By Donna Hammond.
At last, summer in Chicago is almost here! So much happens in our beloved city – neighborhood festivals, music concerts, picnics, and backyard barbecues. As we begin to gear up for summer activities in Chicago, one of the most beloved summer pastimes is a good barbecue cookout. When we think of a what a good barbecue cookout looks like, our minds tend to conjure up families who have gathered together to enjoy soulful music, games, and barbecue. Every family has their favorite barbecue king or queen who has set the bar high when it comes to preparing and cooking meats that the entire family will enjoy.
Over the past few years, however, the backyard barbecue has changed dramatically with the evolution of the pitmaster – the kings and queens of smoking meat. Mastering the art and science of smoking meats, such as ribs, steaks, chicken, and seafood, they are on a higher level than our family members standing over smoky grills at the backyard or park picnic.
I recently spoke to four of Chicago’s rising Black pitmasters – each considered influencers in the game who have made a name for themselves not just in Chicago, but also on their social media platforms with followers from around the country.
Chef Dominique Leach and Lexington Betty Smokehouse
There aren’t many in the Chicago area who haven’t heard about Chef Dominique Leach and the Lexington Betty Smokehouse, located on the South side in the Pullman community. After receiving an associate degree in culinary arts from the Illinois Institute of Art, she worked in the food industry under James Beard award-winning chefs and at Michelin-starred restaurants, where she honed her skills. She and her wife, Tanisha, eventually started their catering business, Lexington Betty Smokehouse, named after her grandmother, Betty King, of Lexington, Mississippi. Over the years, Dominique and Tanisha ran several restaurants on the north and west sides before opening the Lexington Betty Smokehouse in the 111 Food Hall in the Pullman community. “Lexington Betty is what got me where I am today – my grandmother is still living and she regularly visits the restaurant that is named in her honor,” she shared.
The Lexington Betty Smokehouse brand has afforded Dominique many opportunities to expand her brand around the nation. Dominique shared, “My ‘aha’ moment was when the media attention began and when I was featured on WGN Channel 9 with a live cooking demonstration.” Since her first appearance on local television, Dominique and the Lexington Betty Smokehouse has catapulted to the top of the game, winning a Best BBQ in Chicago competition on Good Morning America; competing on Chopped: Playing with Fire; and in July, Barbeque Brawl on the Food Network. The smokehouse, managed by Dominique’s wife, Tanisha, specializes in beef brisket and rib tips smoked with apple wood, and of course sides, such as greens, baked mac and cheese, brisket baked beans, and southern potato salad. In addition, she established a retail business, Lexington Betty Foods, which sells their Wagyu Beef franks and Andouille sausage, and their Spicy Betty BBQ sauce at both the restaurant and Mariano’s grocery stores, and on their website.
As she reflects on being one of a few female pitmasters in a world that is predominantly male, Dominique holds her own. “I hear from the male chefs – such as Chef Erik Williams, who has introduced me to his followers and guests, and expresses his pride and excitement about my future with his guests in the restaurant.” As she reflects, on her success, Dominique shared “We have a responsibility to carry ourselves with standards – and to be consistent with carrying ourselves with respect, remembering to honor those who have done it before us.” As a woman, queer, black chef with a space at the table… you are either going to pull the table up for me or I’ll make my own table…”
Daniel Hammond – Smoky Soul BBQ Chicago
Daniel Hammond, owner of Smoky Soul BBQ Chicago, has been a pitmaster for over 10 years. He has a huge following in the Chicago area, working as a caterer for corporate and private functions, as well as hosting “pop-ups” around the Chicago area. He is a social media influencer whose YouTube channel and social media content have brought him recognition as a brand ambassador of several BBQ-related businesses, including Weber Grill and Kingsford.
BBQ is His Life’s Purpose
Before becoming a skilled pitmaster, Hammond, who sang in the youth choir at his home church, longed to be in the music industry, spending his time performing as a local musician and songwriter. “I spent years as a performer, singer, songwriter, and musician. Music was truly my passion – I did BBQ as a side hustle,” he shared. “The moment I decided to put down my music and focus on BBQ was the moment I knew it was going to be my life’s work – my purpose.”
When did your career as a pitmaster began?
Hammond shared that his career as a pitmaster began when he was asked to cook for friends’ parties and events. “I’ve always enjoyed grilling and smoking meats, since college days,” he added. “I learned new techniques, watching BBQ competitions and studying different types of grills. The moment I learned to master techniques on different types of grills, and when I began to understand the fundamental elements of BBQ: time, temperature, texture, and technique (the “4 T’s”) I became addicted to honing my skills,” he stated. “In addition to the 4 T’s, it is important to have an understanding of the types of meats you are cooking and to identify what flavor profiles work best with different meats.”
Who were your influences?
