The Great Titan Meat Up

Up In Smoke

May 8, 2018
Photographers: Jason Gonderman, Courtesy of Nissan
It all started as a joke. Nissan’s new VP of Trucks Billy Hayes stood before an assembled audience of automotive journalists at the State Fair of Texas, holding a goat on a leash, and uttered the simple phrase, “I’ll put my smoked brisket up against anybody’s.” Not a wise move to challenge Texans in the arena of barbecue. Nobody would have guessed, however, that a Truck Trend staffer born and raised by the beach in California would be the one to call his bluff. It was with that simple exchange that the Great Titan Meat Up was born.
Over the course of the following six months, the Nissan PR team would work tirelessly to turn Billy’s idle threat into a television-worthy cooking competition. They built a concept vehicle, the Smokin’ Titan, which would support the competition, debuting it at the 2018 Work Truck Show in Indianapolis. The competitors were gathered, judges selected, and rules ironed out. A venue in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, not far from Nissan’s North American headquarters, would serve as the hallowed battleground. And a fleet of ’18 Titan and Titan XD pickups were mobilized to support competitor and crew alike.
The rules were simple: Each of the six teams would prepare a different protein, which would then be judged against Nissan’s executive team, who in turn would be preparing all six. Celebrity chefs Cory Bahr and David Rose would serve as impartial judges and would set the criteria by which each dish would be judged. Proteins and basic supplies would be provided, each team would use the same model of Traeger grill, and everyone would have the same 12-hour time limit. Simple enough, right?
Photo 2/93   |   The Great Titan Meat Up Logo

Meet the Teams

Team Truck Trend – Brisket
Since it was our very own network content director, Sean P. Holman, who called Billy’s bluff to begin with, we were given first choice of protein, which naturally had to be brisket. As a team, we were all quite fond of brisket and competent in its preparation, though none of us had any prior experience with an electric smoker such as the Traeger unit we’d be cooking on. In addition to Mr. Holman, our team also included Truck Trend Editor-in-Chief Jason Gonderman and Staff Editor Brett T. Evans. Staying true to our roots, we didn’t need a cutesy team name.
Photo 3/93   |   The Great Titan Meat Up Team Truck Trend
Team “Swine By Me” – Pork
Making a valiant attempt at pulled pork was the team from AutoGuide.com. Its team included AutoGuide Detroit Bureau Editor Craig Cole, News Editor Stephen Elmer, and Video Producer Ben Sanders. One of the team members is Canadian, a fact they relentlessly touted as an advantage; we’re not sure it helped them any.
Photo 4/93   |   The Great Titan Meat Up Team Swine By Me
Team “Meat Your Maker” – Turkey
Smoked turkey is challenge for even the most seasoned veteran. That’s why the team from Internet Brands/Motor Authority, or Team IBS as they preferred to be called, brought in a ringer. Aaron Cole, managing editor at Internet Brands, led the team, which also included Charles Dyas and Robert Yarbrough. Spoiler alert, even with a professional chef on board, they didn’t win.
Photo 5/93   |   The Great Titan Meat Up Team Turkey
Team “Smokin’ Caliente” – Ribs
Not going to lie, these ladies scared us. We knew what we were up against with the rest of the competition, but Annie Alvarez and Michelle Rosenberg, a pair of Latina food bloggers from Miami, were the perfect combination for some killer ribs with unique island-inspired flavor.
Photo 6/93   |   The Great Titan Meat Up Team Ribs
Team PickupTrucks.com – Lamb
The only other team to represent its brand with wholehearted love was the crew from PickupTrucks.com. Contrary to popular belief, those of us who cover the pickup beat are more friend than foe. Detroit Bureau Chief Aaron Bragman and photographer Christian Lantry took on lamb and succeeded—stay tuned.
Photo 7/93   |   The Great Titan Meat Up Team Pickup Trucks
Team Canton – Chicken
In addition to the five journalist teams was one comprised of employees from Nissan’s Canton, Mississippi, assembly plant. From the paint department on the Titan line came Randy Jenkins and Jerome Staten. Despite not cooking together before this competition, Randy and Jerome beat out 20 other teams at the Canton plant to earn their ticket to the Great Titan Meat Up. We knew we were all in trouble from the start, as this team was already winners.
Photo 8/93   |   The Great Titan Meat Up Team Canton
Team Nissan – All Proteins
Led by Billy Hayes, division vice president, Nissan Regional Operations (and previously VP of Trucks), the Nissan team that we’d all be competing against also includes Tiago Castro, Kevin Yeoh, and Ari Schiftan. Don’t be fooled, each of these team members has a title equally as long as the last.
Photo 9/93   |   The Great Titan Meat Up Team Nissan

