Neman: St. Louis will have a major presence at the World Food Championships | food and cooking

It began with more than 300 teams of competitors from 40 states and 10 countries. Now, the World Food Championships are down to 10 finalists.

Two are from St. Louis. And they’re friends.

Mike Johnson, the co-founder and co-owner of Sugarfire Smoke House and several other restaurants, and Jack MacMurray III, executive chef at Old Hickory Golf Club, will compete against each other and eight other contestants at the competition in Lake Murray County, South Carolina, on April 30 and May 1.

MacMurray, who is widely known as Jack Mac, used to cook for Johnson. And he qualified for the international competition because he won a contest hosted by Johnson at the Boathouse in Forest Park. Johnson runs the Boathouse, where MacMurray was once executive chef. They’ve been friends for 20 years.

“We’ve competed against each other in the (UCP Heartland) Wing Ding and in a burger competition,” MacMurray said. “I think I beat him in the wings; he definitely killed me in the burgers.”

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Because of his association with Sugarfire, Johnson is best known as a barbecue chef. But as the owner of Hi-Pointe Drive-In, he has hamburger-related skills, as well.

“I do competitive barbecue just for fun. I have won world champion in barbecue several times; I have, like, five or six of the things. I thought it would be awesome to be world champion in burgers,” Johnson said.

In November, Johnson competed in the preliminary round of the World Food Championships, winning in the category of Best Burger (Adam Pritchett, the executive chef and Johnson’s co-partner in Hi-Pointe, also competed in the same category. The world of St Louis heads is tight and close-knit).

That victory gave him the right to compete in the finals against the winners of nine other categories, including MacMurray, who won in the bacon category. MacMurray competed in the same category in 2019, missing the top 10 by a fraction of a point.

It was frustrating, but it lighted a fire under MacMurray to recognize his mistakes and win the category the next time out. The contest was canceled in 2020, and he won in 2021.

Along with best burger and best bacon, the other categories include such specialties as best seafood, best sandwich, best dessert and the like. The winner in each category is an expert in his or her field, and that’s why Johnson figures he and MacMurray will do well.

“The steak person does nothing but cook rib-eyes all day long. Me and Jack Mac, we have an advantage. We’ve been cooking everything for 30 years,” Johnson said.

The competition is structured so that the competitors have to cook a wide variety of foods. In the first round, they must cook cookies, grits and peaches. Only the top five chefs will move on to the next round, in which they will have to both catch and cook a fish from Lake Murray.

MacMurray grew up in southern New Jersey, where his grandparents owned a marina. “I’ve been fishing and crabbing since I was old enough to pull up a string,” he said.

Johnson cooked for Emeril Lagasse in New Orleans for several years, so he too knows his way around a fish. But there’s just one problem.

“I’ve never been fishing,” he said.

Fortunately, each chef will be paired with a professional fisherman, and the people that run the competition guarantee that either the chef or the professional will catch a fish. The lake, which is actually a reservoir, is stocked with catfish and striped bass.

MacMurray said it does not matter which kind of fish he has to work with, the important thing is to cook and present it properly. That said, he also indicated he would keep fishing until he caught a bass.

Only three of the competitors will advance to the final round, in which they will have to cook quail. Here the two local chefs have another advantage if they make it that far: Both have plenty of experience cooking the delicate game bird, which is small and easy to overcook.

As friends, MacMurray and Johnson have nothing but complimentary and admiring things to say about each other. MacMurray said, “I’m competing against the best. … He’s an insanely genius cook.” Johnson said, “I’d be real happy for Jack to win. I’d go crazy.”

And it’s not just each other. The two are friends with three of the other top-10 finalists, and they all discuss thoughts and strategy online.

“We’re all sharing ideas right now. We all said we’re going to do it ‘Survivor’ style: Do whatever we can to help each other get into the final round, but then it’s every man for himself,” Johnson said.

Even bigger than the fame and gratification of a personal victory, though, is what the tournament says about St. Louis. Two of the 10 finalists are from this area; the other finalists live hundreds of miles from one another.

MacMurray said: “To me and Mike, this is important to St. Louis. It’s just another layer of St. Louis food. It’s what St. Louis has.”

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