“I have always been very food oriented and very competitive,” says Cookston, whose credentials include four-time whole hog world champion, two-time world grand champion, the winner of the inaugural Kingsford Invitational, and thousands of other trophies that have vaulted her to the winningest woman in barbecue. She owns Steak by Melissa, a restaurant in Southaven, Mississippi, as well as three Memphis Barbecue Cos. in Mississippi, North Carolina and Georgia. Also, Cookston has authored two books, “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room” and “Smokin’ Hot in the South.”
Darren Warth and his wife Sherry opened their flagship 502-seat restaurant, Smokey D’s BBQ, in 2010 in Des Moines, Iowa. The Warths now operate three locations in Des Moines, but like Stone and Cookston, a full-time barbecue business was never really the plan. “If you would have told me 15 years ago that I would own a barbecue restaurant and catering business, I would have thought you were crazy,” Warth says.
While Stone and Cookston came to barbecue from extensive restaurant backgrounds, Warth’s interest in barbecue came from the desire to use his hobby as a way to decompress from the rigors of his day job. “Barbecue started as a hobby that turned into a career. First in our backyard and then becoming a competition team,” he says. “Barbecue was a way to get away from my job in corporate America.”
Stone and his wife opened their catering company, A Sharper Palate, in 1993, after he’d spent years in the restaurant business. “As a chef, I wasn’t cooking anymore, I was just managing the business,” Stone says. “In 2004, I felt this need to have a new culinary activity to reconnect with cooking. So, I bought a barbecue pit and decided I’d learn how to make barbecue. That kind of started that path.”
Cookston’s competitive nature rose to the surface at the first barbecue contest she attended. Competitors at that first competition told her the whole hog category was the most challenging. “I’m never one to step aside from a challenge, so that’s what got me started,” she says. Cookston grew to love every aspect and nuance of the competitive barbecue game. “That’s what keeps me doing it every single time, it’s the challenge.”
Much like Cookston and Stone, Warth did better and saw greater success with each competition he and his team entered. And with success came the opportunities that led the three pitmasters to more and greater business opportunities within the barbecue world.
“We started as a competition team in 2003 and found instant success,” Warth says. “The more we cooked, the better we did. The more we won, the more requests we got for our food to be catered.”
The Warth’s catering business started as a nights and weekend endeavor with just he and his wife. By 2007, the business grew to the point that a decision had to be made. The Warths had to shut the business down, or open a restaurant and hire people to run it. They took the leap.
“In 2008, I was strategically downsized (my boss knew my intentions) and we were able to open up our second location and our third in 2009,” Warth says. “In 2010, we shut down our original location and moved down the street and opened up our 502-seat flagship restaurant.”
In addition to a passion for competition barbecue and an incredibly tireless work ethic, the three pitmasters share another common thread: a Smithfield Foods sponsorship. Stone’s work ethic might have something to do with his stint in the Marine Corps, and along with the work ethic comes a sense of duty.
“I’ve had other opportunities come my way to be able to work with some really great brands and some great products. Those kinds of things have happened for me and I try to do a really good job at being a good partner with the brands that I get to work with,” Stone says. He also played matchmaker by introducing Cookston to Smithfield.
Cookston had used Smithfield products at home, in the restaurants and during competitions, and benefitted from the quality of the company’s pork. “My good friend, Tuffy Stone, has been associated with them for years and introduced me to some of their team,” Cookston says. “As a company, they have really stepped up in the competitive barbecue world, which is an awesome thing for the contests and the teams.
“I don’t really feel like I am sponsored by Smithfield as much as partnering with them.”
The work ethic, passion for barbecue and competitive spirit presented opportunities for Cookston, Warth and Stone to open barbecue restaurants, write cookbooks, teach cooking schools and secure corporate sponsorship from a world leading pork producer. All three pitmasters agree that winning important contests on the barbecue competition circuit created the opportunities they’ve taken advantage of, and the winning came from challenging work and a love for barbecue.