokehouse
By Brian Walrath, MABA BOD and Pitmaster for Brown Liquor BBQ
Congratulations on your recent victory on Chopped! You sure made the Mid-Atlantic proud and represented the great state of North Carolina well.
Thank you! Being part of Chopped! was a great experience and I appreciate you asking me to share a little about it.
How did you prepare for the show?
When I got confirmation that I was going to be on the show, I binge watched every Chopped! episode I could find, mainly just to get a feel for how to handle the mystery ingredients. I put myself in the shoes of the competitors and paused the TV after each round’s ingredients were revealed and I’d try to think of as many dishes as possible to make with those ingredients. I think that exercise really got my brain working in the right direction. I also paid attention to the available pantry ingredients and the personal tastes of the judges. Looking back I’m not sure if any of that preparation helped me. Once you open the basket and the clock starts ticking, you have to act on instinct. There’s not enough time to make well thought out decisions.
What were you expecting? Was it anything like you anticipated?
I didn’t really know what to expect but I can say that I was surprised by the amount of production that goes into a single episode. Competitors show up before 6AM and if you’re lucky enough to make it through all 3 rounds, you don’t get out of there until around 11PM. That’s a 17 hour day of filming a show that only airs for an hour, with only an hour and 20 minutes of actual cooking. I had no idea it would be that involved.
I also didn’t expect the high level of security and secrecy about the show. When you walk in, they make you empty your pockets and take everything away from you except the clothes you’re wearing. You don’t get it back until it’s time to go home. There are security guards at every door and the competitors are escorted everywhere, even to the bathroom, throughout the day.
But the set, the judges, sequester rooms, and the clock are just like you see on TV. Walking into the Chopped! kitchen for the first time was a really cool feeling.
Who did you think was your biggest competition in the NC pitmaster show? Were you surprised by any of the results?
I knew that I would be competing against 3 other North Carolina cooks in the first episode. While I didn’t know who they would be, I had some ideas of who the producers might have chosen to represent our state. So, I was not at all surprised to see Jerry Stephenson of Redneck Scientific and Christopher Prieto of Prime Barbecue at the studio. They are 2 of the most well-known NC BBQ guys out there. I didn’t know Melanie Dunia from The Pit in Raleigh, but anyone who watched the show saw very quickly that she has some serious skills. With that caliber of competition, I really felt like I was the underdog of the group and honestly I was surprised each round that I wasn’t the one who got chopped.
How did it feel to win the NC show?
To win the NC episode was an amazing feeling and something that I really had not even considered a possibility. It really elevated my pride having world renowned chefs giving such positive feedback on what I consider everyday NC dishes. Having success using dishes that were inspired by my family and my childhood made it that much better.
I had no idea who I would be up against in the finals. Based on my experience and the judges’ comments in the North Carolina episode, my primary goal was to work faster and manage the clock better so that I would have enough time to focus more on the presentation of my dishes. In the first episode, I simply ran out of time and felt like I left a little something on the table in each round so I really wanted to make sure that didn’t happen in the finals.
What are you most proud of having done this experience?
I’m extremely proud that I was able to showcase some of my heritage and give a look into my family who has been a major influence on my love of food and cooking. When people from other states think of North Carolina, they usually think of the big cities like Raleigh and Charlotte. But most of North Carolina is made up of small town people who are poor in economy and rich in heritage. Being one of those people, I was really proud to bring small town NC to a national stage.
What one thing would you change if you could looking back at either episode?
If you watched the finale, then you know I got chopped because I served some undercooked turnips in my entree. I used the greens from the turnips in my chimichurri sauce, so technically, I would’ve been fine not using the rest of the turnip. With that in mind, if I could go back and do it again, I would just stick with the greens and not screw around with the rest of the turnip.
Would you do it again?
100% without question I would do it again. The whole experience was a lot of fun and I’m grateful to have been a part of it. I would really like to do a true grilling competition that takes place outside using charcoal, wood, and fire. Maybe they’ll bring back that format and give us all another shot.
What was the hardest part of the experience?
There were a lot things that were challenging: working in a kitchen you’ve never been in before, having limited ingredients, not knowing what’s in the pantry and where things are, not knowing what utensils you have to work with, etc. But I didn’t realize the hardest part until the morning of the finale. Filming Chopped! is physically and mentally exhausting. As I mentioned earlier, the episodes start filming really early in the morning and it’s not over until late at night. We filmed the NC episode on a Wednesday, I spent a little over 12 hours on Thursday filming promos and other things, and was back at it for the finale on Friday morning bright and early. Factor in the periodic adrenaline rushes followed by sitting around waiting for producers throughout the day and you get exhausted. Having to find a way to push through the exhaustion was without a doubt the hardest part.
What was the best part of the experience?
So many good things have come out of this experience, but the best has been the support shown by my BBQ friends and family. The nights of the episode airings I really thought my phone was going to melt because of so many calls, texts, and messages. The BBQ community is awesome in so many ways and this is just one of them.
You’re also having a great year on the KCBS circuit with your most recent GC at Crisfield, MD at Smokin on the Dock of the Bay. Tell our readers a little about that day.
2018 is shaping up to be a pretty good season for OCS. We’ve fallen short for one reason or another several times this year but we’ve been blessed with some good luck too. The Crisfield contest was one where luck just went our way, I think the margin between GC and RGC was around .03 points. We turned in 3 solid boxes and 1 not so solid and the points just fell in our favor. The venue for the Crisfield contest was awesome. We were lucky enough to get a spot in the grass right up against the bay. Anybody who did not participate in that event this year should definitely give it a look for 2019.
You’ve been competing a lot more this year. What contests do you have left on your calendar for 2018 and what are your goals moving forward?
We have. The contest count in 2018 has gotten out of hand quickly. We were initially thinking of competing in 17-20 this year but we’re at 21 now with a few more on the schedule to finish out the season including 2 great contests that are less than an hour from home: the Eastern Carolina BBQ Throwdown in Rocky Mount, NC and the Currituck Heritage Festival in Powell’s Point, NC. The goal for the rest of the year is to stay consistent. We’re close, but not quite there. Hopefully we’ll figure out the secret to consistency and finish the year strong.
Anything you’d like to add?
I’d like to thank everyone for their support throughout the whole Chopped! process. As I mentioned before, that was by far the best part of the experience. I’d also like to put in a plug for the Currituck Heritage Festival. I’m sure everyone has seen that this event has been rescheduled for the first weekend in November of this year. They have an amazing venue with RV hookups, indoor showers, and first class hospitality. Anybody interested in adding one more contest to their schedule this year should really check this one out.