Barbecue hasn't just lost a legend. It's lost the legend.
Mike Mills, owner and pitmaster of the renowned 17th Street Barbecue in Murphysboro, Illinois, and Marion, Illinois, died Dec. 29, 2020.
Mills was known as "The Legend" in the world of barbecue, not only in the St. Louis metro area, but across the nation. Both of his local restaurants (he also owned two barbecue restaurants in Las Vegas) are nationally acclaimed; in 2007, Bon Appétit named Mills' ribs the best in the country.
Mills himself won a plethora of awards separate from the restaurant. He was a four-time world champion and three-time grand world champion at Memphis in May, otherwise known as the Super Bowl of Swine. His book, Peace, Love, and Barbecue was nominated for a 2006 James Beard Foundation award and received the 2006 National Barbecue Association Award of Excellence. In 2010, Mills was inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. Plus, he was the only pitmaster in the world with top-security clearance to board Air Force One and whose oral history was recorded for posterity at the Smithsonian Institute.
In a humble town of 7,970 people, Mike Mills has quietly built a culinary giant, a barbecued colossus built on golden 8-foot-tall trophies.
"His impact on the worldwide culture of barbecue and on the Southern Illinois region he was proud to call home will be long lasting," his daughter, Amy Mills, wrote in a statement announcing his passing. "Mike always embraced and enthusiastically welcomed everyone into our barbecue family and loved sharing his passion for cooking with fire."
Many who speak of Mills know that he will be remembered for much more than his smoked meats. Mike Johnson, owner and founder of Sugarfire Smoke House, says that in just the few times he had the pleasure to meet Mills he learned a lot about how to care for customers and about the business of barbecue in general. He was one of the people he looked up to most in barbecue.
"[We] just lost a legend, and really a great ambassador for barbecue," Johnson says. "Just a great guy and a great teacher. He would give his knowledge to anybody who would ask. He would spend time with anybody, you know, and just treat them like they're a part of his family. I learned a lot about hospitality in the short few times I spent with him."
Tom Schmidt, owner of Salt + Smoke, only got to meet Mills once (at the opening of Shake Shack in the Central West End).
"I was starstruck," he says.
Schmidt considers himself a usually shy person, but he went up to Mills to say hello and thank him for everything he did to guide and promote barbecue. Schmidt describes him as warm and gracious; Mills even said he had heard good things about Salt + Smoke and wanted to try it himself, and Schmidt was flattered.
"Upon leaving, my wife inquired who I was talking to and why I had such spazzy desperate energy when talking to him," Schmidt says. "His unpretentious and hospitable nature, in a room full of egomaniacal restaurant folk like myself, had a calming and assuring effect that made me wish I had met him decades ago. He is a deserving legend and will be missed by many."
17 Street Barbecue will remain open under the helm of Amy Mills, who has run the restaurants for the past four years.
"He built a solid foundation for 17th Street and, through years of training and listening and watching, we’ve developed a map for our future," she wrote in a Jan. 12 Instagram post. "Our job is to preserve his legacy and continue to serve the best barbecue possible, with our trademark warmth and gracious hospitality."