North Carolina native, BBQ enthusiast, Netflix star are just a few of Ashley Thompson's titles.
Thompson grew up in Benson, where at a young age he was introduced to the world of barbecue — a 10-year-old kid beaming with the chance to hang out with the big boys, stay up late cooking, and of course, play with fire and sharp knives.
Little did he know there was a passion brewing inside of him, eventually lit by a tragedy not fully extinguished, that would drive him to build something more than he could ever imagine.
Thompson and his best friend, Jeremy Murfin, aka Big Worm, were inseparable since they were sophomores in high school, eventually snagging a bachelor pad just outside of Raleigh once they graduated in the early 2000s.
Teenagers being teenagers, Thompson explained, the parties were heavy. What stood out was their idea to "spice things up a bit." Barbecuing.
"We would cook something every weekend, made sure we had something to eat, and word caught on where people said, 'y'all need to come over to this house,'" beamed Thompson. "It was more for the food after a while."
One thing led to another. Thompson and Big Worm began saucing up their social media game with pictures of their smoked creations, building a following in the process. Shortly after, another friend from high school reached out to gauge their interest in competition.
It was the start of something special.
Catching the barbecuing bug
All they were told was to gather what they had, put it in their truck, ride out to the competition and have a good time. Surely thinking this was more in the amateur realm of their skills.
When they showed up to the event, the setups were more out-of-this-world than they expected — (in your best Duke's of Hazard voice) "What did these boys get themselves into?"
Equipped with mostly Walmart-style gear versus thousands of dollars worth of smokers, Thompson and Worm would go on to beat most of the field of 30-plus contestants, finishing in the Top 10. The boys caught the bug and their team name "Rubbin and Racin" was born.
"We used to watch Pit Master and wonder where we would rank if we did a competition. It wasn't long after that where we were able to finish as a Grand Champion in the state, and we were on to something."
Next up was to go after the state title itself.
However, that dream was halted in its tracks by some of the worst news the two never thought they would hear.
Worm and Thompson were hit with a new reality: cancer.
Between the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, Worm started to get sick. Doctors would ultimately find a tumor on his brain and diagnose him with brain cancer. The prognosis was just as gut-wrenching.
"He was given six months to live. He died almost six months to the day in August 2017," said Thompson. "It was tough, anytime the smokers were lit we were together. Anytime we had something going on, we did it together."
After Worm died, Thompson got out of the barbecue scene. It just didn't feel right without his friend of over 20 years by his side.
Dabbling with 'cue here and there, cooking became more of a hobby. As time went on, Thompson would spark the pit every now. Then, the opportunity of a lifetime came, one that has kept the fire going for good.
L.A. comes calling
He's still unsure of how it happened. Maybe someone noticed his Instagram account, where Thompson posts dozens of pictures of his culinary work.
Walking through the showroom of a car dealership where he worked, Thompson received a call from Los Angeles, California. His first thought was more or less the same one every person in Eastern North Carolina would think if they saw that area code. Telemarketer.
For some reason, he had a feeling it was different, so he answered.
"The lady said she was putting together a barbecue TV show, couldn't give me much more in detail, but wanted to know if I was interested in putting in an application." Thompson thought is had to be a prank, possibly a scam, but he was curious.
After checking things out, the phone call's legitimacy started to shine through, leading Thompson to follow up.
Roughly 3,000 applicants were considered as producers for the show took their time narrowing down the selection. A phone call was made each time Thompson made the cut, bringing the number down to 10.
Boarding a flight to Georgia in Sept. 2019, he was still not told he would be a participant in the show until the morning the group headed to the set for filming. Shadowed in total secrecy, Thompson had to put his game face on as he was about to pit his skills against seven of the country's top amateur barbecue masters.
American BBQ Showdown
Just like Thompson's and Big Worm's first competition ever, the mindset stayed true. Go out and have some fun.
It was slightly intimidating this time though.
"The America Barbecue Showdown" on Netflix was said to have the same producers as Master Chef and Hell's Kitchen. Thankfully, the challenges were doused with Southern charm and not comparable to the shows where you stand toe to toe with Gordon Ramsey screaming "where's the lamb sauce!!!"
"One thing I can tell you is barbecue is like family. In competition, you've got 40 to 50 teams competing, but everyone is there to help if you need something, forgot something, and that is the way the show was."
Throughout the course of four weeks, Thompson thrived in certain challenges and struggled in others. Watching the show first hand, it is difficult to see those he didn't do so well on — thanks to family.
In Thompson's elimination round, his teammate, Sylvie Curry, showed the compassion that comes with the cue. An unfortunate mistake, not made by Thompson or Curry, ruined a piece of chicken and put Thompson on the show's chopping block.
However, it was Curry's reassurance that made it OK as Thompson bowed out.
But he was called back for the last few tapings to help the remaining contestants, ultimately assisting finalist Tina Cannon when she was crowned America's BBQ Champion.
From start to finish, Big Worm's story played a part as Thompson navigated through the challenges. The judges knew him, the contestants knew him, and the viewers knew him.
So much so that he began to receive messages from around the world from people he'll probably never meet, but who were able to connect through the sincerity of what he was there to accomplish to honor his fallen friend.
Building a legacy for Big Worm
Two weeks before passing away, Big Worm called Thompson.
"Let's go somewhere," he said. "Let's get an RV or something and let's just go." Worm suddenly had a little bit of energy.
Not wanting to be too far away from his doctors in Durham, Thompson and Worm agreed on going to the mountains for what they did best. They grabbed their smokers, found a place to stay, and smoked it up one more time.
During the trip, emotions began to overwhelm Big Worm. One night, just before returning home, he started to break down. What would happen to him when he died? How would people remember him? What would be his legacy in the end?
Without hesitation, Thompson consoled his best friend, ensuring him no one would forget the wonderful man many knew him as — a promise he has kept.
The pair came home on a Sunday, and the next day Thompson got the call. Worm had taken a turn for the worse.
"Doctors said there wasn't anything they could do for him anymore, so we took him to hospice," explained Thompson, who said he never left his friend's side the few days he was there. Murfin died on August 15, 2017, at the age of 34.
Thompson contemplated ideas for keeping his name alive and, when the show came along, it proved to be the perfect starter. Afterward, the world knew Big Worm. Thompson's next move: make sure they don't forget him.
Moving to Jacksonville immediately after taping in 2019, the coronavirus pandemic put a damper on his plans of continuing where he left off. It also gave him a year to meticulously plan every detail, eventually deciding to open a food truck.
The name of the truck: "Legacy Barbecue."
"I played around with the original name, Big Worm's Legacy BBQ, but we decided to shorten the name while paying tribute to him in other ways," said Thompson. "We have his face in the middle of the "A" and the cancer ribbon right below it."
Another small but important detail is the scar Big Worm had on his head after doctors performed surgery on the tumor. Most people would try to hide such a scar. Big Worm embraced it.
In late December, Legacy Barbecue hit the ground running. Food trucks became popular last year when restaurants had to close, especially when the City of Jacksonville updated its ordinance for allowing food trucks to operate within city limits.
Legacy now provides bulk items and catering and is so successful Thompson says he has booked events into 2022.
"I love the Jacksonville area, and I'm so happy that this has come to fruition of a business that we both use to talk about," Thompson said. "We used to say we should just quit our jobs and do it, and if it wasn't for his story, I don't know if this ever would have happened. Just to know that all of the people are supporting us and feel like they know Big Worm is the coolest part."