Daniel shared that his stepfather was a major influence in his understanding of how BBQ should taste. “At the time, I felt his ribs were second to none! I began building better BBQ – no sauce, just flavor.” His other influences include pitmasters such as Rodney Scott, Kevin Bludso, Rashid Philips, and Aaron Franklin.
What suggestions would you have for new pitmasters?
Hammond provided, “My only suggestion to anyone interested in mastering this craft is if you do not have the patience with cooking, develop it. The main component for producing the best BBQ is time. If you are not willing to wait for the best results, then this might not be your ministry! Begin with a plan; start off with simple meats and master those first. Also, make sure you want it bad enough – don’t stop believing.”
Ron Conner – UWantDatSmoke BBQ
Another Chicago pitmaster who has been on the scene for a while is Ron Conner, owner of U Want Dat Smoke BBQ. Conner, who got started as a pitmaster while in college in Texas, over 40 years ago, and watching the Drexler’s BBQ people cook smoked meats. “I loved the smell of smoking meats – it was like a great cologne!” He shared that although he always enjoyed cooking at picnics and events, he didn’t start his BBQ business until after retiring from the CTA.
As a self-taught pitmaster, Conner believes that a good pitmaster must love the skill. In addition, he shared, “A good pitmaster has patience in the process and comes up with their own creations and styles and works at perfecting their skills. This is not an easy thing to do.” Conner shared that he was not looking to be like the BBQ mainstays in Chicago – everything he does at the pit is different, including his sauce. “I glaze my foods, smoke with wood (post oak) that I have shipped to me.” When asked which meat is his favorite to smoke, “I love beef ribs with a pepper flavor – it makes a crust that is out of this world!,” said Conner.
Social Media Influencer
Conner, who is considered a BBQ social media influencer, shared that his social media has increased his business exponentially. As a result, he has been able to serve his food at various venues and businesses in the city and suburban areas, with plans for pre-cooked BBQ at Pier 31 this summer.
The Pitmaster/BBQ Community
Conner shared that the Chicago pitmasters and BBQ community is a cool, friendly group of people who share ideas and is supportive of the work of other pitmasters. He also mentioned Kevin Bludso and Rashid Phillips as influencers. He has visited other cities and has met some of the top pitmasters and chefs in the nation from Texas to South Carolina.
For information, visit uwantdatsmokebbq on Instagram.
Antonio Riley – Riley’s Ribz
Antonio Riley, owner of Riley’s Ribz, is a self-taught pitmaster. Riley’s Ribz is a line of seasonings that can be used for meats and other dishes. Like other pitmasters and chefs, Riley shared that originally, he was not interested in BBQing. His interests began during visits to Cincinnati to visit his wife, Caryn’s family. “When my wife and I would go to Ohio for visits, her grandfather was the pitmaster of the family; I would hover around, watching him on the grill,” Riley shared. He started entering the family’s “rib off ” competitions, and came in either next to last or in last place in the competition. Riley noted, “After being hounded about my last place finishes, I decided to do something different. I began making my own seasonings and sauces for my ribs.” The following year, having tightened up his approach to BBQ, he entered the competition and won the next two events.
After serving as a federal agent for 25 years and working 60-70 hours a week, in 2013, budget cuts reduced him to a regular 40-hour work schedule where he was able to make barbecue sauces 2-3 nights per week and selling on his social media platforms. Two years later, he found himself producing over 3,000 bottles of sauces. He expanded the business in 2017 and began manufacturing Riley’s Ribz seasonings which are sold in local grocery stores.
When did your passion for smoking meat begin?
Riley did weekend catering and BBQ “pop-ups” around the city; however, the demand for the Riley’s Ribz seasonings began to take up more of his time. “My main focus today is to continue to grow the product side of the Riley’s Ribz business,” Riley shared. “I have a passion for the BBQ; however, it is daunting and time consuming,” he added.
What makes a good pitmaster?
In response to the question of what makes a good pitmaster, Riley pointed out that “Taking pride in everything you do when BBQing is important. Watching others smile about your food – family, friends, etc. brings community together. The black family has a long history of BBQ and cookouts – it’s all about bringing family and friends together over good food.” In addition, he explained, “A good pitmaster must have quality meat and know the equipment and science behind smoking, such as what the wood does, etc. These are intricate details; it’s not as simple as ‘if he can do it, I can do it…” Riley further stated that many do not realize the background about producing quality grilled and smoked meats. He suggested viewing YouTube channel videos and tutorials to learn the processes involved. “Meat cooks different ways; color, texture, etc., play a factor – it is a definite process,” said Riley. One thing that Riley shared is that he does not understand why there aren’t more women pitmasters. “It is a male-dominated industry; yet, I would encourage anyone with a passion to do the work to be a part of the pitmaster community.”
Chef Dominique Leach (photo courtesy of GAZ Consulting + Design)
Daniel Hammond (photo courtesy of Daniel Hammond)
Antonio Riley (photo courtesy of Antonio Riley)
Ron Conner (photo courtesy of Ron Conner)