Johnny Trigg was a champion barbecuer for six years by the time he retired from the insurance business in 1996. Since his first foray in the pits, he’s won championships all over the world and risen through the ranks to become one of the first TV stars of the meat game on the show BBQ Pitmasters. With the help of his wife, Trish, aka “Momma,” the barbecue celebrity will be among the 20 contestants at the Great Texas BBQ Festival on April 21 and 22 in Sam Houston Park.
When Trigg isn’t getting ready for one competition, he’s driving his motor home to the next. We caught him between gigs and he gave us the dish on his evolution from hobby cooker to professional smoker, the rise and fall of BBQ Pitmasters and what it takes to be a barbecue champion.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Free Press Houston: Did you win your first competition in 1990?
Trigg: Nah. I came in — well, let’s put it this way, I got third in brisket and I think that was it.
Then we left from there and I found out there was another contest the next week and I got a couple more calls, and it just kind of took off after that. I started cooking every weekend, mostly around the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
FPH: How long before you got your first win?
Trigg: Oh, I did the first year.
FPH: What did you win?
Trigg: A piece of wood.
Back then the entry fee was $25. There was no prize money and there was some sort of homemade trophy-type. A piece of wood, they painted something on it. “First place brisket” or so on and so forth. And then as years [went] on the money kept getting more and more. The reason I switched over to Kansas City — the first [competition] I did (in Kansas City) was in ’92 or ’93 — my second year. Anyway, they paid money. And in Texas that time you didn’t get any money — just a little trophy.
After I retired in ’99 — well I retired in ’96 — in ’99, Momma and I, we started branching out and we started doing real good. And then (after) about 10 years in we were unbeatable. ‘Course we got beat sometimes, but oh, we were the hottest thing out there. We were winning a lot of money and all this stuff.
In Texas they’re paying more now down here but they’re still way behind Kansas City by a long shot. They don’t have the money. But it’s getting better. So I do mostly Kansas City.
FPH: Have your winnings paid for retirement?
Trigg: Has it paid? No, you can’t do that. It’s too expensive by the time you pay all your expenses and everything.
It varies in times, cook-off to cook-off. If you win the big ones, but that’s hard to do that. You can’t beat the system on that. There’s people that have tried that — quit their job and tried doing that. It didn’t work out.
FPH: How do you decide which BBQ contests to enter?
Trigg: I want to know who’s running it and what organizations sanction it. There’s several sanctioning bodies around the country, and I will not do any contest that’s not sanctioned ‘cause too many times you do that — too many times the rules changed….I did one one time, they changed them at midnight. Didn’t know about it until the next morning. So I won’t do any non-sanctioned cook-offs.
And I look at the prize money. It’s very expensive to go to these contests. The entry fees — you have to buy your own meat and travel expenses.
FPH: What made you want to do the Great Texas BBQ Festival?
Trigg: It’s an invitation. There’s only going to be 20 teams there. There’s going to be $20,000 in prize money and that really enticed me.
FPH: Did you think you’d become a celebrity chef? What’s that been like?
Trigg: They tell me that because I’ve been on BBQ Pitmasters television show several times…in 2009 the BBQ Pitmasters started and I was on the first season and I was on it several seasons after that until they discontinued it in 2015. So I guess you would consider me being a celebrity. I’m well known all over the world.
FPH: What was your favorite episode of BBQ Pitmasters to film?
Trigg: The year that I won. (Laughs) I won it in 2012. I won $50,000.
FPH: Do think you’ll be on TV again anytime soon?
Trigg: No. It’s not happening. The person that started BBQ Pitmasters and also did BBQ All Stars in 2006 — Name is John Markus. He lives in New York City. Manhattan.
He used to write and produce the Bill Cosby show. That’s not too favorite (of a) subject these days.
But anyway, he did that and then he was hired by the Senator from Al [Franken] in Minnesota. [Franken] used to have a radio show and he hired John. He wanted him to go around the country to interview barbecue restaurants…and he hired John to come along and do the writing for them. And John…he put it together and he was responsible for starting BBQ Pitmasters. It was very successful.
