by Ari Bendersky | May 26, 2014 | Food & Drink
A pioneer of the city’s home-style cuisine trend, barbecue queen Lee Ann Whippen continues to lead the way at Chicago q.
Chef Lee Ann Whippen.
“Coming to Chicago was a good decision,” says Chicago q chef/ partner Lee Ann Whippen, who in 2010 made the move from Chesapeake, Virginia, at the behest of Chicago q owner Fred Latsko—even though it meant leaving behind her acclaimed restaurant Wood Chick’s, which she closed last year. Explains the petite blonde, “It allowed me to do barbecue I couldn’t do in Virginia.”
Four years later, that barbecue—with artisanal house-made rubs on everything from Wagyu brisket to Whippen’s award-winning pulled pork—has made the New Jersey–raised chef’s refined Gold Coast destination a favorite among the city’s homestyle gourmet spots. And the trend has only intensified in the past few years, as barbecue has been joined by fried chicken as a comfort food given an upscale twist.
“Lee Ann’s place really did a lot to elevate what barbecue can be,” says Smoque BBQ co-owner Barry Sorkin. “It doesn’t have to be a hole-in-the-wall shack. It can be a great restaurant and put out great food.”
BBQ goes upscale at Chicago q.
Just walking in the door of Chicago q’s cozy Dearborn Street space, it’s immediately clear that this is no typical barbecue joint: Gleaming bottles of high-end and small-batch bourbon line a gorgeous wooden bar. In the bustling dining room, comfy green leather booths offset white wainscoting; large mirrors hang between tables that sit beneath pendants with linen shades; and overlooking the entire handsome room is a massive photo mural of a Virginia country road.
Indeed, if it weren’t for the buzzing crowd and the intensely smoky scent wafting from the open kitchen in the back, you might think you’d stepped inside one of the homes in the tony surrounding neighborhood. And in a way, you have—for Whippen (who has been a regular on TV shows like Throwdown with Bobby Flay), Chicago q is all about offering an “intimate at-home dining experience, which is overlooked too often in the restaurant community today,” she says.
The bar offers dozens of wines and more than 50 bourbons.
Whippen herself is a highly respected figure on the Chicago restaurant scene, described as “personable,” “engaging,” and above all “impressive” by her colleagues and barbecue-world contemporaries. “Lee Ann is passionate, cares, tries hard, and is smart and talented,” says Sweet Baby Ray’s founder Dave Raymond, a close friend. “What’s most impressive to me is that she does so much by herself.”
Whether it’s 50-something businessmen out for post-meeting Manhattans shaken with Angel’s Envy bourbon (a signature q cocktail) alongside slabs of baby back ribs; young families bonding over moist chicken and smoky pulled pork with sides of fried green tomatoes and cheddar hush puppies; or groups of Gold Coast friends getting together to celebrate over whole pork shoulder presented tableside, the place is packed nearly every night, and Whippen—the consummate hostess—is there strolling the room to greet table after table.
Start your meal with barbecued shrimp and herb-infused grits.
“An integral part of what I do on a daily basis is interact with our guests,” she says. “I’m excited about every conversation I have and for them to hear about our smoking methods, my history as a pitmaster, and to see via kitchen tours where and how the food gets to the table.”
Whippen makes it all seem effortless, despite the long hours at the smoker, at the restaurant, at charity events, and on the barbecue competition circuit—where she has won “between 60 and 75” awards (she can’t recall, admitting that it may be more) since first competing with her dad in 1996. She credits her father’s passion for barbecue, as well as childhood trips to her grandmother’s Missouri hog farm, for getting her where she is today, and for giving her the tenacity to survive in the admittedly testosterone-filled world of competitive barbecue.
Jumbo lump crab cakes.
“My dad was well known, so that gave me a foot in the door,” Whippen says. “When I started hitting the road myself, the men realized I could do this and beat them. I had to win repeatedly—but once you start winning, you gain respect, and it evolves from there.” Spoken like a true champion. 1160 N. Dearborn St., 312-642-1160
photography by Galdones Photography