Chef's Choice: Mike Emerson, Pappy's Smokehouse

Feb 4, 2010 at 4:30 pm
Two years into the phenomenal run of Pappy's Smokehouse, the Midtown barbecue joint that has gained national attention and has lines out the door daily, co-owner Mike Emerson shares the secret of his success:

"I'm a 54-year-old knucklehead who got lucky cooking barbecue."

click to enlarge Mike Emerson, co-owner, Pappy's Smokehouse - Robin Wheeler
Robin Wheeler
Mike Emerson, co-owner, Pappy's Smokehouse
Emerson is understating the case, but that isn't unusual. Humble and gracious, he always brings the topic back to the people in his life and business, those who have given him opportunities and those who snake out the door until the barbecue is all gone every day. Sometimes those people include Willie Nelson, Bobby Flay, Adam Richman of Travel Channel's Man v. Food and St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright.

"I don't know how to explain it," Emerson says as he sits in the empty Pappy's dining room an hour before the restaurants open its doors. (And when those doors open, patrons will already be waiting in the cold.) "We get people in here, and they look at the crowds and ask if I ever excepted this. I say no, and I'll tell you a story:

"See my runners on the floor? I opened this with [John Matthews and Brian Scoggins], and I had that one there and that one there." He motions to the two three-foot-long runners nearest the counter. "On opening day, I said if we can get a line to the end of that runner, we've got it made. We had a line down the hall, into the banquet room, to the door. No, I couldn't have anticipated that happening. What we could control, we did. What we couldn't just fell into place."

click to enlarge Chef's Choice: Mike Emerson, Pappy's Smokehouse
Robin Wheeler
He motions to Skip Steele, a Memphis in May barbecue champion: "He's cleaning windows. You want to get a feel for what we're about here -- nobody here will ask someone to do a job here that they wouldn't do themselves. To me, that's the coolest thing. That and the laughter. This place rocks it."

Indeed it does. Even without an audience of anticipating customers, shrieks of laughter regularly burst from the kitchen as they get ready for the day's work.