Mississippi born and bred, Hernando-based Melissa Cookston has done a bang-up job of making her surname an accurate professional descriptor. At 13, her first job was in a restaurant, and she now owns three of her own — STEAK by Melissa and two locations of Memphis Barbecue Company. She’s also the author of two cookbooks: Smokin’ Hot in the South (2016) and Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room (2014). Melissa first broke into the food scene after smoking her competitors on the barbecue circuit, including two grand-champion and five whole-hog-champion wins at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. Her acclaimed pitmastery has also landed her on national television, with appearances on shows such as “The Chew” and “Chopped” and a judging stint on Season 4 of Destination America’s “BBQ Pitmasters.” Lately, she has been traveling the world in search of new cooking styles to share with the Mid-South. We’re stoked to introduce today’s FACE of Memphis, food entrepreneur Melissa Cookston!
Tell us about your Mississippi upbringing and how it fostered your love of food.
I was born in a small town called Ruleville, and then we moved to Greenville. I had family in Clarksdale and Cleveland, so we kind of tromped up and down the Delta when I was young. My grandparents raised their own food, so we grew up eating homegrown produce out of the freezer. There’s something about spending summers shelling peas, picking corn and eating it that gives you an understanding of where your food comes from. It’s one thing to go to the grocery store and pick it up, but it’s another thing to have purple thumbnails. The land in the Mississippi Delta is so rich, and things there always tasted a little better. The area has its own personality; the artwork is colorful and the music soulful and bluesy. That’s always what I wanted my food to emanate.
In what capacity do you work in your Memphis-area restaurants?
In the beginning, I didn’t have any managers, so I was there every breath. Now, of course, I have several restaurants, and I’m always looking at new endeavors. I’m not there nearly as much. Two of the restaurants are between my house and the Tennessee state line, so I’m there as much as I can be. I’ve groomed people to handle the day-to-day operations, but I can’t help but slip in and have a bite of BBQ spaghetti, brisket or ribs.
At what point did you realize you wanted to make a career out of cooking?
My second job was in a catfish place, and I made tips, but I was paid in hush puppies — and I kept going back to work. I went to school because I knew I was supposed to get a degree. I worked in an office as a paralegal for 12 years, but I always kept my night job in the restaurant. I was always supposed to go back to law school, but I never did. The office was just not for me. Because I was a woman, the restaurant always pushed me toward the front of the house, but I was always in the back of the house. Finally, they gave me my shot in the kitchen.
You and your husband Pete have been on the barbecue circuit since 2007. How often are you competing these days?
I’m not competing as much now. I’ve kind of been there and done that. My holy grail was Memphis in May, and I have been fortunate enough to win that multiple times. Not to say I wouldn’t love to win it again, but for me, it’s about finding new avenues to explore. I want to know what somebody else is doing, and I’m finding so many new cultures with new styles of cooking. I don’t know that you would call what the South Americans are doing barbecuing, but I sure would. I’m not a purist. To me, those flavors are completely different, and I’ll go out in a field and harvest some chile peppers with you and rub it on some meat and cook it over an open flame. Sure, I will!
Of all the places you’ve visited, which has had the best food scene (besides Memphis, of course)?
A lot of great chefs have opened up some really good restaurants in Las Vegas over the last couple of years. I’ve eaten at CUT by Wolfgang Puck a dozen times or more, and it has been perfect every time. The service standards in Vegas are honed, and the food is spot-on and consistent. Seattle also has a fantastic food scene. I’m addicted to king crab legs; I’m not gonna to lie.
What has it been like being a female pitmaster in a male-dominated BBQ scene?
I’ve been competing for 20 years, and I never really realized I was different until the media pointed it out. Really, I was always treated like one of the guys. When I first came on the scene, one of the guys said, “Well, you’ll want to cook ribs, because that’s easier.” And I’m like, “Well, what are you cooking?” He said, “I’m cooking whole hog.” I said, “Well, I think I’ll do that, too.” I really learned how to cook whole hog first, because I felt like it was kind of a challenge from the guys.
Any tips for Labor Day grilling?
Always, always use a thermometer. A thermometer never lies. As long as I have been grilling, I still use one. I have these fingertips that used to be able to tell when a burger was medium, and they can’t do it anymore. My thermometer lets me know exactly when that burger is medium now. Also, if you’re grilling something hot and fast, keep a spray bottle of water around so you can tame those flames. Like a lion, you need to tame those flames. Don’t feel like you have to put those proteins or veggies on the grill too quickly. Wait until the charcoal is ashy or white before you start grilling. The biggest mistake people make is they want to throw everything on there too soon.
What do you plan to make for your Labor Day cookout? Any recipes to share?
I’ll be in the restaurant on Labor Day; it’s one of our biggest days of the year (at Memphis Barbecue Company). I will be cooking copious amounts of meat. Ribs are the number one cooked thing for Labor Day. If you don’t want ribs, try a cheeseburger with my green chile sauce — that’s a good burger.
What advice do you have for people who are intimidated to use the grill?
Don’t be intimidated. The grill’s not going to bite you, I promise. Start out with things that don’t seem so intimidating. Don’t buy the $50 piece of meat. Just work your way up. There are so many tools now. Google it. Look up tips and tricks online. It’s free — use it. There are so many memories to be made in your backyard. Standing around a grill with your friends or family is what it’s all about. Guess what? I promise it’ll be edible, and it might even be good.
What do you like to prepare for vegetarians?
You can grill anything, you know — portobellos, corn, peaches. If you put a little bit of cayenne pepper on peaches and grill them, that’s one of the most flavorful things I can think of at the moment.
If you weren’t in the food industry, what other career could you see yourself in?
I would probably be homeless. I can’t see myself doing anything else. My love and passion for food is really all I know.
What do you like to do when you’re not cooking?
I’m usually traveling if I’m not cooking. I enjoy traveling because I’m going somewhere to find out what they’re cooking.
Any new projects on the horizon?
I’m working on my third book. It’s going to have a little more international cuisine, which is why I’ve been tromping all over the world lately. I’ve gotten really into cooking Churrasco and, of course, Italian food has a special place in my heart. The barbecue world has really blown up in Europe, and the Australians are really coming on the scene big time with barbecue right now. I want to get down there. I want to get everywhere, and that’s hard to do with just one person. Fortunately, I have a fantastic family. My husband and daughter were with me in Europe this summer, and my daughter went with me to Alaska. We have written a lot of the book, but to be able to cull it down and put a Southern spin on it, it might be 2020 when it comes out. I want it to be perfect.
What is your best piece of advice?
Always strive for perfection. If you don’t, you’ll never be great, because mediocrity is not OK.
Aside from faith, family and friends, name three things that you can’t live without?
Parmesan cheese, a good balsamic vinegar and ribs
Thank you for sharing all of your culinary wisdom and inspiration, Melissa!
And thank you to Mary Kate Steele for these beautiful photos!
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