Melissa Cookston likes to play with fire.
“In a former life, I must have been a pyro because anything dealing with flames, I’m all in. Servers will say, ‘If you open that kitchen door wide enough, you’ll probably see her back there on that wood-fired grill because she loves charring things; she’s got those flames leaping up pretty high,’” she says.
That’s the picture Cookston paints in describing a typical night at her newest restaurant, STEAK by Melissa, which opened last November. Located in Southaven, Mississippi, STEAK is a departure from her first concept, Memphis Barbecue Company, which now counts three locations in Mississippi, Georgia, and North Carolina. Cookston says she didn’t want to limit herself to just barbecue—an understandable concern given how she’s become the unofficial queen of competition barbecue.
“Barbecue obviously is a passion, and it’s so much more than just a food for me,” Cookston says. “I didn’t want to pigeonhole or snooker myself behind just barbecue. I felt like I had so much more to give, especially the demographic I’m in, so I decided to do this steakhouse.”
A passionate pitmaster, Cookston has won more than a dozen top honors for her barbecue skills. It’s a male-dominated space, but Cookston doesn’t care (her first of two cookbooks is called Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room). She’s not out to make a point but simply leans in—specifically, into a smoking pit.
STEAK is something of a playground for Cookston. The scratch-made kitchen affords her the opportunity to mix up the menu depending on what comes in. If her seafood supplier has an abundance of swordfish one week, it will take a starring role on the menu. Meaty staples including a variety of aged, choice-grade steak cuts, Berkshire Pork Chop, and the Bacon BGR anchor the steakhouse concept.
Cookston relishes the opportunity to surprise guests, whether it’s through unexpected flavor combinations or the presentation itself: The rack of lamb arrives with the bones sticking straight up; several cocktails are infused with smoke; and sauces like the blood orange glaze and the chipotle glaze invite a “party on the taste buds.”
“I really like people to go, ‘Oh, my gosh, what have I gotten myself into here?’” Cookston says. “I like the ‘wow’ factor. If it’s your birthday and you come in, we literally send off fireworks on cakes, and we parade it through the restaurant.”
That irreverent attitude is all part of Cookston’s mission to create a warm and welcoming space. For all of STEAK’s avant-garde dishes, the atmosphere is decidedly casual. Born and bred in the Mississippi Delta, Cookston feels comfortable in jeans and a baseball cap and doesn’t want her guests to feel daunted by some unspoken dress code.
Cookston, who has worked as a bartender, is also forging community ties through a planned wine locker program. Guests would select wines from her list of about 250 varietals and keep the bottles stored at the restaurants. She has the pieces in place but is still awaiting approval from the state of Mississippi, which, she says, has hitherto never received that kind of inquiry.
Regarding her proposed locker program, “there are some vague, very old laws that say ‘you might not’ or can’t, so I’m being a good girl, and I’m waiting on that,” Cookston says. “I already have the lockers in place, and we have a very big wine selection—very heavy on the reds. It’s a red meat kind of place.”
From pushing through wine lockers in a blue law state to besting the boys in the barbecue pit, Cookston might come across as something of a rebel, but in fact she’s more of an incurable inventor, who’s always hatching a new idea.
“I drive my husband crazy because I dream this stuff up, and he’s the guy who makes it all happen. With all this stuff rolling around in my head, he’s like, ‘Please, just stop,’” she says with a laugh.
Besides entertaining the idea of opening additional STEAK locations, she’s mulling over a taco concept with a flame wall, as well as another barbecue restaurant. She’s also raising heritage-breed hogs on the side. It’s a lot of work—and Cookston says Christmas is the only day she takes off—but she considers herself lucky to do it.
She even compares her search for the perfect, universally loved bite of food to a Mississippi Delta fable of real-life blues singer-songwriter Robert Johnson. Legend has it that Johnson, then a mediocre guitarist, was approached by the devil at a crossroads and exchanged his soul for musical prowess.
“Have you ever wanted something bad enough that you kind of understood how Robert Johnson felt? I’ve never been approached by the devil, I don’t think, but for 20 years, I’ve always searched for that utopian bite that would be so good that everybody in the world would love it. Everybody’s so different; their palates are different; their likes are different. But that one bite that everybody in the world would love—that’s why you get up in the morning,” she says. “You’re always chasing that bite. That’s what makes my blood boil.”