Mike Wiley might be best known in town as the owner of the downtown Ben Franklin, but lately, he and his wife, Shannon, have been spending long hours in the 12-foot-long preparation area of their new log-cabin-style barbecue concession trailer.
They call the business "Spinnin' Pig Memphis Style BBQ," and you may have seen them by Savikko Field No. 1 during the Fourth of July weekend or out in late June at Gold Rush Days. You may have even tried their slow-cooked pork, in which case you know their grill, six rotating six-foot racks, speaks for itself.
What you may not know is that Wiley is also the defending world champion in seafood at the Memphis in May International Barbeque Cooking Contest, one of the most prestigious cookoffs on the planet. Wiley bested 115 other entries a few weeks ago, with a halibut dish that incorporated El Sombrero's fajita sauce.
Indeed, it's been a whirlwind few months for the Wileys.
"I've been busy," Wiley said. "I've been doing barbecue in town for friends for the last five or six years, and every once in a while someone will say, 'You should go out and open a restaurant.' This was the intermediate step, and the overhead's not going to kill you."
Wiley has cooked at the Moose Lodge, the old Casa del Sol and El Sombrero. He bought his trailer slightly used from a manufacturer in El Paso, Texas, and trucked it up to Seattle.
The trailer measures 8 feet wide by 24 feet long, with a preparation area of 8 feet by 12 feet. The cooker takes up 10 feet in the front, and most of the cooking and smoking is done on the front end of the stove.
Wiley can cook 300 to 400 pounds of meat at a time, and slow-cooking usually means seven to eight hours. He has a diesel generator for power, two cold wells and three steam wells. Everything is electric except the charcoal. For Fourth of July weekend, Wiley was cooking each day by 5 a.m.
"It's something I've always wanted to do and I thought later on in life I'd so something like this part-time," he said. "I decided to move it up a little bit and burn the midnight oil, but I love doing it. I get a great satisfaction cooking that quality of product consistently. The main thing is the satisfaction that people feel from something you've spent some time and effort to care for and prepare."
For the Wileys, barbecue destiny struck seven years ago when they were flipping through channels and landed on The Food Network, channel 62. The network was showing highlights of the Memphis in May International Barbeque Cooking Contest, called by its competitors the "Superbowl of Swine." The teams had all won regional cookoff championships for the right to be in Memphis. The footage - ribs, pork butts and slow-cooked pork shoulder - was mesmerizing. Especially for a passionate griller like Wiley.
"We decided to go down ourselves and check it out," Wiley said.
The next May, the Wileys arrived at the championship headquarters, Tom Lee Park on the Mississippi River. In the promotions tent, they met Billy Powers, Dave Aucoin and John Henry Harper, three longtime Southern barbecue specialists from the corporately sponsored Piped for Pork team.
The trio was impressed that the Wileys had come all the way from Alaska, and they quickly became friends. They hung out all weekend, learning tips on competition slow-cooking over charcoal while sharing their own secrets for preparing Alaska seafood.
"There's grilling and barbecuing," Wiley said. "Grilling is flipping the meat on the grill and pulling it off. Barbecuing is cooking slow and letting the smoke surround the seasonings, soaking into the meat.
"They taught me a lot about shoulder and butts and seasoning and cook-time," he said. "The first year I just paid attention to what they were doing and what they had told me and decided to do a little bit on my own and got a lot better. You learn a lot from getting on a team and sharing recipes and techniques."
The Wileys returned the next year, and were stunned when Piped for Pork asked Mike to join the team as an unofficial member. That May, the team finished second place in the cutthroat pork shoulder division.
"It gets very serious down there," Wiley said. "You have to submit a blind box. You have to have the judge come through and explain the cooking process, your cook time, your procedures and what rub you used, and then you hope to get into the finals and still have to have another judge come through.
"You have to stagger when you put your meat on, because you don't want it to be not done or dried out. It's a balancing act. And everybody has their different injections and different rubs. There are some teams that constantly win on a pretty regular basis."
Piped for Pork is one of those perennial favorites, and Wiley's been with the team now for six years. On his third trip, he decided to enter the "anything but" category with a selection of salmon, crab and halibut. The next year, he secured a sponsor - Jerry's Meats and Seafoods.
"I'd done salmon a couple times, glazed with a sugar, lime, butter glaze, and it was very good," Wiley said. "But I think they just wanted a little added oomph, something a little different."
Wiley decided to try halibut this May, using the El Sombrero sauce as a base. He and El Sombrero co-owner Liz Moser invented the sauce just before the restaurant's remodel.
"We were looking for a marinade for their fajitas and halibut tacos," Wiley said. "We sat up one night and mixed up stuff and kind of got in the ballpark. And she worked on the Internet one day and came up with the recipe."
"Lime, oil, sugar, vinaigrette, cilantro. It's just something to give the fish a nice color. You just want to baste it at the end, because the sugar caramelizes. You don't want to put it in too early in the process, otherwise it'll be too brown. And everything is in eye appeal and presentation and all those factors."
The day of the competition was hectic. The team was preparing a dinner for Marriott Hotels, and Wiley had blocked out about an hour to cook his halibut dish.
"I paid close attention to my time, glazed it about three times and pulled it off fairly early," he said. "I knew there would be some extra cook time when you pull it off until it cools down. I felt good about it. I knew I was right on the money. I took it to the judge's booth and then went on with getting ready for the group that was coming through for dinner."
At the awards ceremony, his instinct was proven correct. He won $1,000 from Memphis in May, $1,000 from Kettleman's barbecue sauce and a seafood entry fee waiver for the next five years.
Korry Keeker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.