Barbecue and Nancy Meyers. Two of our favorites that are typically not associated with one another. Yet, when diners walk through the oversized barn house doors of Chicago q, the city’s premiere restaurant for all that is good and holy and smothered in bbq sauce, it appears as though they’ve stepped onto the set of one of the beloved director’s movies. White wainscoting, oversized linen pendant lights, reclaimed wood plank floors, brown leather chairs trimmed in nailhead. It’s the stuff Nancy Meyers’ dreams are made of. And the food is even better. Starting with the house bacon cheddar hush puppies and fried green tomatoes, moving on to the hominy, smoked corn, and black bean salad, and finally diving into a half slab of barbecue ribs that quite literally fall off the bone. Now that’s the stuff our dreams are made of.
When you add it all up, it really comes as no surprise to learn the chef behind this culinary wonderland is in fact female. Her name is Lee Ann Whippen, and this mother of two has made quite the name for herself in the male-dominated world of barbecue. With prominent TV appearances, national and state awards, and a critically acclaimed restaurant, she has plenty of experience to share for Everygirls everywhere.
Full name: Lee Ann Elizabeth Whippen
Current title/company: Chef/Partner at Chicago q Restaurant
Year you opened Chicago q: September 2010
Educational background: Indiana University, Bloomington. Lee Ann originally wanted to be a pilot and to attend Purdue for flight school. She ended up going to Bloomington to establish residency, but ended up not following that career path.
What was your first job out of college and how did you land that position?
My first position was in catering for a Holiday Inn in Livingston, NJ. It was an educational experience in many respects but especially in hospitality and culinary. I designed menus based on creativity while taking into consideration food cost. I planned weddings, from food, decor, floor plans to maître d’. It helped grow and develop my people skills and organization. From there, I went onto working in catering for Hilton and Hyatt Hotels for the next fifteen years. I received my Certified Meeting Planner (CMP) and LES certifications.
Tell us about the process of starting your own business. What particular challenges did working in the food industry present?
The process began by saving start-up money as well as securing small business loans in order to buy my 24-foot catering trailer. After two years, I realized that in order to grow the catering, I would need to buy a store front. This was challenging as I had to do a full build-out for the restaurant and needed to have it catering- and patron-friendly without compromising the ratio of space.
You’re an authority in the barbecue world. You have more than a decade of experience cooking this style and are a certified barbecue judge. What’s your favorite aspect about this genre of food?
My favorite aspect is that it is not exactly the same smoking process every day. It challenges my skills in producing competition-quality barbecue because cuts of meat come in different sizes, moisture content in the wood varies, and smoker temperatures change based on doors opening and closing and quantity of meat in the smoker.
What advice would you give to budding chefs who are looking to open their own place?
I am a believer in trying to do it on your own versus having a partner. You will eventually disagree with partners on many levels—menu, concept, money, etc. Also, consider demographics, competition, overhead, number of seats, etc. Make sure each are researched carefully in order to show profitability.
What’s your favorite thing to cook? Any words of wisdom to those of us who might be a little afraid to experiment in the kitchen?
BBQ of course! Even after work or on my day off, I will fire up my “Green Egg” smoker and experiment with different woods, techniques, cuts of meats, fruits and vegetables, pizza… the list goes on and on.
You’ve been the recipient of numerous cooking accolades—you’re competing in both the American Royal Invitational and the World Food Competition in Las Vegas in November. What did it take to get to this point? What counsel would you offer to a restaurateur just starting out?
I’ve been very fortunate over the past sixteen years competing in barbecue to win many state championships and national championships through hard work, dedication, and perseverance. I never let a loss get in the way, and that motivates me more to do better at my next competition. This helped me as a restauranteur starting out, adding credibility to my product.
Describe your day-to-day work life. What does a day in the life of Lee Ann Whippen look like?
Very tough as I’m a single mom of two beautiful daughters, one of whom is 13-years-old and still at home. I get up to get her off to school, go to the restaurant and look at reservations, private dining and determine the flow of the day. I’m usually not home until after dinner service, and I try to take Sundays off to spend with family and friends.
With so much recent success to celebrate, what has been the best part of your job?
Being able to take barbecue to a higher level and serve authentic smoked barbecue while incorporating different regions in an upscale environment in Chicago’s Gold Coast. And it helps that it has been so well received by locals and visitors.
In 2009, you starred in TLC’s docu-series BBQ Pitmasters. How is working on TV different than working in a restaurant?
The first season (8 shows) was an inside look at competitive barbecuing, following me all around the country. The only difference between TV and competitions is having the microphone and cameras on all the time. That sometimes interfered. TV is a lot easier than working in a restaurant because it’s for a dedicated amount of time, whereas my business is now and every day in the future.
Having so much experience in cooking something that can be seen as notoriously unhealthy, do you have any tips on making BBQ more health conscious?
Unhealthy is a misnomer in my opinion as it can be quite the contrary. Dry rubs with spices and herbs on cuts of meat that is slow-smoked render out the fat in the process. Even vegetables are healthier than frying or incorporating fats.
Are there any challenges in being a female in competitive barbecue? If so, how do you overcome them?
YES! There are many challenges as it is mostly a male-dominated sport. In the beginning, I just persevered and after proving myself with many awards, I gained respect and now have lifelong friends.
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Prepare for a life of hard work that never ceases and try to better balance time with family and friends by delegating responsibilities to other coworkers rather than think, “Only I can do this.” Also, be more innovative and take chances in looking outside the box.