Newsletter Signup | Subscribe to Magazine

Pitmaster 101

Consider this story your only prerequisite course to enrolling.

Story By Barry Kaufman  +  Photography by Michael Hrizuk/Hilton Head Island Seafood Festival


There is a certain reverence around the art of barbecue, and rightfully so. Sure, it takes talent to make quiche, for example, but it lacks a certain mystique. With barbecue, doing it right means setting aside time to let smoke and heat work their gradual magic, teasing the juiciest flavors from meat in a process that demands you take your sweet time.

It takes years to learn how to do it right, and even seasoned pitmasters will tell you that they’re still learning new techniques. But for those seeking their first introduction to this world, the Hilton Head Island Seafood Festival is now accepting new students in Pitmaster 101. This special event will be held Feb. 27 at Waddell Mariculture Center, inviting freshman-level BBQers to get an intro course into the art and science of perfectly prepared Q.

Robert Owens (left) and Gregory Vivier are the men behind Grand Champion BBQ, which has six locations across Georgia. Zagat named their restaurant “One of the Top 13 BBQ joints in the nation.”

Nice to meat you

Your professors for this class represent some of the most esteemed names in Lowcountry barbecue. Bryan Furman of B’s Cracklin’ BBQ is the genius behind two award-winning locations, one in Atlanta and one in Savannah. And Robert Owens of Grand Champion BBQ has been recognized in outlets from Southern Living to Zagat for his delectable barbecue.

Each professor brings something different to the table, both literally and figuratively.

Professor Furman will be serving up Heritage Pork Shoulders, part of his mission to shake things up. “I always try to do something different,” he said. Last year I did smoked jerk duck.

Chew the fat

The pork shoulder is a unique cut of meat, and one well served for an intro-level barbecue course, because of its high fat content. Students who are expecting the typical low and slow preparation will be pleasantly surprised to learn that there’s more to barbecue than that.

“I like to stay around 250 or 275 degrees,” he said. “If you try to cook something fatty at 225, the fat isn’t going to render. You cook at a higher temperature, you burn the fat off the meat and you’re going to have that cracklin’ crust.”

Into the woods

Professor Furman’s portion of the lesson will cover the basics of seasoning and preparation, as well as the differences between various woods. “In Savannah I get a lot of cherry and oak. But in Atlanta … I use a lot of pecan,” he said. “I try to stay away from really strong wood. It overpowers the meat. I want to cook everything on one smoker and not worry about overhelming the meat. When you’re cooking ribs, chicken, pork and brisket on one smoker, you want your wood mild.”

But the main takeway for Professor Furman’s lesson is that knowing the meat is as essential as knowing the heat.

Three pounds per person

Professor Owens’ portion of the lesson will deliver the more straightforward barbecue experience, with a pair of 125-pound pigs cooked low and slow at 225 over post oak and a little hickory. “We want to make sure everybody gets fed,” laughed Owens. “Your general rule of thumb is one pound a person, but I think with that portion it’s probably going to be three.”

So, you know, come hungry.

Owens will guide students through the basics of trimming, injecting, rubs, different woods and their temperatures, and times. For him, that last lesson is the most important one. “The joy of it is that it takes a long time, and while it cooks, you’re sitting around socializing,” he said. “It’s really the experience of enjoying the fruits of your labor.”

Watch and learn

Barbecue being such a long and involved process, both professors are prepping early, letting students see both ends of the several-hour wait. At the start of class, they’ll be preparing the meat to go into the smoker so students can get a feel for seasonings and flavor injections. At the end of the class, finished barbecue started hours earlier should be ready to come off the smoker for tasting.

“We want people to get closer to it and understand the process,” said Furman. “I mean, this is a 48-72 hour process from start to finish…. Even a quick 101 behind the scenes class will let people get a feel for the amount of love that goes into it.”

Naturally, both professors will be keeping office hours after class, since the barbecue prepared at the start of class will still have about 17 hours before it’s ready. “As long as people want to hang out, we’ll be there.”

Pitmaster 101

When: 4:30-6 p.m., Feb. 27

Where: Waddell Mariculture Center, Bluffton

Details: Join pitmasters Bryan Furman of B’s Cracklin’ BBQ and Robert Owens of Grand Champion BBQ as they prepare for the wildly popular Pig Pickin’ & Oyster Roast event. You will learn techniques on fire, seasonings, protein practices, smoking temperatures and more. Taste a preview of what’s to come with special samples and cocktail. $49.

Save the Dates: Feb. 24-March 1

The Hilton Head Island Seafood Festival is a family friendly, week-long culinary and cultural tourism event, where top chefs, mixologists, sommeliers, local seafood, artisans, live music and wildlife come together.

Feb 24-28 Lowcountry Seafood Experience on the Water

Feb 26 At Table Seaside: Culinary Discussion + Chef Experience

Feb 27 Pitmaster 101 with Bryan Furman and Robert Owens

Feb 27 Friends of James Beard Southern Supper

Feb 28 Celebrity Chef Master Classes with chefs William Dissen, Brian Hart Hoffman and Barton Seaver

Feb 28 Pig Pickin’ + Oyster Roast

Feb 29 Saturday Seafood Festival

Feb 29 Official Seafood Festival After Party

March 1 Seafood & Champagne Sunday Brunch