Since Henry Morris took over the pits at Memphis’s world-famous Rendezvous barbecue restaurant from founder Charlie Vergos thirty-three years ago, he’s cooked an estimated 1.6 million slabs of its distinctive charbroiled, dry-rubbed ribs. (If anyone alive can claim they’ve cooked more, raise your tongs.) Before those pits need loading again, we wanted to find out a bit more about Morris and his barbecue secrets.
How did you get your start at Rendezvous?
I was working for a greenhouse, doing landscaping, and a customer sometimes would come there driving a nice antique truck. My cousin worked [at the greenhouse] too, and he asked me if I knew who that was. I didn’t, and he said it was Charlie Vergos, the man who owns the Rendezvous. Then the greenhouse was going out of business, and Mr. Vergos told me to come see him at the restaurant. He told Bobby Ellis, the kitchen manager, to find me a position. They needed someone at the pits.
What’s the secret to Rendezvous ribs?
I cook them the way Mr. Vergos taught me. It didn’t take me long to learn, because I wanted to keep the job. Some people think we cook on wood, but I show them that Rendezvous ribs are cooked over charcoal. Our style takes only about an hour in the pit, so I’ve got to have my timing right. I watch to make sure they don’t burn and both sides are done right. Ribs need to be basted with our vinegar wash every time they look dry to keep them juicy. That works miracles on that pork. Practice makes perfect. I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I don’t burn hardly any ribs.
On a busy weekend night in downtown Memphis, you might feed several thousand hungry customers.
Man, it’s a zoo sometimes! It never stops, and I have to keep the ribs coming out of my three pits. I can cook sixty slabs at a time, and if I need to, I keep some extra to the side, a little off the heat. At the same time, in another pit I’m cooking hams, brisket, sausages, and lamb.
How do people react when they learn you’re the Rendezvous pitmaster?
They can’t believe it. The other day I told a lady where I work. She asked me what I do there, and when I told her I’m the pitmaster, she got really excited to meet me. You know, my picture is on the boxes we use for overnight shipping. I go all around the world, and I don’t even have to leave Memphis.
What do you like to do on your days off?
Hunt and fish. I got an eight-point buck on the first weekend of deer season. I’ve been fishing since I was kid, and I’m pretty good at it now. I taught my wife how to fish, and now she catches more than I do, but that’s okay. We fish for bass, bream, and crappie. I turn them into fish filets and steaks, sometimes baked, but I really like fried.
Are you sick of barbecue?
No, no, I never get tired of eating pork. And I don’t have any high blood pressure or anything!
Author’s note: Growing up near Memphis, Morris and I picked the same pea patch one summer for a roadside produce stand. I went on to write, he to cook world-famous ribs, which is to say he’s made a lot more people happy than I have.