It started with more than 300 teams of participants from 40 states and 10 countries. Now the World Food Championships have shrunk to 10 finalists.
Two are from St. Louis. And they are friends.
Mike Johnson, co-founder and co-owner of the 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 in the Lake Murray County competition. South Carolina, April 30th and May 1st.
MacMurray, widely known as Jack Mac, used to cook for Johnson. And he qualified for international competition by winning a competition hosted by Johnson at the Boathouse in Forest Park. Johnson runs the Boathouse where MacMurray was once the chef. They have been friends for 20 years.
“We competed in the (UCP Heartland) Wing Ding and in a burger contest,” MacMurray said. “I think I hit him in the wings; He definitely killed me in the burgers.”
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Because of his connection to Sugarfire, Johnson is best known as a grill chef. But as the owner of Hi-Pointe Drive-In, he also has hamburger-related skills.
“I do competitive barbecues just for fun. I’ve become world champion in grilling several times; I have about five or six of these things. I thought it would be great to be world champion in burgers,” Johnson said.
In November, Johnson competed in the preliminary round of the World Food Championships and won the Best Burger category (Adam Pritchett, the chef and Johnson’s co-partner at Hi-Pointe, also competed in the same category. The world of St Louis chefs is tight and closely related).
That win gave him the right to compete in the finals against winners from nine other categories, including MacMurray, who won 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 lit a fire for MacMurray to recognize his mistakes and win the category next time. The competition was canceled in 2020 and he won in 2021.
In addition to Best Burger and Best Bacon, the other categories have specialties like Best Seafood, Best Sandwich, Best Dessert, and the like. The winner in each category is an expert in their field, so Johnson expects he and MacMurray to do well.
“The steak man 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 in such a way that the participants have to prepare a wide variety of dishes. In the first round they have to cook biscuits, grits and peaches. Only the top five cooks advance to the next round in which they must 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 a line,” he said.
Johnson cooked for Emeril Lagasse in New Orleans for several years, so he knows one fish too. But there’s only one problem.
“I’ve never fished before,” he said.
Luckily, each chef is matched with a professional fisherman, and the people running 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 doesn’t matter what type of fish he has to work with, the most important thing is to cook and present it properly. However, he also indicated that he would continue fishing until he caught a bass.
Only three of the contestants make it to the finals where they have to cook quail. Here, the two local chefs have another advantage if they make it this far: both have plenty of experience preparing the tender wild bird, which is small and easily overcooked.
As friends, MacMurray and Johnson have nothing but praise and admiration to say about each other. MacMurray said: “I compete against the best. … He’s a hell of a genius chef.” Johnson said, “I’d love to see Jack win. I would go insane.”
And it’s not just each other. The two are friends with three of the other top 10 finalists and discuss thoughts and strategy online.
“We are currently exchanging all ideas. We’ve all said we’re going to do it survivor style: we’re going to do what we can to help each other get to the finals, but then it’s everyone for themselves,” Johnson said.
Even greater than the glory and joy of a personal victory, however, is what the tournament says about St. Louis. Two of the 10 finalists come from this area; The other finalists live hundreds of kilometers apart.
MacMurray said: “For me and Mike, this is important for St. Louis. It’s just another layer of St. Louis food. St.Louis has that.”