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.