Pitmaster Melissa Cookston is the only female barbeque world champion and the ‘Winningest Woman in Barbecue.’ A successful Southern chef and entrepreneur, Melissa owns three locations of her popular Memphis BBQ Co. restaurant across the Southeast. She has served as judge on season 4 of Destination America’s ‘BBQ Pitmasters,’ was named one of ‘America's most influential BBQ Pitmasters and Personalities’ by Fox News in 2015, and will release her second cookbook, Smokin’ Hot in the South: New Grilling Recipes from the Winningest Woman in Barbecue (Andrews McMeel Publishing) on May 10th, 2016.
SOUTHERN DELTA ROOTS
Melissa Cookston’s passion for barbecue is the natural product of a childhood spent around pit-fire grills and Southern Delta cooking in Mississippi. Her earliest memories are those of enjoying pulled pork sandwiches with her grandfather and driving over 2 hours from her family’s home in Mississippi to Tennessee when her mother got a craving for Memphis-style ribs. At 13, Melissa’s first job was at a restaurant, and she has remained in the food industry ever since. These early culinary experiences helped define her style of Southern Delta cuisine as one that focuses on fresh ingredients used in new ways and intense flavor prepared with love, care and passion. Hers is not soul food, though it shares a similar influence. It’s not Cajun or Creole, either, though Melissa considers it ‘a second cousin once removed.’ In her 20’s Melissa worked as a paralegal by day but satisfied her passion for food by working restaurant gigs at night. It was while working at a local Bar & Grill in Memphis that she met Pete Cookston, the man who would be her future husband and partner.
When Melissa and Pete began dating in 1997 the duo attended a BBQ contest and Melissa was instantly captivated by the whole hog contest—a fascination that proved too strong to resist. Merging her interest in Southern Delta cuisine and barbeque with her innate ultra-competitive spirit, Melissa decided to challenge competitors in the male-dominated barbecue contest circuit. For the next 10 years, she competed in a few competitions a year until she entered the barbeque circuit fulltime in 2007 with her Yazoo’s Delta Q team. While typical competition teams range from 10 to 15 members, Melissa’s team fluctuates between 2 and 3 members: Melissa, her husband Pete, and their teenage daughter Lauren.
Between 2010 and 2012, Melissa’s Yazoo’s Delta Qs won three consecutive whole hog titles at the Memphis in May World Championship, the preeminent barbecue competition, and took home two grand championship titles—only losing the grand championship in 2011 by 1 point out of a total 570. In 2012, Melissa’s team won first place in four out of five categories at the inaugural Kingsford Invitational in which 8 winners of the largest contests in the barbeque world were invited to compete in the first true barbeque contest of champions. Melissa, now referred to on the circuit as ‘the Queen of Q,’ won the whole hog category again in 2014 at Memphis in May and took home a second place victory in the overall grand championship. Over the past decade, Melissa’s Yazoo’s Delta Q team has garnered countless whole hog championships and first place accolades in several other categories at various barbeque competitions.
RETURN TO RESTAURANT/ COOKIN’ THE BOOK
After years on the competition junket, Melissa brought her championship flavor back to her community opening her first restaurant, Memphis BBQ Co., in Horn Lake, MS. The restaurant has been a standout dining destination since its opening, gaining high praise from Memphis Magazine, USA Today, Food Network’s ‘Diners Drive-ins & Dives’ and ABC’s ‘The Chew,’ amongst other notable media recognition. She followed up the restaurant’s success with a second location in Fayetteville, NC and most recently opened a third outpost in Dunwoody, GA in August 2014.
Prior to opening her third Memphis BBQ Co. in 2014 Melissa shared her recipes and personal story of grit and determination climbing the ranks of the male-dominated barbeque world in her first cookbook, Smokin' in the Boys' Room. Each chapter includes tips and recipes for cooking on the grill, from Slow-Smoked Competition Brisket, to Fire-Grilled Pork T-Bones with Hoe Cakes and Mississippi Caviar, and Grilled Pineapple Upside Down Cake. The recipes cover the gamut, from sauces and seasoning blends, to pork and bacon, beef, poultry, and seafood, and sides and desserts to round out a meal. In May 2016 Melissa will release her second cookbook which expands on the competition recipes from her first title to include her interpretation of ‘New Southern’ cooking.
For more information about Melissa Cookston, please contact
The Brooks Group at 212-768-0860 or @BrooksGroupPR.