Carolina Conversations with Seven-Time World Barbecue Champion Melissa Cookston

by Carrie Frye | Photography by Stephanie Mullins/Courtesy of Andrews McMeel

Barbecue is synonymous with Melissa Cookston; having taken countless honors, the most coveted as the world barbecue champion, she is known simply as the “Winningest Woman in Barbecue.” When not behind the smoker or grill, Cookston has also authored two cookbooks, “Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room” and “Smokin’ Hot in the South.” She often showcases her recipes on national network segments or makes judging appearances on The Food Network.
A Mississippi native, Cookston has brought her Southern Delta-style barbecue to North Carolina through her Memphis Barbecue Co. restaurant in Fayetteville. From her Mississippi home, Cookston talks smoking, barbecue, entrepreneurship, and the hard work and the thrill of competition that keep her forging ahead.

ONC: Where did you grow up and how did you develop your love for barbecue?
MC: I was born in the Mississippi delta in a little wide spot in the road called Ruleville. I lived in Greenville, Mississippi, which is on the Mississippi river, and I spent the first third part of my life there, the second third of my life in northeast Mississippi in another small town called Pontotoc, and then the last third of my life in northwest Mississippi in DeSoto County, just south of Memphis.
My first exposure was not actually to barbecue but to smoking. My family would slaughter hogs, and they had a smoke house. That was my first exposure to smoked meat. It wasn’t barbecue though. They would slaughter the hogs and use the weather to cold smoke the meat. Of course, they would use all parts of the hog and use hickory to smoke, because that’s the wood that they had around the farm.
My first exposure to barbecue was probably sitting with my grandfather at his local coffee shop, which also seconded as a barbecue shop. So, you would smell the barbecue in the morning cooking while we were sitting at the coffee shop swapping farming and fish tales. I never knew what really was true, because you know how the old men sit around in the coffee shops, you never really know if the fish was five pounds or five ounces. That was probably my first exposure to the smell of barbecue.
I would say growing up in the delta, that’s where blues music is very prevalent and the artwork very colorful. I would say my style of barbecue definitely emulates that. That’s where your roots are laid, and that’s what you want your barbecue to taste like.
My mama would put me in the car and drive me to Memphis. As a teenager, I thought that was plum crazy, because I had other things I wanted to do. But at that time, there was a barbecue restaurant in Memphis called Gridley’s. For me, that was perfect barbecue. It was pretty special back in the day in the 1970s and 1980s.

Would you mind talking about some of the hurdles you have had to endure and overcome in the barbecue world?
I think everyone faces the same hurdles. Typically, with competition barbecue, time is always limited. You have to take off from work a lot to travel to be able to do that. There’s very few barbecue competitions that are going to be close by. With barbecue in general, typically, you are talking about bigger cuts of meat or more extensive cuts of meat. So, I always found that money was a hurdle, so I found myself deciding if I was going to pay the rent or buy a whole hog that week. I found that juggling time and money and barbecue was difficult along with parental obligations. My daughter is 18 now. I think you definitely have to have a love for it. I think there are a lot of people like me, though, who developed an addiction to barbecue. It can quickly consume who you are, to try to create that utopian bite for the next person to taste, but I think it’s a healthy addiction.

Could you talk about your process, if you use a specific kind of wood when you are smoking the meat, or if you use a different wood for different types of meat?
Specifically, wood, the lighter the meat, and of course I consider pork a very light meat, pork and chicken—they’ll accept smoke so much easier than say beef or any type of red meat—you use a lighter wood for those. I try to stick to fruitwoods and lighter woods, like pecan is a very neutral wood. With pork and chicken, I always use apple or peach. I will augment with a little bit of cherry on pork and chicken. With beef, you can use a little bit stouter wood like hickory. With wood, you want to use it just like any other ingredient. With beef, I would use maybe a little harsher wood. In Texas, they are big into mesquite. You can do that with beef and brisket and so forth. I really like fruitwoods a lot. I think apple is always my go-to wood.

What are you looking for to determine that the barbecue is right?
It’s more of a texture thing. Flavor profiles are very subjective, I think that comes a lot with regionality, too. My flavor profile is a little sultrier than other people, but I like a savory barbecue. I like a full flavor profile barbecue. I think you should be able to taste it from the tip of your tongue all the way to the back of your throat. So, you are going to hit the entire palette and catch the front with some sweet and salty and get a little bit of acidic and get a little kick in the back with a little bit of heat. I just want it to be very well rounded.
I am a little more scientific than most people. I don’t know why I overthink everything. I have been on the competition trail of barbecue for 20 years. I was such a dummy in the beginning. I didn’t understand that most of those guys were going out and buying a commercial product and adding a little bit of something and calling it their own. It never occurred to me, and I was beating my head against the wall. Thinking back on that, it made my stuff so much more original, because I started from scratch and is probably one reason why I was successful. At this year’s Memphis in May (competition), I have crossbred my own hogs, because I always thought there could be better. I am always over analyzing and overthinking how barbecue can be better. It’s what I do. I just don’t accept what I can get; I always want to push the bar a little higher.

