To win one of the biggest barbecue competitions in the world and walk away with $20,000 tucked into your apron, you have to know one thing.
"The greatness of a pit master is determined by the size of his ash pile. You gotta let that wood and charcoal burn and burn," said Chris Lilly, the newly crowned king of the Memphis in May World Champion Barbecue Contest. The Tennessee city, threatened by potentially historic flooding, adopted the last-minute contest theme "Come hell or high water."
Lilly, the owner of Decatur, Alabama's Big Bob Gibson BBQ, knows a thing or two about cooking at all costs. He spent most of early May "dodging a heck of a lot of tornadoes."
"My wife and two kids were in Tuscaloosa, so Memphis in May was a breather from all the doom and gloom," he said.
Lilly, who has won the prestigious championship multiple times, learned how to smoke his winning 20-pound pork shoulder from his wife's father. Her great-great-grandfather founded the restaurant in 1925.
The family business has grown over the years. Lilly today operates two Big Bob's in North Carolina and two in Alabama. The demanding job requires that he get to work before 6 a.m. every day to stoke the pits.
"They never get cold," he said. "By the time we open for lunch, that meat has got to be falling off the bone."
The restaurant is known for its barbecued whole chickens, which are dipped in a vat of tangy, peppery white sauce made from mayo, apple juice, peppered horseradish, ground black pepper, lemon juice and cayenne.
Asked whether his $20,000 will go to buying more pork shoulder or chickens, Lilly laughed. "No, I've got two kids in college," he said. "That money is probably going to the University of Alabama."