Think of the most Hillbilly town you can imagine. If you’ve seen the final episodes of True Detective, that’ll help. Have you got something suitably backward that makes your bum hoop quiver with nerves? Now double it and put our RV slap bang in the middle, trying to thread our way through its narrow roads in an attempt to turn around. Why? Because we were lost, a needle’s nudge away from running out of petrol, and a subsequent pig-squealing bumI^^g from the locals, never to be seen again.
Thankfully a masterful three point turn by Scott, some heavy-handed traffic marshalling by the other boys, and we were good to loosen our belts once again and cruise onwards to Memphis to meet up with our BBQ Mum, Melissa Cookston.
Melissa owns and runs the Memphis Barbecue Company. James, Clint and Scott first met her on a previous annual pilgrimage two months after opening Red’s Leeds. Super smart and super sharp, this lady is the Yoda of competition BBQ; four times world champion with 2,500 other top level awards under her BBQ belt, she’s breaking new ground in the states, regularly kicking her male counterparts’ butts.
We ordered a round of Naked Pig’s (Back Forty Beer Company), bowlfuls of Chicharrones (pork rinds dehydrated then deep fried giving an aerated, bubbly crunch) and set about thanking her for inspiring the Donut Burger, which to date has sold near 50,000 at Red’s. This time around our chat was much more productive and on a par (so to speak, right!), sharing our experiences in business, as much as swapping recipe ideas and discussing the huge consumer and media interest in barbecue blowing up back in the UK.
The food arrived, and it was a welcome sight. A starter of cheese fritters and a huge platter of true Memphis style BBQ, served up on an upturned bin lid (not the inspiration for our Feast BTW, she didn’t have this last time).
As expected, this barbecue was in a different league to the lost souls at McKenzie’s.
The cheese fritters were next level. A mix of Parmesan, Swiss, Cheddar, Mozzarella, garlic and herbs, coated in bread crumbs and deep fried. They sat in a shallow Dijon and honey tangy vinaigrette, which perfectly cut through the cheese. This was an awesome entree and something our faithful would love (with our own twist obviously).
One slab of spare ribs & one slab of loin ribs (AKA baby backs): These looked and tasted very similar to Red’s but not quite as smoky. We found our approach to smoke profiles was fairly similar – not overpoweringly smoky, meaning the food is more accessible to a wider audience. The ribs had a sweet and sticky honey BBQ sauce which worked perfectly.
Chopped chicken and smoked chicken pieces (leg and thighs): These were good, although Melissa told us she’s updating the chicken pieces recipe, again demonstrating this Pitmaster’s true dedication to continual improvement (she updates her menu every year).
Pulled pork: Smoky and with less sauce than Red’s. This was quite different to ours which follows more of a North Carolina-style, giving a more piquant taste. It was still tasty though. When Melissa showed us her fricking ridiculous smoker, located in the car park (yes, the car park!!), that can take 250 pork butts at any one time, she noted that she purposefully doesn’t over smoke her pork. She’s super-aware of her customer base, which isn’t always dudes who want to gorge on over smoked BBQ. A very clever approach to a broad market!
Polish sausage (similar to Kielbassa, but her own recipe made off site): This was good, well seasoned, and non-course which gave a lovely snap when bitten.
Corn bread: Like one of our previous meals, this was tray baked and kept warm in holding cabinets giving a really moist texture. If anything this trip is telling us, it’s that we’ll bring corn bread back to the menu.
BBQ spaghetti: Spaghetti with the addition of some BBQ sauce. Simple in execution but no less tasty (she also serves this with pulled pork ontop, all sitting on a piece of toast).
Potato salad: Flecked with white onion, herbs, red skin potato and mustard, but not overly sweet like so many previous ones tried.
Mac-n-cheese: Melissa uses elbow macaroni, and the dish was oozy and quite cheesy, but not overpowering.
Grilled salmon with a dipping sauce of soy, honey, garlic and olive oil. This was fantastic. We were looking at bringing salmon back on Red’s menu, but now we’re definitely doing it!
Louisiana-inspired red beans and rice with sausage: This reminded us of something you might get in Portugal and was excellent.
Turnip greens: Pan fried in butter with a touch of garlic. Again, very good.
There’s no question why this food warms the very souls of its diners. She’s utterly committed to the art of true barbecue, incredibly grounded and so easy to get along with. She’s a wonderful part of the Red’s extended family and we look forward to working with her, and the Memphis Barbecue Company, more closely as we set out to launch our Pitmaster Academy, an exchange programme sharing talent, knowledge and excellence across the pond.
Next stop, Little Rock, Arkansas…