A family of five poses with trophies
The Leighninger family — parents Brad and Sarah, and children Molly, Ellie and Hudson — are an award-winning competitive cooking family that lives in Nixa. (Photo: Juliana Goodwin)

For the Leighninger family, barbecue is a way of life.

Dad Brad Leighninger is the pitmaster for Gettin’ Basted, a competitive barbecue team. He’s also founder and co-owner of the Gettin’ Basted restaurants in Springfield, Nixa and Branson, and Downing Street Pour House in Hollister. Wife Sarah oversees catering, is co-owner and also part of the competition team.

Leighninger is one of the most decorated pitmasters in the country. His is the only team in history to be named the Kansas City Barbecue Society Team of the Year three times (2018, 2020, 2021).

They’ve snagged titles at Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational BBQ, a granddaddy in the barbecue world. Sarah won for dessert at the same competition. Sarah often enters ancillary categories and has done very well.

They’ve been Reserve Grand Champions at American Royal, the largest barbecue contest in the world. Last year, Brad teamed up with a friend and was named Grand Champions at Memphis in May, and the accolades go on and on. You might think all those wins would take the fun out of it, but it doesn’t.

“It takes the pressure out of it,” Brad said. 

On a busy year, he tackles 50 challenges, but on an average year, he travels to 30.

Competitions are a family affair

“If it’s summer when we are all off, we might make a summer trip of it,” said Sarah.

While meat is the name of the game at a barbecue competition, there are smaller competitions going on at the same time — everything from dessert to barbecue sauce to kids’ contests, and those are the events they enter as a family. Collectively they have amassed trophies, championship rings, awards, ribbons, mega prize money and more.

Most of the big trophies decorate their restaurants, but they keep some at their home in Nixa, too.

The family racked up the awards last summer at a cookoff in Colorado. They won best overall, best salsa and best dessert, and their children swept the kid categories. Ellie and Hudson won first in their division and Molly came in second.

Their daughter Molly,14, is carving out her own career. She appeared on the Steve Harvey Show and MasterChef Junior, but all three of the kiddos compete.

Molly says her friends think it’s cool she gets to travel to so many places.

Their spunky 8-old-son Hudson says: “I don’t think my besties care at all.”

A competitive barbecue poses with an oversized check
The Gettin’ Basted barbecue team was named the Grand Champion at the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational BBQ event in 2021. (Photo: The Leighninger Family)

Springfield’s Rock’n Ribs was Brad’s first competition

Brad and Sarah met in their 20s while working at Ruby Tuesday in Joplin. They were recent college graduates: she was a Spanish teacher and he worked in IT. The man who hired them more than 20 years ago is their current business partner.

They always loved cooking. Brad and his brother-in-law used to watch BBQ Pitmasters on TLC and talk about competing one day. 

In 2012, a friend who had a spot in Rock’n Ribs — Springfield’s premier barbecue competition at the time — was unable to attend. He offered it to Brad. They snagged it and came in sixth, which was a big deal for a first-time team.

A man holds up three championship rings
Brad Leighninger shows off rings he’s won at competitive barbecue events. (Photo: The Leighninger Family)

But more importantly, it was a Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned event, which opened other doors (winners from KCBS events can qualify for other food contests). They won the potato salad event at Rock’n Ribs, which secured them a spot at the World Food Championship in Las Vegas.

“We were hooked,” said Brad.

Sarah said they’ve always been competitive and enjoyed working together.

“The barbecue world is a good community,” Brad said. “It was validation for what we were doing, and it was fun.”

Kids love cooking and competing

By the time Molly was 5, she snagged a first-place win for a burger creation.

Hudson, 8, and Ellie, 11, have both won their divisions. From their home in Nixa, Hudson runs downstairs to retrieve and show off one of his trophies.

Each kiddo has their reason for enjoying this way of life.

“I love to eat and make food and make something people enjoy,” said Molly.

Younger sister Ellie said: “I like to compete with Molly.”

Molly responds, “Yeah, she beats me.”