FPH: Would you do a different TV show?
Trigg: Yeah, If the terms was right and all that. I wouldn’t do it for free.
FPH: Did you do Pitmasters for free?
Trigg: We were competing for money. They paid us the first year and paid all our expenses. Nine of us, I think. We travelled around the country to do these contests. We did about 12, 15 contests. They did pay our expenses and then after that we were competing for money.
But it’s not going to happen…They let [Markus] go. They tried it one more year and they hired another production company to do it and it was a total failure so that was the end of it.
FPH: You’ve been teaching barbecue classes since 2007. Have any of your students gone on to win competitions?
Trigg: Several of them have, and they’ve done quite well. I teach them — I give them all of my recipes and a bottle of everything, of sauce and rubs that I use. Class lasts a day and a half. I do all the preparation, seasoning, trimming and cooking, and I get to taste all the meat. We do chicken, ribs, pork butt and brisket, which we (Johnny and Trish) do in the competition as well.
FPH: Since you retired you’ve taken on these roles of celebrity, pitmaster and educator. Which is your favorite?
Trigg: All the above.
It really gives me great satisfaction to see my students walk across the stage. And that happens quite often. Of course it also gives me a thrill when I walk across the stage, which lately hasn’t been quite often, but I still enjoy it…Everybody keeps asking me when I’m going to quit and I say, “When they put me in the pine box.”
As long as my wife and I both have our health, we’re going to continue to do it. Because she helps me in the competition and also in the classes, as well.
FPH: Has your wife Trish been helping you from the start?
Trigg: Yes…I mess it up and she cleans it up. She keeps me focused and…gets me spices or rubs and anything. Particularly when we’re getting ready to fix the turn in boxes, she makes the boxes and things like that.
FPH: What are turn in boxes?
Trigg: The turn in boxes are what we put the meat in and then turn it in for the judges. They pass it around the judges table and then they get to taste it and then they score it accordingly.
FPH: How have barbecue cook-offs changed in the almost 30 years that you’ve been competing?
Trigg: The meat’s still the same and most of the rules are the same.
They’re getting more and more larger, cook-offs. And the money’s getting larger and larger all the time and so are the entry fees. This one in Houston is a $400 entry fee. And they have a $20,000 payout. But there will be 20 teams there, which is unusual. You don’t have many of these invitational cookoffs.
I mean as far as changes, the cookers are getting better and better and, of course, people like the good cooks like myself.
…When the television show (BBQ Pitmasters) came about…it just helped barbecue tremendously in the contests. That set the world on fire for barbecue. These shows were shown overseas: Australia, Japan, Europe, wherever. So that’s how barbecue really got started over in the foreign countries.
FPH: Humans have been smoking meat for a long time in a lot of places. What do you mean when you say barbecue caught on in the rest of the world?
Trigg: Contests are growing in numbers. Participants entering. It’s a lot of contests. One hundred, 200, 300 participants there in large town, small towns. Civic organizations use it to raise money.
FPH: What does it take to win a competition?
Trigg: Well, you’ve got to have a good product. You’ve got to have a good flavor. Cooked just properly. Tender. Can’t be overcooked or undercooked. It’s got to have a great flavor to it. A smoked flavor, as well. I cook with all wood.
FPH: What kind of wood?
Trigg: Pecan wood.
FPH: How do you get yourself hyped for a competition?
Trigg: I get all my rubs and sauces and I get it all together. And of course I get all my meat together before I go. I get it all organized and sometimes I trim it at home, sometimes I don’t. But I get all my spices and rubs. Make sure I got fresh spices and fresh sauces. I don’t make any of my spices or rubs and sauces. I used to when I first started, but there’s too many good spices and sauces out there in today’s market. So I get it all together and load the motor home up and away we go.
FPH: Age-old debate: Tomato or vinegar-based sauces?
Trigg: Tomato. No vinegar. No vinegar. Even the Carolinas where all that crap started — they don’t even cook them there anymore in competition. It’s tomato sauce.