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A couple of months ago I wrote about the relocation of the only south-side African-American-style barbeque place on the white north side, Honey 1 Barbecue. (They're still there; the 43rd Street location hasn't opened yet.) Now here's the reverse: a north-side-style barbecue joint cooking barbecue in a Southern Pride smoker (the same kind used at places like Smoque), in a style pretty much straight out of Tennessee, with southern sides from collard greens to fried green tomatoes—half a mile from U.S. Cellular Field on the south side.
Nashville native Joe Woodel, who owns Husky Hog Bar-B-Que, is a big guy with a Southerner's gift for telling a long story well. He's been cooking professionally for only about a half dozen years, but as his story unreels you realize that he's packed a lot of life into that time, and a lot of barbecue culture that's taken him from competition barbecue to a food truck in Chicago to, finally, his own BBQ restaurant in Bridgeport. I had him pretty well pegged until he let something slip halfway through our conversation, something that totally upends everything I'd assumed about a guy from Tennessee tellin' me 'bout his 'cue—and it might explain why he can tell a story so well.
In the first part of our interview, Woodel talks about how he caught the barbecue bug after culinary school and entered the world of competition barbecue, where life revolves around precise preparation by the clock (the "turn-in time") for the judges. Tomorrow we'll talk about food truck and restaurant life in Chicago.
Michael Gebert: Tell me how you got into this business.
Joe Woodel: Man, I'm horrible at dates and years. My wife could tell you to the second. I know July we'll have the food truck for two years, so two years before the food truck we started a competition team called Long Tongs. And everybody thought we were Asian, and I just thought everybody was racist!
But we really didn't pick the name Husky Hog until—we did one amateur contest, and we did one professional contest under Long Tongs, and then the next year we changed to Husky Hog over the winter. When Long Tongs started, I had just had two carpal tunnel relief surgeries on my wrists. And I'd just graduated culinary school at Washburne on 63rd under [Big Shoulders Coffee owner] Tim Coonan; I got so lucky to get him as an instructor there.
Then I went to work for Art Smith at Table Fifty-Two, I worked for him for over a year. I was just his garde-manger chef, which was really good. But then I started having my wrist problems, because I was going to culinary school from seven in the morning until two or three o'clock in the afternoon, and then I would work there until one o'clock at night. And I did that for like a year and a half, and I just wore my wrists out. I couldn't hold knives any more, I couldn't have any feelings in my hand.
When I had my wrist surgery I was sitting at home, I couldn't do anything for like six or eight months. And I saw this show called BBQ Pitmasters. And I watched one or two or three episodes of that and I thought, man, I think I could do that. Because it didn't look too strenuous, it didn't look like I needed to chop a lot of stuff, I wasn't doing mise en place all day and small dice, or anything like that.
So I watched that show and then my wife come home and I recorded it, and I said, I think I can beat those guys. I mean, those are just a bunch of crazy rednecks cookin' barbecue—that shit can't be that hard. And I got a culinary degree—ribs? That's easy! Shoulders? That's 30 percent fat; you can't mess up shoulders.
I got a friend—because I knew I needed help cutting and cleaning up—I got a friend, José, to help me because he always wanted to go to culinary school but he has a kid, and he just didn't have time. But he had time to do that for us. So we bought two 18-inch Weber bullets, bullet smokers, and I just started practicing every Saturday. We would do ribs one weekend and shoulder the next, and we would just practice, practice, practice. And I was making barbecue sauces that had way over 30 different components, all the way down to coffee, to Coke, anything you could think of to try to be different, to beat these guys, before we did the competition.
We signed up for a competition in Glen Ellyn, the Glen Ellyn Backwood Barbecue Fest. You only cook ribs, spares, or baby backs, and "chef's choice." People were doing sushi, they were doing oysters, but I just did chicken thighs, like we'd been practicing. Because I wanted to work on the timelines [of competition barbecue].
It was very disorganized, but we did all right, we were right in the middle of the pack. The next competition we did was Libertyville, and that was our first, our very first, professional competition. So we did one amateur and we went right into professional. I think there were like 40, 50 times and we got 28th overall and our brisket was horrible. But we were still learning.
And I couldn't figure out—why was I scoring so low? Was I not cooking it right? Was my sauce too bland? Because those judges don't give you any notes—they don't tell you, oh, we want it spicier, we want it milder. They don't tell you any of that. They're just like, here's your score, thanks for participating. Well, shit.
So I said, I think I need to take a class to figure out what's going on. So I started researching it and I wanted to know who is the top of the food chain, who is the best competitor out there, and it was Myron Mixon, from Unadilla, Georgia. He's the winningest man in barbecue, with four world-championship rings, which are beautiful.
I scraped up all my money over the winter—because I was working at Home Depot—and I flew down to Atlanta and then rented a car and drove three hours and stayed at his house for four days. Just cooking barbecue, from whole hogs to shoulders. And the first thing I learned was, I was overcomplicating things. It was just dry rub, sugar, simple sauces, they just really simplified it. Beef base and garlic powder was their injection for the brisket—man, I was doing fourteen to eighteen different components.
We signed up the next year for six different competitions, but for practice I would just take my paycheck and buy meat. And I traded in my Jeep, that I had gotten as a graduation present [when I got my theater degree from] Columbia College, for a smoker and an F-250 to travel around and set up behind Home Depots and sell box lunches. We would do it just like a competition—the night before we would brine it and inject it and have it all ready to go. Then we'd pull up and we knew that people would start lining up around 11 AM. So we would act like that was our first turn-in [for judging]. We were cutting brisket right there on the smoker, and we would do chicken thighs, and shoulders. We would do everything, just like a competition, until we sold out. We were there in the rain, no matter what, just trying to get my money back.
Wait, I want to back up a second here. You have a theater degree?
Most people don't know this, but I was born in Newark, New Jersey. I lived there till I was about three or four. And my mom moved us to Nashville, so I always just say that I'm from the south. I don't think of Jersey as my home; if I go home it's to Tennessee.
I didn't start professionally cooking until I was 26, 27. When I moved to Chicago, I came here to do stand-up comedy, but I found out I was't funny. I did stand-up, I did Second City, I did iO, and I was in a bunch of improv groups. And I really did enjoy it, I really do love entertaining, to be on stage is like a rush, it's nervous energy—how to take that nervous energy and use it. Same thing with competing in barbecue, turn-in is that same nervous feeling you get when you walk on stage, the same feeling you get in your gut. I enjoy it; I get off on that.
So I guess I moved here, I got my BFA in Columbia and I did that for a while, and when the economy tanked and all the small theaters closed—I was getting shows and stuff, but there was no pay. You don't make any money starting out. You've got to buy your own costumes and your own makeup. How do you make a living doing that?
So my wife said, if you want to go to cooking school while it's slow in theater, you should go do it. So that's when I went to cooking school at Washburne.
Tomorrow: from BBQ competitions, to a BBQ food truck, to a BBQ restaurant