Three children show off cooking awards
Hudson, Ellie and Molly have all won awards for their food at competitive events Gettin’ Basted attends. (Photo: The Leighninger Family)

Low and slow? Not for the Leighningers

Traditionally, the mantra in barbecue has been low and slow. Brad has changed that image.

He believes in hot and fast. Brad is a pioneer of what has become known as Ozarks-style barbecue, cooking at high heat on open drum barrel cookers. They use direct heat over Missouri hardwood coals.

After his early success on the barbecue circuit, in 2016, they opened a Gettin’ Basted food truck, which became a huge hit. Within months, they were approached by the Starlite Theatre in Branson about serving their barbecue in the theatre. A year later, the Gettin’ Basted team had outgrown that spot and opened a brick-and-mortar at 2845 W. Country Blvd. 76, Branson.

They’ve been expanding ever since and are working on opening a fifth restaurant later this year.

Brad teaches classes on his style of barbecue

Sarah was a Spanish teacher at The Summit Preparatory School in Springfield until last summer, when she decided to leave teaching to focus on their business full-time. Aside from the restaurants, they sell barbecue sauces and rubs, and are working on packaging their sausages.

Brad also teaches classes — nationally and internationally — on his style of barbecue and how to succeed at competitions.

“I have to tell people what I do,” Brad said. “What I do is different than anything else, but now I might go to a competition and see 75 people cooking on barrels. I see people I’ve taught, and I get beat by them.”

More than 1,000 people have taken his courses and the cost for a class exceeds $1,000.

As a competitor, he doesn’t love sharing his secrets, but as a business owner and marketer, that is part of his job.

A family holds up trophies won at a barbecue cooking competition
The Leighninger family shows off the awards it won at the Big Blue BBQ competition in Marysville, Kansas. (Photo: The Leighninger Family)

Family has had some wild experiences on the road

The Leighninger family has had lots of successes, but also some wild experiences.

Like the time their RV broke down on the way to competition in Oklahoma. Family members had to come pick up the kids on the side of the highway.

“At the American Royal, Hudson was four weeks old and got meningitis while we were there,” Sarah said. “We were in the hospital. (My mother-in-law) had to come get the girls and take them to a hotel.”

Then there was the time in Utah where the contest was one team shy of qualifying to be KCBS competition, so someone suggested Sarah break off and be a one-woman team. Brad says he thinks they thought he’d be easier to beat if they broke up their team.

“Brad came in first. I came in second,” Sarah said. “I got first for chicken. It was all improvising. People were bringing me their meat.”

Daughter Molly appeared on MasterChef Junior

Molly has been cooking alongside her family the longest. In 2019, she qualified for MasterChef Junior and appeared on the series.

“MasterChef Junior was the coolest experience of my life,” Molly said. “Meeting Gordon Ramsay, wow. He was super intimidating but also a great teacher.”

After the show aired in 2022 (it had been temporarily shelved because of COVID), she was invited on a two-month tour for a live MasterChef Junior show, where they performed in different cities.

“A live audience has so much energy,” Molly said. “When I started, I was a hot and fast girl. I had not expanded outside that area. But every show was different, and it pushed us to experiment and expand my technique. …  I cooked with monkfish, crab.”

Now the 14-year-old is her dad’s assistant at competitions.

A child uses a spatula to flip an egg they're cooking
Molly Leighninger qualified for MasterChef Junior in 2019 and appeared on the series with Gordon Ramsay. (Photo: The Leighninger family)

‘As long as I enjoy competitive cooking, I’ll keep doing it’

Sarah and Brad say this has been a great life for their family and encourage anyone who might be interested to get into it, but it’s not “cheap” to do.

For the near future, they are focused on balancing competitive cooking and growing their restaurant business.

“As long as I enjoy competitive cooking, I’ll keep doing it,” Brad said.

Juliana Goodwin

Juliana Goodwin is a freelance journalist with experience covering business, travel and tourism, health, food and history. She is a former Food and Travel Columnist for the Springfield News-Leader, a former business reporter for The Joplin Globe, and has written for USA Today and Arkansas Living Magazine, among others. More by Juliana Goodwin