BWW Interviews: For John Markus' Love of BBQ, All Roads Lead to Franken
After you read this sentence, I want you to close your eyes and envision what you think the world's greatest ambassador for barbecue cooking would look like. Ok, did you picture a Jewish boy from rural Ohio, who went to school at Stanford, won an Emmy for writing and running "The Cosby Show", and who was introduced to barbecue by comedian turned United States Senator, Al Franken? If you didn't, then there is a strong chance that you pictured the wrong guy.
A case could easily be made that John Markus, the creator and Executive Producer of Destination America's docu-reality series "BBQ Pitmasters" has done more for "The Art of Barbecue" than anyone in recent memory. In addition to filming the series' 13-episode fifth season, Markus is traveling the country's film festival circuit with his documentary "The Kings of BBQ Barbecue Kuwait," which chronicles a seven-day trip to Kuwait City in 2010 in which he and five all-star Pitmasters served 5,000 troops a taste of home.
While Markus, along with co-writer Mark St. Germain (whom Markus hired to be a writer on "The Cosby Show"), debuted their new play "The Fabulous Lipitones" at Atlanta's Theatrical Outfit (read BWW Atlanta's review here), the pair sat down to talk about a wide range of topics, including barbecue (Read BWW Atlanta's two-part feature here (Part I) and here (Part II)). However, the passion with which Markus speaks about the topic more than warranted further investigation.
Markus' love of barbecue was not something he developed as a boy growing up in the rural town of London, Ohio. "Here's what we do very well in Central Ohio, French Pot Ice Cream," Markus said while discussing local delicacy Graeter's Ice Cream. "We are very good at foods involving a ton of fat." Instead, he developed his fondness for barbecue from a quite unsuspected source.
After winning Emmy and Peabody Awards as the Show-Runner and Head Writer on "The Cosby Show," Markus co-created and executive produced the short-lived sitcom "LateLine," which starred former "Saturday Night Live" writer and actor Al Franken. While working on the show, self-proclaimed "grill-master" Franken made Markus his signature barbecue ribs. "(Franken) said he made the best ribs in New England," Markus recalled. "Obviously that bar is set pretty low. That's like being the best Jewish player in the NBA."
After Franken worked his magic with a soy sauce, garlic, and sugar mix and marinaded the ribs in garbage bags, a recipe Markus later learned was passed down from Fraken's grandmother, which she in turn had gotten from a Chinese restaurant in Minnesota, the two sat down to eat. "They were the worst things I've ever had in my life," Markus said. "(Franken) ate all of his, and all of mine."
Despite his inauspicious introduction to the world of barbecue, Markus was hooked, and sought out some of the best Pitmasters in the country from which to learn the trade. Later, as a correspondent for Franken's Air America political radio show, Markus visited barbecue restuarants around the country, which not only put him in touch with people who often disagreed with Franken's beliefs, but also with some of the best cooks barbecue had to offer. Chief amongst them was Chris Lilly of Decatur, Alabama's legendary Big Bob Gibson BBQ.
Lilly, whom Markus considers a mentor and the greatest living Pitmaster, actually first pitched Markus the idea of a barbecue television show called "Cast Iron Chef." While that idea didn't take off, it did eventually lead, after various incarnations on a number of networks, to "BBQ Pitmasters." The show has changed networks and formats out of necessity nearly every year. Markus said that the show, which started on TLC, has been cancelled at the conclusion of each of its seasons before it arrived at Destination America, where it is now the new network's flagship program. "It has found its sweet spot now and found its home at Destination America," Markus said.
As his TV show began to develop a following, Markus was again inspired by Franken to try something new. Before his eventually successful Senate run, Franken spent eight Christmases performing for troops as part of the USO. Upon returning from one of his trips, Franken told Markus that there were countless troops from the South that would love to have just a taste of barbecue. So, with Franken's urging, Markus contacted the USO about a potential Middle-East barbecue trip.
"(The USO) didn't understand what we wanted to pull off. They thought we'd go over, build a grill out of cinder blocks, and cook hamburgers and hotdogs," Markus said. "When they realized what it would actually entail, my calls stopped getting returned."
Undeterred, Markus continued to seek approval for his USO-BBQ trip for nearly two years; while in the meantime Franken won a lengthy recount (which Markus traveled to Minnesota to assist his friend in) to become the state of Minnesota's junior senator. Two days after Franken was sworn in, the CEO of the USO called Markus, at the behest of the new senator, to work out the details of the trip.
For 10 months, Markus and the USO, a private organization that receives no government funding, worked on details for the trip from how to transport equipment to what types of meat to serve. "Because it's a Muslim country, our military has to be very respectful of (the use of pork). It would have been a sensitive issue to cook such a large amount of pork ribs," Markus explained.
Eventually, they settled on certified Angus brisket from Germany and chickens from Kuwait City, killed the day before they arrived. Despite not knowing where they were headed, Markus and five of the best Pitmasters from his TV show boarded planes for the trip of a lifetime. A few short days later, they had provided over 5,000 troops a much-appreciated break from the dangers of war. "(Giving a taste of home) to people who are giving their lives over for our safety in service of our country, there's no greater feeling," Markus said.
That feeling immediately led Markus to start thinking about a return trip. "When we were finished and the last soldier was fed, I went to our head representative from the USO and said, 'We have to do this again,'" Markus recalled. However, the representative turned to him and said, "We are never doing this again."
With all of the meat purchased and 5,000 lbs. of equipment and three palettes of rubs and sauces shipped from the states, the total cost for the trip was over $325,000. However, for Markus, the response from the troops proved that it was more than worthwhile. One troop told Markus' documentary cameras that this was the first "home-cooked" meal he had eaten in over 11 months.
The documentary, "The Kings of BBQ Barbecue Kuwait," chronicles Markus' introduction to barbecue, the planning process for the trip, and footage from Kuwait. The film has already received awards, and will continue to compete at festivals across the country. While details haven't yet been announced, Markus said that they expect the film to be broadcast on major television networks later this year.
Although Markus is currently focusing on "The Fabulous Lipitones" with St. Germain, barbecue is never far from his mind. "Don't think that (a barbecue-themed musical) hasn't been talked about," Markus joked.
St. Germain, who has been friends with Markus for well-over 20 years, enjoys Markus' new expertise. "It's pretty stunning. I've had John's barbecue and it is unlike anything you've had anywhere else," St. Germain said.
Despite the praise, Markus said that is tough to get a non-connoisseur to eat barbecue with him, as he critiques each aspect of the meal. "People don't like to eat (barbecue) with me anymore," he said. "I'm like a sommelier of pork."
No matter the title, sommelier, Pitmaster, or producer/director, Markus' impact on the community that he loves has reached far beyond his dining room. The fifth season of "BBQ Pitmasters" debuts in June on Destinarion America and "The Kings of BBQ Barbecue Kuwait" should be coming to a screen near you before year's end. To get all of the latest BBQ from Markus, follow him on Twitter @BBQPitmasters.
Also, the world premiere of "The Fabulous Lipitones" plays the Balzer Theater at Herren's in Atlanta through April 21st. To purchase tickets, call (678) 528-1500 or visit Theatrical Outfit's website.