Mike Johnson on His Best Worst Idea Ever — Sugarfire Smokehouse

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click to enlarge Sugarfire pitmaster Mike Johnson. - Courtesy Green Olive Media
Courtesy Green Olive Media
Sugarfire pitmaster Mike Johnson.

A few days before the grand opening of the first Sugarfire Smokehouse (multiple locations including 9200 Olive Boulevard, Olivette; 314-997-2301), Mike Johnson called his investors with some bad news: He was certain that this was the worst restaurant idea he'd ever had. "I have had some terrible restaurant ideas," Johnson laughs. "But I looked at the location, and the fact that there was no parking lot, and I just thought that this was the worst idea I'd ever had in my life. I just thought to myself, man, you are screwed."

Four years later, Johnson's terrible idea has turned into one of the top barbecue spots in the city, garnering rave reviews, national accolades and awards for everything from its seafood to bacon.

Considering Johnson's culinary pedigree, this should come as no surprise. After graduating high school, he watched his friends head off to college while he had other plans. "I told my dad I wanted to be a chef in New Orleans," Johnson recalls. "That was in 1989 — before the Food Network and all of that. The only chef my dad knew of was Jack Tripper from Three's Company, but he had some business in New Orleans and let me pursue it." 

Johnson's father happened to know of an up-and-coming chef who needed help with a new restaurant he was opening in New Orleans, and he asked the younger Johnson if he wanted him to put them in touch. It just so happened that the young chef he was speaking of was Emeril Lagasse. "I got really lucky because I got in with Emeril right when he was starting out," Johnson explains. "I worked for him for three years, doing everything for him at the restaurant. Working there was unbelievable — we would have all of these famous chefs come in and cook all of the time. Julia Child would be there. It was incredible."

Through Lagasse, Johnson met revered chef Charlie Trotter, and worked at his namesake Chicago institution before heading to France to train at Le Buisson Ardent in Paris. Upon his return to St. Louis, Johnson made a name for himself as a prolific chef and restaurateur, opening a string of successful restaurants including Momo's, BARcelona and Roxane. In the midst of running Maplewood hotspot Boogaloo, however, he hit a wall. 

"I was at a really low point then," Johnson says. "I was so burned out on doing what I had been doing. I was depressed and didn't know what I was going to do. At Bugaloo, I had a smoker and had been playing around with that, and eventually, I decided to go in that direction." 

Johnson heard about that the former Dickey's Barbecue Pit location in Olivette was in need of a new tenant. "I got so lucky," Johnson admits. "The people who owned the building told me that if I paid the last three months of rent, I could have all of their stuff." It was an offer he couldn't refuse. "Sometimes in the restaurant business you have to get lucky, and I got lucky as hell." 

Johnson took a break from manning the pit at Sugarfire to share his thoughts on the St. Louis dining scene, what is never allowed in his kitchen, and his dream of becoming a professional Yelper.

What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
That before Sugarfire and the other restaurants, I worked for many famous chefs including Charlie Trotter, Emeril Lagasse, Joachim Splichal. I also worked in France.

What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Overseeing the specials and social media before we open.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Time travel.

What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
Local restaurant collaborations.

Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Chef Christina Fitzgerald [Seven Stones Wine Garden and a competitor on Food Network Star].

Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Katie Lee Collier of Katie's Pizza and Pasta Osteria.

Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?

If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
A professional Yelper.

Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen.
Liquid smoke.

What is your after-work hangout?
The Silver Ballroom.

What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Nutella and red wine.

What would be your last meal on earth?
Hospital food or something that had a chicken bone in it.

We are always hungry for tips and feedback. Please email the author at cheryl.ba[email protected]

About The Author

Cheryl Baehr

Cheryl Baehr is the dining editor and restaurant critic for the Riverfront Times and an international woman of mystery. Follow her on the socials at @cherylabaehr
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