Mike Mills is not only a legend. He is the Legend! His ribs have won thousands of trophies but the best test is the taste taste of anyone lucky enough to eat at his restaurants or get a couple of bones at the annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party which is my favorite place to eat his ribs as you will soon read. Check out his new website, 17thstreetbarbecue.com and his book, Peace, Love and Barbecue co-authored and masterminded by his daughter and my sister in smoke, Amy Mills.
Thoughts of my native North Carolina ‘Que were clouding my mind the first time I smelled the smoke and stepped foot on to Tom Lee Park, the setting for the annual Memphis in May Barbecue Contest. I couldn’t wait to bite into a sandwich of hickory-smoked pork butt, pulled or chopped, and doused with a peppery vinegar sauce.
But after looking under the hoods of a few dozen pits, I realized, that I wasn’t in North Carolina anymore and ribs rule at Memphis in May. I had never seen so many people get so excited about eating ribs. And, I soon found out that it was for good reason. When they are done right, there is nothing like them!
My good friend Mike Mills, legendary rib master and three-time Grand World Champion of Memphis in May, says that “life is too short for bad barbecue.” I couldn’t agree more! But I know a few other folks who live by the adage, “even bad barbecue can be some of the best food you’ll ever eat.”
Regardless of which side of the fence you chew on, real barbecue—meaning meat that has been flavored by time (low and slow) and kissed by wood smoke—is food worth pursuing! And my favorite barbecue to eat is still the barbecue I make at home.
When you learn a few tricks of the trade and how to finesse the flame, the smoke and the heat, I guarantee that you will agree with me. The most important tip that I picked up hanging out with competition cookers is what separates the great barbecue from the good. It’s simply feeling the love and trusting yourself. Once you are truly “in love” with barbecue, you’ll do this without even thinking about it.
Every year, Mike and a barbecuer’s dozen of top barbecue joints (including Hill Country, the restaurant where I am the executive chef) join together to put on the most exciting barbecue festival in New York City. The Big Apple Barbecue Block Party attracts nearly 100,000 barbecue lovers and southern ex-pats who stand in line for hours to taste the best of the best. It’s like condensing a road trip around the barbecue belt from 2000 miles to one city block. The pitmasters all load in their rigs, and start cooking their best barbecue in the open air. It’s one of the best ways to taste the best of America’s top pitmasters. This food is not cooked in a commissary and trucked in, it’s cooked right before your eyes—for one weekend a year, Madison Square Park is “home” to the best pitmasters in the country.
It’s no surprise that my favorite way to eat ribs is fresh off the pit—Mike’s pit that is! I’ll admit I’m a little spoiled as I take my place on a closed street in New York City, waiting for Mike to pull a perfect rack off the pit for me. I love standing across from him in front of the open doors of his Old Hickory ELEW model pit, watching the revolving racks of ribs go ’round and ’round. While I am mesmerized by the sight, the smell and the sound, Mike is looking at each individual rack with an eagle eye—searching for the tell-tale signs of a perfectly smoked succulent rack worthy of another Grand Champion trophy.
He takes his time, softly touching and bending each potential “perfect” rack with his sturdy hands and an expert’s touch…Until! The a-ha-moment when he literally feels the rib love. Once he knows he has a winner, he pulls it off lickety-split and like a sportsman reeling in his catch of the day, he holds it up for a second, just to make sure he “can feel the love,” and hands it over to me.
As I dig in with a focused furor, I am both elated and perplexed that a rib can taste so good. Each bite has the perfect balance of tenderness and chew with a salty, smoky bark and beautiful pink meat along the bone, all perfumed by apple wood.
No matter how many times I have been lucky enough to experience this moment of rib nirvana, I have to exclaim, “how did you do that?! On the street, in the rain and/or heat, at an event where you serve 3,000 people a day?”
With a gleam in his crystal-clear eyes and a deep belly laugh, he tells me, “Elizabeth! If it was easy, everybody’d be doing it!”
In the world of barbecue, champion pitmaster Mike Mills is affectionately known as
“The Legend.” He presides over
the pits at his six nationally acclaimed barbecue restaurants - four 17th Street Bar & Grill restaurants in Southern Illinois and two Memphis Championship Barbecue restaurants in Las Vegas.
In the early 1990s, he was co-captain of the Apple City Barbecue team, one of the most celebrated teams ever on the circuit. He is a four-time World Champion and three-time Grand World Champion atMemphis in May, otherwise known as the Super Bowl of Swine. He is also the 1992 Grand Champion of the Jack Daniel’s World Invitational Barbecue Cooking Contest and he won the Jack Daniel’s Sauce Contest that year as well.
Mike is the barbecue guru at and a partner in Blue Smoke restaurant in New York City. His book, Peace, Love, and Barbecue was nominated for a 2006 James Beard Foundation award and received the
2006 National Barbecue Association Award of Excellence. In October 2008 he was honored with thePioneer of Barbecue award at the Jack Daniel’s World Invitational Barbecue Cooking Contest. Mike was inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame in 2010.
Barbecue heiress Amy Mills, daughter of barbecue legend Mike Mills, is considered the industry's go-to girl for all things barbecue. She is the James Beard Award-nominated author of Peace, Love and Barbecue, a television personality, and a branding, marketing and PR pro. Her company, OnCue Consulting, offers premiere barbecue industry education and she consults with restaurants and barbecuers world-wide.
Amy divides her time between Boston, Southern, Illinois and barbecue destinations across the country. She always wanted to be a glamorous heiress. Little did she dream her fortune would lie in barbecue.