Did that passion lead to opening the restaurants?
Well, actually I have been in the restaurant business for 35 years. I started in the restaurant business when I was 13, before I started competition barbecue. Restaurants are totally different. It’s two different ways of thinking. In competition barbecue, you are creating one bite, and in the restaurant business, you are just praying you can get 500 slabs of ribs on time for dinner service. Now, I will say in the restaurant we do create barbecue as close to competition style as we possibly can. You know when you walk into our restaurants and order a pulled pork sandwich, that butt comes off, and it is pulled after you have ordered that sandwich. We do not pre-pull. And I would say that 95 percent of restaurants in America did pre-pull their pork. So, there is a quality statement there. We have ribs come out the smoker multiple times a day. Before, I would cook ribs maybe once a day, maybe twice a day. Most are cooking their ribs for today, two or three days ago. Competition barbecue has definitely entered into my restaurant, and that’s just because there is nothing better than ribs that are coming off the smoker fresh right now. And that’s one reason why I think people keep coming back, because you can taste the difference. That commitment to quality is why the barbecue is so good in our restaurants. That’s one reason why I am cooking four tons of meat a week in the restaurant just two exits from my house right now. But there is just absolutely no way that I could cook 500 slabs as well as I can cook five slabs in competition. And you wouldn’t want me to, because the ribs I cook for competition are so rich that no one could eat a full slab, because I am cooking that slab for one bite. There is so much flavor in that one bite.

What went into choosing Fayetteville as a location for Memphis Barbecue Co., since your other locations are in Mississippi and Georgia?
I used to do a barbecue competition in Charlotte, and I will tell you the people in Charlotte embraced us with open arms. I would look up from my itty bitty 20 x 20 area, and people would be standing in line just to talk about barbecue. And so, I thought, these are my people. These people love barbecue. So, I looked in Charlotte and could not find a location. Then, I started expanding my search and found a spot on Skibo Road in Fayetteville. It’s a good location and definitely my demographic. So, I snatched it up, and it’s right there by Fort Bragg, so we absolutely love the location.

Do you have a favorite menu item that you would like people to try at the restaurant?
Baby back ribs.

For those barbecuing this summer, are there any expert barbecue tips that you can lend?
For me, the wood that we were talking about earlier is the most important tip I can give. People think that when you barbecue that you just have to pour the smoke to it. Really that is the most common misconception. Use smoke just like you would any other ingredient. Don’t over smoke your meat. Use lighter woods for lighter meat. For pork, definitely use those fruitwoods. And back off. Here’s what happens. If you pour the hickory to things like pork and chicken you get what I call the “hickory burp” for two or three days, and it tastes like barbecue for days afterwards. If you use a lighter fruit wood, guess what, it’s over when the barbecue is over. So, you don’t have to worry about it. That’s the secret.

Is there a favorite story from your competitions you can share?
I have so many you can imagine, funny things that happened. Because there were so many stories I wanted to tell, and narrative was not part of those books. The third book will be, and I will get to tell more stories.
The first competition was a real funny story. I spent a year or more developing sauces and rubs before I ever got the nerve to enter a competition. You have to realize this is 20 years ago, and I had an old barrel grill that leaked like a sieve. It was raining, it was cold, it was windy and my husband and brother lugged all my stuff down. At that time, you didn’t have nice little pop-up tents, you had these pole tents with silver tops everywhere, and it looked terrible.
On the way down there, they lost every tent pole, so we’ve got this lean-to thing going. I slept under the hotbox, and every time the wind would blow, I would have to move the cooker. Then, I would get it to where it would hold the temperature for approximately seven minutes, and then, I would have to move it again. Then, I would crawl under the hotbox and try to get warm.
The next morning I got up, and the guys were in the truck. Did I mention that it was warm in the truck? So then, I got through judging, and I was soaking wet and miserable, and I didn’t even stay for the awards.
Out of 40 teams, I ended up getting fifth place at my first cook. A friend of mine picked up the trophy. I didn’t mention that I was seven months pregnant (laughs).

Have you set any goals for your second fifty that you want to conquer as of yet?
I would love to win 100 more world championships, but it’s not likely. It’s not likely I would win another. I would really like to do well with the hogs that I bred just because we have worked so hard, and I have a farmer working with me. I would like for him to do well, because he’s put so much effort into this. It was my idea and my brainstorm, but he has worked so hard to help me with this. If he could reap some rewards for getting these hogs as far as he’s come, that would be fantastic. Then he could go back to hog farming full-time, because that’s what his dad did, and he would like to carry on his legacy. If I could bring another one home for him, that would be fantastic. I work really hard every day hoping to help somebody else, not for me but for everybody around me.