You could say Lee Ann Whippen is just like one of us: She started barbecuing with her dad in the backyard, moved to ribs for friends and family, even won a few contests and awards. Balanced full-time gigs in the hotel and restaurant industries with her penchant for a perfect smoke ring.
But then there’s the rest of the story: How Whippen, a single mom with two daughters, saved her pennies for a 24-foot trailer with a pit and later parlayed that into her first brick-and-mortar barbecue joint in Chesapeake, Virginia. Several years later, as her catering company and restaurants expanded, she got her first call from TLC for an appearance on BBQ Pitmasters and was suddenly balancing mom duties, kitchen duties and owner-operator duties while becoming a budding celebrity chef.
Now she’s out of our league. She’s a regular on BBQ Pitmasters and has also appeared on the Today Show, Steve Harvey Show and the Travel Channel. In a surprise victory, she beat out Bobby Flay in the Food Network’s 2009 “Pulled Pork Throwdown.”
In her newest venture, Southern Cut Barbecue off Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, Whippen vows to bring a taste of the South to Chicago. Just after opening the doors, she chatted with BBQ Industry about what her experience in the restaurant business has taught her.
Q: How has your journey been from competitor to executive chef? Do you still get to run the smoker?
A: I love what I do. When we designed this restaurant, we made sure the doors were facing an area right in front of smoker, so guests can see me taking the meat off. That’s part of what I do. I have a couple people that come in and start the ribs, but I’m the one deciding how much of each item to cook based on reservations and I do all the food ordering. I’m pretty much here for all the meats. If I have a day off it’s because I’m comfortable that my staff can handle it.
Q: What’s are some important tips for operating a profitable BBQ restaurant?
A: Barbecue is the biggest challenge as far as cuisines. If you’re not cooking it fresh and don’t plate it fresh it’s not going to taste good. But then you’re getting into huge food costs and it’s a challenge to keep your food costs low.
At my restaurant, there are other factors that I have to take into consideration. For example, I have to look at convention business and the occupancy of the hotel, which really helps us judge and plan. We serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, but if the hotel is running under 40% occupancy we don’t put out a buffet.
Until you’re in business for about a year you don’t really know how business is going to be. After a year, that’s when I create my spreadsheet, take whatever numbers I have on the books and compare that to what I did last year on the same date. That way I know how many pork butts to fire, because you don’t want to have leftovers. Unless it’s brisket, then you can use it in the baked beans.
Also, counter service has much more manageable labor costs than full service. And don’t get locked into a lease where rent is super high, even if you have to sacrifice on location a bit. People seem to find you.
Q: How do you build trust with your meat suppliers?
A: Over the years I’ve worked with a lot of vendors, and you always have them bringing you samples. But I try to stick with the same vendors because you need to be consistent with your order and going to other vendors might throw that off. They need to be very consistent with their product, deliver in a timely manner and let me know that if there’s a problem, they’ll correct it.
Q: Local meats: Do guests care and are they willing to pay more?
A: Guests expect if you’re going to put local foods on the menu they’re going to pay more. It’s becoming more and more popular and it’s nice to be able to support your local vendors. If you go with small, family farmers, you’re going to get a fresher product but you’re going to pay … sometimes the bigger vendors can lock you into a lower price for something like pork butt.
Q: Does it make sense for restaurants to buy full animals and break down?
A: I would never do that. First of all, it’s going to cost you a lot more. Companies that break them down have an automated process, so it’s going to cost less. Also you never know what part of the animal you’re going to be stuck with … what if you cooked a bunch of shoulders and you’re left with 20 hams?
Q: How much beef vs. pig do you serve in general?
A: Right now we’re at about a 60/40 pig-beef ratio. It’s a higher kosher market so we’ve got more people leaning toward beef.
Q: Thoughts on serving beef ribs?
A: I’ve been down that road. Wagyu beef ribs are one of my favorite things … but a half-rack of beef ribs weighs 2 lbs. and the food cost is outrageous. In my opinion you cannot make money with beef ribs, your money is in pork.
Q: You’re a celebrity pitmaster. What’s that like?
A: I was one of the original “Pitmasters” – there were 7 of us. We went to seven or eight different venues all over Nevada and Kansas City. We were on the road with a film crew 24/7 and we were mic-ed up the whole time. As you’re doing more and more things you totally forget about that. And being with someone 24/7 is very stressful. I get in the zone and I can zone everyone out, but there’s always that much more pressure on you.
When American Destinations picked it up, it became a game with different rounds and you had to kill whatever it was you were cooking. Some people were deeply affected by that.
It’s funny when people say I’m a celebrity pitmaster. Here I am on TV and my hair is drenched and why on Earth people remember that and stop me, it’s funny to me. But since I’m so hands-on it’s also very rewarding.
Q: Was Bobby Flay mad when you beat him?
A: He was so incredibly gracious and he even said, right off the smoker, “This is the best pork barbecue I’ve ever had.” He was so complimentary and invited my mom and I to where he was doing a show, and then stayed afterward to chat with us.
Q: Wrap or no wrap?
A: Let’s just say over the past few weekends we’ve been doing 500 covers. The meat is going basically from the smoker to the table. Ribs I will wrap, but I don’t wrap shoulder or brisket. It’s tough, but we try to be pretty spot on.
Q: What’s special about Southern Cut?
A: It’s really kind of a country elegant atmosphere with our smoker right in the middle of the restaurant. We use hickory and apple on our pork and chicken and cherry on the brisket to get the smoke ring.
I love our mac and cheese, which is 20% smoked gouda and 80% monterey jack, with cheddar and panko on top. We also do a fun barbecue sundae in a parfait glass with smoked meat, baked beans, coleslaw and pickles.
Feature image: Lee Ann Whippen in front of her Southern Pride 700 smoker at Southern Cut Barbecue in Chicago.