Mike started cooking in several St. Louis restaurants at a young age. Soon after high school, he moved to New Orleans and worked for a young Emeril Lagasse. He then went to work for Emeril’s friend Charlie Trotter in Chicago, and then Gabino Sotellino at Un Grand Café/Ambria. After that he journeyed to Chartres, France for a stint at the famed Le Buisson D’Ardent.
Mike then returned to the United States to work for Belgian Master Chef Daniel Joly at Mirabelle in Beaver Creek, and then on to work for Joachim Splichal from the famed Patina restaurant group’s Napa Valley outpost, Pinot Blanc. He then returned to St. Louis to design and own several of the city’s favorite restaurants, including Café Mira, Roxane, Barcelona, Momos, Boogaloo, El Scorcho, and several other embarrassing ones that he would not like to mention.
Mike turned to barbecue after spending time with Myron Mixon from Pitmasters at his school in Unadilla, Georgia.
WITH MIKE Johnson
We sat down with Sugarfire pitmaster Mike Johnson to talk about mushroom hunting, chef-driven BBQ, and cooking with Emeril.
Tell us about what you’ll be cooking at Q in the Lou and why you chose that dish and side.
We really could choose any type of meat we wanted, and I think at the restaurant we are mostly known for our brisket and pork, but after putting a lot of thought into it, we decided to do the most St. Louis thing ever, the pork steak. We're really proud of St. Louis BBQ and wanted to be the ones to showcase the STL favorite at Q in the Lou. Most people think of a thin cut of pork char grilled, but we take a shorter, fatter, boneless cut from the same muscle, brine it, then put a long slow smoke on it until it melts in your mouth. We'll serve it on a local Fazio's bun with some real St. Louis sweet sauce and a little tangy coleslaw. On the side, we're gonna have our almost famous Rack 'n' Cheese. A real cheddar and smoked gouda-y mac and cheese with pulled bits of baby back ribs mixed in.
[NOTE: After we spoke, Mike added one more dish to his Q in the Lou menu: smoked salmon.]
If you had to offer one helpful tip to the backyard barbecuers of the world, what would it be?
My helpful tip would be to look up Pitmaster IQ and get one. It's basically a small computer that regulates your grill/smoker temperature, and it’s made here in the greater Saint Louis area. The key to good BBQ is a consistent temperature, and with one of these, you've got a huge advantage.
If you could take an all-expenses-paid BBQ road trip across America, which three pits would you stop at?
People that know us and follow us on social media know that we actually do, in fact, do that all the time. Myself and usually a couple of our pit guys and chefs go to Texas, Memphis, KC, New York (some great BBQ there), North Carolina, Georgia, everywhere you could find it. We are always learning and studying what the great chefs and pit guys do. Basically anywhere, too, where fire and smoke meets meat. We're actually going to Mendoza, Argentina next week to see legendary fire pit chef Francis Mallmann, truly an artist. No matter where we go, though, we always say how fortunate we are to be in St. Louis and we can go to places like Pappy's and Bogart's, which frankly rival anywhere in the world for BBQ.
Describe the Sugarfire menu in one word.
What was your barbecue epiphany?
Probably, still to this day, the biggest influence in my cooking is Emeril Lagasse. I came up as a chef working for him, and although he wasn't barbecuing, his approach to using fresh, local ingredients and general way with food still stays with me today.
Can we officially deem St. Louis a BBQ city? Think we’ll ever become oversaturated with barbecue spots?
St. Louis is officially a BBQ city, no doubt. As I said before, I think we're the best. We're basically in the center of KC, Memphis, and Texas, and at least the way we do it, we are influenced by the best meats from each region. There seems to have been a lot of BBQ restaurants opening in the last few years, but I don't think we can have too many.
You’re a big traveler. What are some influences you’ve found on your travels and brought back to the kitchen?
I've been in Europe a lot lately, and although they're not really barbecuing there, (Café de Klos in Amsterdam is one of the exceptions), I really bring back a lot of the flavors and combinations to accentuate our meats. I think the funnest thing I did, though, was flying to Alba, Italy last October, renting a dog, hunting my own white truffles, and bringing them back and pretty much shaving them all over everything for our customers.
Sugarfire seems to have a pretty chef-driven focus. Is this uncommon in the barbecue world?
I really think it was uncommon years ago when we got started, but it seems like it's gaining popularity.
What was it like meeting Myron Mixon? What was the most important thing you learned from him?
Going and studying with Myron years ago was a tremendous experience. The guy is an incredible showman and pitmaster, and it's been great remaining friends with him after that and through our appearance with him on BBQ Pitmasters. There's even a rumor going around that he'll be in town the weekend of Q in the Lou.
You’ve opened all kinds of restaurants. What’s different about running a BBQ place?
Haha, I've owned about 15 restaurants and without a doubt it is the hardest. When you are cooking over long periods of time, a lot can go wrong. We cook 100 briskets a day at our Olivette location alone, and I can assure you every last one is different. It's not like you open the smoker and say, oh, those are done — they're pretty much all at different temperatures. And then you're serving a thousand people a day that know good barbecue and are very opinionated about it. On the other hand, it's also the funnest restaurant I've ever done. As Mike Emerson says, "Hey, we get to burn meat for a living."