Prelude to Destruction

Since we were partly to blame for the creation of this event, we were kept slightly in the loop during the planning stages. Whether this was an advantage or just caused more stress is certainly debatable. Things really started to get serious when the official invitation crossed our desk. Little work got done, as most office time was spent planning and preparing. Sketches of plate layouts and presentation designs littered our desks, as did the downloaded owner’s manual for the smoker we’d be using. Employees in other divisions were ready to file formal HR complaints as we teased their taste buds with talk of BBQ in our “open concept” workspace. As time drew shorter, we found ourselves cooking practice briskets and making several batches of test sauces. We also gathered nearly 100 pounds of gear to fly with us to the other side of the country. Rules were pretty simple, and we quickly found the areas where we could stretch them a bit.
Photo 10/93   |   The Great Titan Meatup Web Extra 009
Judging was to be done out in the open by the celebrity chefs. Each protein would be scored on four categories: presentation, general impression, and serving methods; creativity and practicality; correct preparation and craftsmanship; and flavor, taste, and texture. Knowing this, our final plan was set into motion. We’d prepare our brisket three ways: sliced, chopped, and burnt ends, with our own unique sauce, and we’d present it alongside two colorful sides for added presentation flair. The competition was ours to lose, or so we thought.

D-Day Is Upon Us

The old saying “there’s no rest for the weary” should have been our team’s motto as we headed into the competition. After a full day of travel, we hit the ground running as soon as our plane touched down in Knoxville. Leaving Sean behind at the hotel to distract Nissan and the other teams, Brett and Jason slipped out for a midnight run to the local grocery store to gather all of the covert supplies that we didn’t tell Nissan we needed and couldn’t fly in with us. This included all of the fixings for the two side dishes that we were told not to prepare—but planned to anyway—along with a cooler to store the goods and a roll of duct tape to keep prying eyes out of said cooler.
Photo 14/93   |   The Great Titan Meatup Web Extra 002
The following morning, all of the teams convened for a brief meeting before saddling up in our assigned Titans and heading to the small town of Pigeon Forge. That evening, we were allocated our team cabins, introduced to the judges and the Nissan team that we’d be competing against, and given our OtterBox cooler full of meat to prep. After a quick dash through the makeshift pantry to gather the remainder of our supplies, our team headed back to the house for a full night of cooking.
With the competition now in full swing, Team Truck Trend, along with the help of freelance contributor to The Drive, Jerry Perez, put the rental cabin’s terrible kitchen to the test. As a team, we worked in the kitchen until 2:30 a.m. the next morning. We made two batches of scratch-made Dr. Pepper barbecue sauce, southern-baked macaroni and cheese with jalapenos and bacon, and a Spanish elote off-the-cob salad, then prepped one full packer brisket for slicing and chopping and another brisket point for burnt ends. All of the produce was fresh and hand-chopped, and our team cooked everything. We were so busy we barely had time to partake in adult beverages offered to us by the competition who stopped by to size us up throughout the night. Leaving the kitchen in shambles, we asked Siri to set us an alarm for 4 a.m. and crawled off to bed for what would be just a quick nap before the real fun began.

Light ’Em Up

At 4:30 a.m. we cleared out the kitchen, loaded our supplies into our Titan, and headed for the competition grounds located a short distance away. The official competition start time was 5 a.m., and knowing that our brisket would take the longest to cook, we were the first team to arrive, followed shortly by the guys from Nissan. We lit off the Traeger smoker right on time and had our meat smoking by 5:30 a.m. What followed were many hours of waiting and watching.
Photo 30/93   |   The Great Titan Meatup Web Extra 014
Tired and bored is a bad combination, and we soon found ourselves wrapping all of the competition’s smokers in copious amounts of caution tape that we had brought with us for a purpose much like this. We may have also swapped out another team’s placards for our own Truck Trend license plates. That’s what they get for showing up late to the party.
Hours continued to pass as we monitored the Traeger and kept watch over our precious meat’s internal temperature. With a hard deadline of 5 p.m. to have our dish plated and ready to serve to the judges, we had to pull the meat at 4 p.m. despite being a few degrees shy of what we would consider ideal. No worries, it was still incredibly tender and juicy, just the way a brisket ought to be. We covered the brisket in foil and plopped it into the OtterBox cooler to rest while we finished up the macaroni and cheese on the smoker, put the last touches on the elote, and prepared our serving arrangement. At 4:45 the brisket came out from its rest to get sliced and chopped, and we headed in for the verdict.
Photo 31/93   |   This was to be our workstation for the next 12 hours. The Great Smoky Mountains sure are peaceful several hours before dawn.
Photo 32/93   |   See you again in 11 hours, mighty brisket!
Photo 33/93   |   Traeger provided the smokers for the Great Titan Meat Up, and despite our team being fans of the Weber Smokey Mountain, we made do just fine on the fancy pellet-burner.
Photo 40/93   |   Yes, folks, that is 5 pounds of smoked bologna, courtesy of our neighbors, Team Meat Your Maker. And, no, it had nothing to do with their delicious turkey, but as a mid-day snack, it was just about perfect.
Photo 41/93   |   The Great Titan Meat Up Clock
Photo 42/93   |   Chef David Rose, along with being a talented chef, is quite the television personality as well. On season 13 of Food Network Star, David made it to the finals and went head-to-head with Iron Chef Bobby Flay.
Photo 43/93   |   We drew quite a crowd when it was time to chop up our brisket point to turn it into burnt ends. Copious samples were handed out in an attempt to undermine the confidence of our competition. We think it worked.
Photo 44/93   |   The Great Titan Meat Up Crowd
Photo 63/93   |   The Great Titan Meat Up

