September 6, 2006
Michel Richard on American Barbecue

When you're a judge at the Best in the West Rib Cook-Off over Labor Day weekend in Sparks, Nev., you aren't to eat any ribs before the competition. Not that there isn't plenty of non-competing food to tempt your palate, including grilled corn on the cob, funnel cakes and berry cobblers. There's also other diversions, from several musical venues to the Game Zone, where people competed in various entertaining sporting challenges involving hulahoops, basketballs and footballs.

This year, for the first time, the sideline shows also included the set for a new television reality program, "Barbecue Championship Series," nine one-hour episodes to appear this fall on Outdoor Life Network, soon to become Versus. Visitors to the cook-off could take their ribs onto bleachers to watch the filming and possibly become part of the show as the audience.

The series, to be spread over nine one-hour episodes, will pit 18 barbecue cooks against each other in challenges that involve cooking several types of meat, poultry and seafood. The 18 were recruited from throughout the country, 12 of them professional barbecue cookers, six of them backyard cooking enthusiasts who were found through open casting, said the creater of the show, Chris Lilly, owner of two Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q restaurants in Decatur, Ala.

Between segments, I caught up with one of the three judges, Michel Richard, resplendent in pineapple-yellow Tommy Bahama shirt and snazzy straw fedora, drawing on a cigar under a marquee behind the set. Richard, a native of Champagne who immigrated to the United States in 1974 and has owned several restaurants on both coasts, now is best known as the owner of Michel Richard Citronelle in Washington, D.C.

So, what's a French chef learning of American barbecue as he helps retain and eliminate contestants? "It's so sweet, and so delicious," answers Richard. "The way they cook is so gentle, so very tender, but sometimes they add too much sweetness. Other than that, it's perfect."

The series is helping broaden his perspective on American cooking as he prepares to open his next restaurant, Central, also to be in Washington, D.C. The menu will be largely American - "but with a French accent," he notes.

The other judges are former NBA player Darryl "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins and Los Angeles actress Megyn Price.

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