The Legend


From Memphis to the World

John Willingham was famous for barbecue and the barbecue sauces and rubs he developed to enhance his great cooking techniques. A creative entrepreneur and inveterate tinkerer, he spent a big chunk of his long life in search of a more perfect way to barbecue. Forty years ago, he designed the cooker you see above – the W’ham Turbo Cooker, which kept the smoke away from the meat but sealed the flavor in. For the next decade, he worked on improving the cooker, the techniques to make the most of it, along the way developing a range of barbecue seasonings and sauces to enhance his more perfect meats.

“The First Family of Memphis Barbecue”

In 1983, triumph! W’ham ribs wowed the judges in the Memphis-in-May International Barbecue Festival. Ribs cooked by his “River City Rooters” team placed first, and the team was crowned “The Overall World’s Barbecue Grand Champion.” Two years later, the team repeated that success. In 1985, John proved it wasn’t just a Memphis thing. The team placed first in Kansas City’s American Royal barbecue contest (considered by some the grand pageant of barbecue, but we like all the competitions!) for its pork, its beef and its lamb, and was again crowned overall grand champion. Those were the first in a long string of victories, culminating in John’s entry into the American Royal’s Hall of Fame, barbecue’s top honor. John’s cooking, seasoning, and barbecue sauces continue to win top awards every year!

Alan Richman, host of the Travel Channel’s Fandemonium, called Willingham’s “the first family of Memphis barbecue,” in his report on 2013’s Memphis in May festival.

The Legacy: Great Barbecue Sauces and Rubs

People who know barbecue know Willingham’s. Nathan Myrvold, a former Microsoft executive now also known for his passion to explore and document the science and art of cooking, was so impressed by John’s barbecue that he joined the Willingham’s team in the 2012 Memphis contest. “My barbecue did get better,” Myrvold blogged. “Maybe not as good as John’s, but I’m still working on it.”

Today Willingham’s barbecue sauces and flavorings are favorites of professional and amateur cooks across the country. They are available directly from us and through select retailers and restaurants.