Judgment

With cooking complete, the real gut-wrenching could commence. We were team number one, and teams would face the judges in reverse order, starting with six, which gave us way too much time to agonize over the outcome. If you’re not immediately familiar with chefs Cody Bahr and David Rose, now is good time to hit up Google. To say these guys know a thing or two about Southern-style cooking would be quite the understatement, as they’re both seasoned Food Network veterans.
Photo 64/93   |   The Great Titan Meatup Web Extra 034
There were two ways to win: Nissan-cooked meat would be put up against that of the challenger for a protein-specific prize, then the judges would pick the best of the six for an overall win. Chicken was up first, with Billy’s team beating out Team Canton. Next came ribs with the same result. Just as we were thinking all hope of beating the executives was lost, along came lamb. Aaron Bragman and Chris Lantry pulled off the impossible when the judges declared their lamb preparation superior to that of Billy and the Nissan team. A hush fell over the crowd, followed by thunderous applause. The excitement was short lived, however, as Billy’s band of misfits proceeded to lock up wins for pork and turkey as well. After a torturous half hour, it was finally our turn to face the judges—and things weren’t looking good.
Billy presented first, with a simple display of one brisket slice and a garnish of carrot soufflé. The judges loved it. Last up, we hit them with the big guns: brisket three ways. We had four slices of tender and juicy brisket, a small helping of chopped brisket on a delicious King’s Hawaiian roll, and perfectly caramelized burnt ends mopped in our signature Dr. Pepper BBQ sauce. Gracing either side of the bamboo presentation dish was a cylinder of jalapeno bacon southern macaroni and cheese and a fresh bell pepper cup of Spanish elote off-the-cob. Finishing it off was ice-cold Dr. Pepper in a miniature mason jar. Despite rave reviews from the judges and anyone who tried a bite, we still lost to Billy. Badly.
Photo 65/93   |   The moment of truth as Team Truck Trend approaches the judges with the fruits of our labor. While we might not have been winners, at least we looked damn good trying.
Photo 66/93   |   The Great Titan Meat Up Moment Of Truth
Photo 67/93   |   Chef Cory Bahr also did a stint on television, winning Food Network’s Chopped season 12.
Photo 68/93   |   The Great Titan Meat Up Chef Cory Bahr

Licking Our Wounds

At the end of it all, it was Billy and the Nissan BBQ team’s chicken that won the overall prize, meaning they took six of the seven possible awards. And while we have our reasons to protest the outcome, we graciously conceded defeat to a superior chef. At the end of the night, we were tired and broken. The weight of the competition and lack of sleep had finally caught up and we crashed hard.
Photo 75/93   |   The Great Titan Meatup Web Extra 032
Looking back upon the events that transpired with fresh eyes made it painfully obvious that the exercise was less about the competition and more about the camaraderie. Nissan gathered together a motley crew of people who, aside from trading pleasantries at industry events, may not normally get the opportunity to interact in such a way as this. Friendships were formed and bonds were strengthened. In the end, there were no losers, as we were all richer for the experience.

Titan Mudfest 2018

The Great Titan Meat Up wasn’t entirely about the meat. Before arriving in Pigeon Forge, our group of competitive teams piloted the assembly of ’18 Titan and Titan XD pickups toward the Wind Rock Off-Road Park in Oliver Springs, Tennessee. This private park has more than 300 miles of trails ranging from mild to beyond wild.
With steady rain falling for several days prior to our arrival, the park transformed into essentially one giant mud bog. That is most definitely not a complaint, especially since we’re not responsible for cleaning the truck afterward. With our PRO-4X Titan locked in low-range, we headed off into the woods. With smart driving and steady throttle, we never encountered an obstacle the Titan couldn’t tackle with ease. Sloppy rockclimbs were no match for the electronic locking rear differential, and the 5.6L V-8 engine put down enough power to motor up just about any hill.
While challenging for some, we found the trails chosen to be fun and relaxing. It was a great way to start the Great Titan Meat Up. Though we’d be remiss if we didn’t happen to think there was more at play here than meets the eye, since the off-roading worked to wear us out just that much more before attempting to best Nissan’s BBQ team. Well played Nissan, well played.

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