BBQ Masters: A Chat with Tillman’s BBQ

In this insightful interview, BBQ Pit Masters Tillman Nelson and Craig Thompson, share their experiences in the world of competitive BBQ, their journey from amateurs to seasoned competitors, and their tips for those looking to break into the scene. They discuss their involvement in the Jimmy Jam BBQ Slam, their strategies for different meats, and the importance of tenderness in BBQ.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]
BBQ 321: Tell me a little bit about the Jimmy Jam BBQ Slam. Is that one of your go-to competitions?

TILLMAN: I support them. They started it in 2015 in a small parking lot. I got involved in 2018. They have a great cause and do so much for the community. I stepped up and started sponsoring with my barbecue sauce.

CRAIG: Tillman's like, dude, you got to get up here and cook. It's a great organization. They give a lot back to the community. I jumped on board and won it the first year I was there.

BBQ 321: This year's Jimmy Jam was a bit bigger than years past, right?

TILLMAN: This year was the first year they sanctioned. It's grown so exponentially throughout the years without being sanctioned, which says a lot. And as of now, it's the biggest BBQ contest in the state of Florida.

BBQ 321: How did you guys get your start in this whole competitive barbecue world?

TILLMAN: We met doing an amateur backyard contest. Neither one of us ever really competed before. My story is the guys I was working with at the time brought me to help out with their team because it was a local event. And then, I met Craig at that event.

CRAIG: I kind of fell in love with outdoor cooking. Found a grill in the garbage and was like, "I'm going to go home and smoke some stuff." Friends and family started telling me it was the best thing they ever had. So I went out and started to compete. I met up with Tillman, and we found out we lived close to each other. And we became good friends over the years while trying to figure this whole barbecue thing out.

BBQ 321: You guys are competing on the weekends right now. How many contests have you competed in since Jimmy Jam?

TILLMAN: That was the first time we cooked together. Prior to that, we were cooking at some competitions next to each other. But Craig's work schedule is a little challenging for him to do more. I decided at the beginning of this year to do all the FBA events I could do and some KCBS in between. So we've been on a pretty strong mission since Jimmy Jam.

BBQ 321: What's the biggest change you've seen in BBQ competition over the last few years?

TILLMAN: The popularity has skyrocketed. The challenge now is it's so hard to win a category when there are so many good people out there. When we started, there were virtually no classes. Now, these newer cook teams will step into the scene, having already taken a class or two. They know things that it took us seven years to learn.

BBQ 321: What advice would you give to some of these guys that are just starting out now in competitive barbecue?

CRAIG: If you have a class that's in your area, take it! Whether it's backyard or pro, just learn the basics, learn fire management, flavor profiles, and tenderness. Everybody has a good sauce. Everybody has a good rub. But the tenderness is the game.

For more stories, insights, and competition barbecue tips from Tillman's BBQ, check out the BBQ 321 Pit Master Interviews Episode 6 podcast.