Omi

We’ve seen you on TLC’s reality show “BBQ Pitmasters”. What is your definition of a pitmaster?

A pitmaster isn’t something you can go to school or be trained for. To be a true pitmaster you have to be able to be versatile on any kind of pit whether it’s a stick burner, which is just being fired with wood, or with charcoal where the wood is added for flavor. There are a lot of techniques based on oxygen flow because oxygen in your pit is going to feed the fire and make it hotter so there’s all of these different things you need to know about pits that really qualify you to be a pitmaster.

When you’re filming a food show, what is something viewers don’t see?

“BBQ Pitmasters” wasn’t scripted so that was the real deal but what you don’t see is all of the preparation. To do a five-minute segment it can take somewhere up to three hours to prepare for it because you have to have all of your ingredients, load in, set up and think about what you’re going to be talking about. There is a lot that goes into those short segments.

After working with Bobby Flay on “Throwdown! with Bobby Flay”, is there anything he taught you that stuck with you? Or anything you clued him on?

First of all, a lot of people ask me if I knew he was going to be there and I did not. The Food Network told me they were going to be doing a show called “The Grilling Gals” so I knew there were going to be cameras and we were going to be doing barbecue footage. They told me to prepare bone-in shoulders which take overnight to cook so I had to do it the day before. The television crew was there for two days at my restaurant in Virginia. When the shoulders were coming off the pit I noticed everyone was looking at me while I was talking and then they were all looking to my right. By the time I looked to my right Bobby Flay was like four feet from me. So I really didn’t know, which was a good thing because the shoulders were already cooked and I think I would have been nervous [had I known he was going to be there]. He thought it was the best pork shoulder that he ever had which I thought was a real compliment because that’s what his forte is. What he taught me was not to do what he does and that would be really putting too much of a twist on things almost too far. He did a coleslaw that had so much pepper in it that you couldn’t even taste the slaw. He was trying to be different, which is great for the show and for viewers but isn’t always the best thing for cooking.

Chef Lee Ann WhippenChicago q

Speaking of your signature bone-in pork shoulders, how long did it take you to perfect that recipe?

My dad is a Kansas City boy, he was born and raised on my nana’s hog farm in Lexington, Missouri so I competed with him 18 years ago. He did barbecue for years in the backyard but he developed what I think is the real key ingredient and that is Pig Powder dry rub which has 13 different ingredients in it. It’s sweet with a little bit of heat. It’s also all about buying a good cut of pork. I believe bone-in shoulder is better than cooking the whole shoulder. That’s what we do at Chicago q and we totally cover it with the dry rub and I really like using hickory and applewood to smoke it. Smoke it at a low temperature of 225 [degrees] upwards to 14 to 16 hours so it’s a long process. It probably sounds pretty easy from what I’m saying but it’s not an exact science because you really have to watch the internal temperature, make sure it’s at a minimum of 185 degrees so you really get that fall off the bone consistency. The fat renders out and actually ends up being a lean piece of pork when you’re done with it.

Is there a common mistake people make at home while grilling?

The biggest mistake people make is that they sauce too early. There is a lot of sugar in barbecue sauces which will burn over direct heat so it’s important when you sauce the meat that you do it towards the last 15 to 20 minutes. Also, when people are grilling hamburgers they’ll mash them down with their spatula and doing that might look great because you are getting some flames and it’s impressive but it’s really destroying the moisture from all of the goodness in the flavor and fat in the hamburger meat. 

Are there any dishes that you’ve put on your menu that got a reaction you weren’t expecting?

We’ve tried some really unique things lately. We are doing blackened alligator and some New Orleans style things like chargrilled oysters. I didn’t think the alligator was going to fly with the customers but it’s one of our top sellers. I guess because it’s unique, it’s farm raised and has a blackened seasoning on the grill. We haven’t had too many failures, we’ve been pretty lucky.

Do you ever get sick of barbecue?

One thing I can’t get sick of is beef brisket, we use waygu at the restaurant. I have that everyday and I’m not going to lie I also — and everyone knows this on the line — have to have my tablespoon of buttermilk mashed potatoes. It’s like my vitamin for the day, I just love ’em.

You’re living proof you can eat barbecue all of the time and still look great. What is your secret?

Well, thank you. I don’t know. I will say that there is a lot of physical work in barbecue and I call it barbecue pilates. We do events outside of the restaurant, so we’ll be doing a big event this weekend that’s going to be physically tough for three days.

Who is one person in the food industry you’d love to meet?

Anthony Bourdain. He’s like my idol, so.

Have you had any kitchen disasters?

I’ve had a pit disaster where I’ve had a grease fire. It’s pretty scary. You basically have to shut down the smoker just to shut off the oxygen. One time I had my trailer next to my house and I forgot to shut the firebox in the back so it caught the back of the trailer on fire and almost caught my house on fire, so that was another one. In the restaurant we had one little problem with our Pig Powder potato chips. They fell on the grill and that set off the sprinkler system. So those are a few!

Who would be a thrill to have in your restaurant to cook for?

Gosh, maybe Hillary Clinton? She seems like she is always out there on the road probably eating a lot of fine meals but I don’t know if she gets any good barbecue, so that would be kind of fun.

As a restaurateur are you constantly critiquing restaurants when you are eating out? What is the first thing you notice?

My family and friends don’t like to take me out because I’m constantly watching. Whether it’s picking up a sugar to see what brand it is or I’m really bad about evaluating service and critiquing food but at the same time I love to go out and see what is out there and what’s new. I’m fun to go with!

Chef Lee Ann WhippenChef Lee Ann WhippenChef Lee Ann Whippen

Will we find your home to be similar to the decor of Chicago q: wood floors, cozy atmosphere and upscale but comfortable?

Well it’s not a large apartment, it’s nice and close but yes I do have wood floors, I have my Green Egg smoker on my balcony and my daughter is always doing a current count of the pigs that I have around the apartment. I think she said around 120 the last time but it’s funny, when you walk in there it’s not like you see pigs, they’re kind of subtle around. And of course the cookbook collection that I have of signed cookbooks in a whole line in my kitchen.

And your daughters are following in your footsteps?

Yes they are, my 24-year-old competed with me at the World Food Championships series which is airing this Thursday and we actually placed second in the world. I live in Chicago with my 15-year-old daughter and she was just at two competitions with me. My oldest worked for my other restaurant in Virginia for quite a few years and she wants to compete now, my God! So yeah, they are actively involved.

When you have a day off do you order takeout or do you still cook at home?

I love to cook so I cook all of the time, even with the Green Egg. My friends are avid hunters and they bring me wild duck, venison, deer, whatever it is. I always have a pheasant in my freezer, I’m always trying and experimenting with new meats, techniques and what have you. So it’s my favorite pastime whether I’m at work or not I just love to cook.

Do you read your Yelp reviews? How do you handle criticism? 

I used to handle it pretty poorly but fortunately our Yelps are pretty good. It seems like when people critique things they are more apt to critique when it’s a negative versus a positive so you can’t take it to heart. I don’t really read them anymore, we just do the best that we can and hopefully we’ll get good reviews.

If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be? 

Definitely Anthony Bourdain and we’d drink bourbon of course. Bourbon and barbecue! I would probably be sitting in a thatched roof overlooking the rice fields in Bali, Indonesia. Something like that would be awesome. Or just someplace that I have not been before. Maybe even the Egyptian pyramids, who would think about having a drink there? I’ve always wanted to see those. But definitely with Anthony Bourdain. He seems like he enjoys drinking.

Chef Lee Ann Whippen
Kirsten Miccoli / A Drink With

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Omi