My First Memphis in May - Modernist Cuisine

My First Memphis in May

MCMay 15, 2012

In 1991, I was reading an article about a guy, John Willingham, who had won the World Championship of Barbecue—multiple times, and at multiple championships (like many cult followings, barbecue is claimed by many, so which contest is the definitive World Championship is still up for debate). The most interesting part of the article to me was that he claimed that the key to his whole success was his amazing barbecue cooker, which he had invented. I decided right away that I needed to have one of those cookers.

I called him up and soon discovered what an amazing character he is; he’s a really smart businessman. At the end of our conversation he said, “Well, I’m not going to sell you a cooker unless I get a nondisclosure agreement.”

So I said, “Okay, send me one.” He sent me this five-page legal nondisclosure agreement, which I signed and sent back. It was all pretty standard. Some people might be put off at this point, but I am familiar with NDAs because we use them all the time in the technology world.

The next thing I knew, FedEx delivered a refrigerated box of ribs to my house. It included instructions, which I followed exactly, on how to cook the ribs. These were the best ribs I’ve ever had in my life. At this point, the guy had me totally hooked.

So I called him back and said, “Okay, I’m ready to buy a cooker.”

But John told me, “Well, I won’t sell a cooker to someone I don’t like. In fact, I won’t sell a cooker to most of my friends.”

We had about a three-hour phone interview in which I had to justify that I was worthy of acquiring a cooker. He also had concerns about the rainy weather in Seattle, and how that would affect the cooker. In the end, I did get my cooker, and with it I made the best ribs I’d ever made. But they weren’t as good as John’s. So I tried again, and I tried again, and I called him on the phone. Clearly, I was not quite getting all the elements together.

Exasperated, I said, “John, why don’t I just come down to Memphis and maybe you can teach me.”

He said, “Oh, that’s great. Why don’t you come down in May. We have a little contest coming.”

On my way there I thought, okay, I’m going to have a couple hours of barbecue instruction, and then I’m going to go over to Beale Street and hear some jazz, and then maybe I’ll tour Graceland, and then I’ll go home. It’ll be pretty straightforward, a fun weekend. Well, it turned out his little contest was the Memphis in May World Championship of Barbecue Cooking Contest.

John handed me an apron and said, “You’re on the team; it’s the only way you’ll learn.”

For three days I cooked for 16 hours a day (this was before I went to La Varenne or had even worked in a restaurant kitchen). It was an incredibly intense experience; I trussed a whole hog for the first time in my life. I trimmed about 300 pounds of ribs. Ultimately, they put me in charge of two dishes: one for the pasta category and one for the “anything but pork” category. We made smoked pasta and decided to use ostrich for the “anything but pork.” We won first place for both those dishes, amazingly enough! We also won Best Team Overall. John and his team deserve all of the credit, of course. I was just this weird technology guy who they took under their wing.

I have to say though, my barbecue did get better. Maybe not as good as John’s, but I’m still working on it.

The Memphis in May World Championship of Barbecue will be held this year from May 17 to 19.

5 Responses to “My First Memphis in May”

  1. Mack Oates

    The funny thing is that Willingham’s BBQ Restaurant can’t stay in business in Memphis. I’ve had his ribs at the restaurant. They’re ok. But way better at Cosey Corner, Commissary, Corky’s, Central BBQ…Etc. They are all still in business and have been for a long time.. I’ve lived in Memphis for 50 years and had a lot of BBQ..

    • Andrew Beck


      That’s not really that surprising. Competition BBQ is an entirely different beast than restaurant or even home cooked BBQ. Food I would judge a 10 in a contest I wouldn’t be very happy with in a restaurant. It would simply be to overwhelming to eat a plate of it.

  2. I just completed my first MIM BBQ Contests as a full member of the Willingham Team. Unlike most teams competing, the Willingham team consisted of people from Oregon, Georgia, Seattle, and Connecticut. I was amazed that all these people had flown in to work in the heat for 18 hours. In addition, I was blown away by the number of people who came by the booth to meet or speak with Mr. Willingham. Weather it was to talk over BBQ or just some old stories, it was very entertaining. The experience of meeting so many unique individuals was one I will cherish forever. In my experience, the Willingham cookers, rubs, and techniques are hard to beat. We turned out multiple cuts of meat; ribs, prime rib, tenderloin, etc. that were outstanding. I will definitely be back next year to take a run at the championship.