A while back I received an email from none other than Dave Raymond, aka “Sweet Baby Ray” letting me know that a group of Chicago BBQ Pitmasters, Competition, Backyard Enthusiasts and other BBQ industry “celebs” were going to gather at Real Urban Barbecue in Highland Park, IL. This group has been around for some time now and I was finally able to join them. Below is the story of how Dave got this group started and I hope to enjoy many more Monday Nights with this crew. I have to admit, I was a little “star struck” and nonetheless, so honored to be on the guest list. Wanted to share this letter with all of my BBQ friends…
Written By Sweet Baby Ray
For a while now, I have been getting together to hang out with the barbecue guys in Chicago. We eat and talk some barbecue, and have some fun and laugh. We also support and encourage each other. Last night was another one of those nights.
Real Urban Barbecue in Highland Park, IL— a bit of a trek, but worth it. Jeff Shapiro is the first of my friends to open a barbecue restaurant and actually have restaurant experience (just a tad smarter than the rest of us), and if I may say, Jeff has put that experience to good use. I am quite pleased to say that there has been at least a dozen or so authentic (in my opinion, and in my opinion I know) barbecue places established here, and it’s great to see it happening, and we are all learning from each other, and life is better in Chi Town for it.
This is how it works. I get out my trusty (and ever-growing) list of Chicago barbecue buds, pick a place and a time (usually 3-4 weeks notice), send out an e-mail, and it’s game on. We all are busy, we all have lives and wives and work and family. Nevertheless, in small little flurries– the e-mails come back. Lists are made, information is passed along, arrangements are made.
I’ve tried to be organized and structured, on time and prepared, but nobody is here for that. But that does not mean we don’t want to be there and Q-ing. It means it is what it is, and we are who we are, and friends and barbecue folks aren’t about that. So far, we are about nothing, and loving every bite of it. Speaking for myself, I think it is the coolest thing that I can just call up my friends and wind up hanging out with some pretty damn good barbecue men and women.
Who? Barbecue restaurateurs, KCBS and MBN competition cooks, ribbers, backyard barbecue enthusiasts, a BBQ author, a couple of butchers and KCBS judges, and some new guys that I am just getting to know.
It all started a couple of years ago after the NBBQA Convention in Austin, Texas. Seminars had just let out and Barry (Smoque Barbecue), Andrew (sells pork to Mike Mills and The Shed and Barry—and as far as I know sells more pork ribs than anyone in the country), and Rich Wood (Southern Pride Smokers) had the smoker going. We were Chicago guys in Texas, cooking barbecue for the National Barbecue Association. I was in hog heaven, and it was a beautiful day. I followed my nose, leaned on the trailer, and smiled as the warm sun shone on my face. The rest of me must have been glowing too.
So, the lines quickly formed, and I watched as my story unfolded. Andrew and Barry were having one of many, many conversations about if the ribs were properly prepared.
As the conversation ensued, Paul Kirk (name dropping) came by and offered that the ribs should have been this-or-that half an hour ago. This of course enabled Andrew to say– “I told you so.” And if memory serves, he through in, “I have been saying that for 6 months.” (More name dropping) Joey Macs Smoke Stax (2008 American Royal GC) came over by me, and said like only he could say– “I don’t know, they seemed like 9’s across the board to me.” Then I really had a big smile on my face.
There is more to the story, but in the name of time I will just say that when I came back from the convention I wanted to invite my barbecue friends out, and share with them some stories, and talk some barbecue.
And we did– and now that’s what we do. As far as who else was there last night, I am not sure. But I comfort myself by thinking how cool it is.
I was talking to Charlie of Lillie’s Q— one of the newer places, and younger guys. Charlie is a trained chef and successful competition cook. Charlie, sitting down, looking kind of tired, I asked him how many hours he works. He said 70-80, said he had a four-year-old son, and we agreed this was the time for him to be working hard. Didn’t seem like a thing to Charlie, who I noticed had not shaved, but did make it out to our little event. And that made me happy.
I got a big kick out of Jeff’s smile, and he and his great team’s effort to offer us excellent barbecue and hospitality.
Eddie from Big Ed’s BBQ, one of my best buds and a new competition cook, was there with Kim and the family, as was their partner and my friend, Rhonda.
Ron from Pig Chaser’s Barbecue Sauce, now in 25 stores and other locations. Hustling sauce in January. Damn impressive. Take it from someone who knows.
Sales Bob and Jimmy Crack, now the pit-master for a Whole Foods (paycheck!) from the B Team competition barbecue team.
A lawyer of mine and his wife (stuck out like a sore thumb, but they loved the barbecue.)
Gary, my buddy and author of “Low and Slow”, barbecue man and food expert in general.
Somehow a skinny produce salesman got him some good barbecue…
We ate some, talked some, laughed some. Smiled a lot, ate a lot. Not a bad Monday night in Chi Town.
Dave Raymond, aka Sweet Baby Ray, loves barbecue. With more than 29 passionate years
in the barbecue business, and the support of family and friends, he has taken Sweet Baby
Ray’s from a humble hobby into a successful multi-faceted business operation. A barbecue
master in the Chicagoland area, Sweet Baby Ray boasts two thriving authentic restaurants—
a barbecue “joint”, owned and operated with his nephew Duce Raymond, offering a unique
regional barbecue menu and a larger full-service facility owned and operated with long-time
friend and partner Mike O’Brien. In addition to his restaurants, Raymond oversees two premier
catering companies utilizing the expertise of seven professionally trained chefs, competes on an
award-winning competition barbecue team, and has produced the best selling barbecue sauce in
the nation. Outside of work, Raymond still enjoys his hobby as an active member of the barbecue