Michael Markham wasn’t born into barbecue, but since he got into the business more than 10 years ago he’s had nothing but love for it. As owner and pitmaster of Big Mike’s BBQ, a food truck based in Apex, N.C., he serves up pulled pork barbecue, chicken and ribs alongside new and traditional southern sides and desserts.
Cooking was always something Markham enjoyed doing — so much so that he considered attending culinary school after college — but it wasn’t until his second to last year of college that he barbecued for the first time.
Inspired by a friend’s father, Markham threw a Boston butt on his propane grill, but wasn’t completely satisfied with the results. After a few more underwhelming attempts at barbecuing, Markham looked to Good Eats for some guidance. Following Alton Brown’s instructions, Markham put together a flower pot smoker, seasoned a Boston butt and threw it inside.
Markham had caught the fever. After that, he’d cook as many as six pork butts at a time for church fundraisers and family gatherings. But when graduation time came, Markham, an agricultural business management major who graduated from NC State in 2002, accepted a job as a stock broker instead of following his culinary ambitions.
Although he admits the job was good, Markham says it just wasn’t for him.
“I was behind a desk at a computer all day,” Markham says. “I was like, ‘This isn’t what I signed up for.’ I hated doing office work, so I got out and did outside sales after that.”
All the while, Markham continued barbecuing for family and friends. In 2009, at about the same time he started working in sales, he had reached a point where he’d often cook more meat than he could fit on his smoker at one time. He decided it was time for an upgrade.
“That’s when the insanity started,” he says.
After purchasing his new smoker, Markham says he’d cook extra meat for neighbors and friends to make sure no space went unused. Simply put, barbecuing had become something Markham loved doing.
But while he was working in sales, Markham came across a new set of job-related challenges. After the birth of his first son, Michael Jr., in 2010, he says it became difficult to balance his travel for work with his responsibilities at home.
It was a job interview in 2011 that helped Markham realize it was time for another change. Halfway through, the interviewer closed his notebook and ended the interview early.
“Don’t do like I did,” he told Markham. “I made great money, was the most successful I could ever imagine being, but if I could trade it all back, when I was your age I would have bought a restaurant so I could spend more time with my family.’“
He took his advice, purchasing a red barn trailer, setting up a kitchen inside and opening Big Mike’s in the fall of 2011. Now, he can drop his two sons off at daycare, head off to work and still pick them up in the afternoon.
“I’m always going to be local, I’m always going to be available and the cool thing is, if I want to do lunch I can just do lunch and I can be at home after that,” Markham says.
Although he serves his barbecue on the go, Markham hasn’t compromised the quality of his smoked meats. Markham purchases his pork from Durham, N.C.’s Green Button Farm. Using an onboard smoker he cooks it, along with his chicken and ribs, the same way he has for more than a decade — smoking them over wood.
“It makes a difference with flavor,” Markham says. “You don’t get the same mark and penetration with gas grills.”
Beginning his second year in the business, Markham says he plans to open a lunch-only restaurant at 1710 Center Street in Apex, N.C. in November and continue enjoying the barbecue lifestyle.
“I love it,” Markham says. “Even on the toughest days I can say I’m doing what I love doing and that’s what I never realized before.”
— Alex Sanchez
Big Mike’s BBQ is one of dozens of vendors – including restaurants, farms, breweries, wineries and bakeries – participating in the Red & White Food and Beverage Festival during the week of homecoming. All of the vendors have NC State connections, with alumni as owners or managers. The festival is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 29, at The State Club in the Park Alumni Center. Visit the festival website to register and see a full list of vendors participating.