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VOL. 133 | NO. 133 | Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Pitmaster Pride

Rendezvous founder being inducted into Barbecue Hall of Fame

Jeremiah Graham

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Rendezvous founder Charlie Vergos is among three new members being inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. The American Royal Association announced the 2018 class of inductees in May. The induction ceremony will take place on Sept. 13, during the American Royal World Series of Barbecue in Kansas City, Missouri.

The ARA, founded in 1899, holds livestock shows, horse shows, rodeos and the World Series of Barbecue. Three people are inducted each year into the hall, and honored for their contributions to the barbecue community. Tuffy Stone and Tootsie Tomanetz are being inducted with Vergos, who died in 2010 at age 84.

For John Vergos, news of his father’s recognition was “beyond exciting.”

Tina Vergos Jennings sits inside The Rendezvous with a portrait of her father, the late Charlie Vergos, who founded the iconic barbecue joint and will be inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

“We were all excited,” Vergos said. “Definitely wish he was alive to experience this himself. I’m sure he would be very proud.”

Charlie Vergos’ barbecue roots trace back to 1948, when he co-owned a “meat and three” restaurant called Wimpy’s with his brother-in-law. As time passed he started selling ham sandwiches and beer in a basement he called “The Rendezvous.”

Seventy years later, the Memphis restaurant is still going strong. But, according to John Vergos, the restaurant was not planned; it was something that “just happened.”

“It was all kind of by chance,” Vergos said. “Nothing was really planned out, it was all just on the fly.”

The Rendezvous name came from the restaurant’s basement location. The quiet meeting point was a reference to the post World War II time period. It was in this small basement where Vergos discovered his famous “Memphis-style ribs,” which he placed exactly 18 inches from the fire, and grilled them for 75 minutes to help seal in the flavor.

“He discovered an old coal shoot in the basement and discovered that it could make an oven,” Vergos said. “I’m sure he burned a ton of ribs before he got them right. But we still cook the ribs the same way today.”

The Rendezvous has become one of the Mid-South’s go-to spots for barbecue. The restaurant at 52 S. Second St. has won many awards over the years, including being named one of 50 All-American Icons by Nation’s Restaurant News magazine. After Vergos’ death in 2010, his children – John, Nick and Tina – are continuing the tradition he started.

Stone is a world record-breaking champion pitmaster. Originally trained in French culinary technique, he attended his first barbecue competition in 2004.

The grillmaster has won many awards, including back-to back wins at the ARA World Series of Barbecue, Grand Champion at the 2015 Kingsford Invitational and the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational in 2016. In that competition, Stone and his team, dubbed “Cool Smoke,” became the only team to win the contest three times and take home back-to-back top prizes.

Stone said he was moved to tears upon learning that he is being inducted into the barbecue hall of fame.

“This definitely ranks up there,” he said. “This is one of the most special accomplishments of my life. To be inducted alongside those two is humbling, to say the least. There are so many greats in that hall and it means a lot to join that list.”

Melissa Cookston, a 2017 inductee in to the hall, relates to Stone’s surprised reaction to receiving the news. The Greenville, Mississippi, native thought it was a practical joke.

“I thought somebody was punking me or they just had the wrong number,” she laughed.

Cookston said she always knew she would be involved in the culinary arts in some fashion. Starting off working at a local drive in as a teen, Cookston worked her way up to becoming a 7-time world barbecue champion, restaurant owner, and author of two cookbooks. Despite her vast accomplishments, she still had apprehensions about her hall of fame induction.

“I felt like I didn’t deserve it honestly,” Cookston said. “I come from a small town in the middle of nowhere. These things aren’t supposed to happen. When you do something you’re passionate about and people appreciate it this much, words can’t describe how fulfilling that is.”

Cookston advises the 2018 inductees to soak it all in and enjoy the moment.

“The American Royal (Association) treats you like royalty. They make you feel so special and appreciated,” she said. “Just have fun with your loved ones and enjoy the time you spend together.”

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