Since Soul & Smoke hit the national spotlight after being on Good Morning America for a live Chicago barbecue competition, it has seen an influx of customers, many of whom told the owners they drove in from other states just to order the brisket.
“We sold a lot of briskets,” said co-owner D’Andrew Carter. “Brisket sliders, brisket sandwiches, brisket dinners. You name it: chop brisket, mac and cheese brisket bowls. It was brisket-crazy over the weekend.”
Carter and co-owner Heather Bublick appeared on the segment May 11 and showcased their prime brisket, cooked for 14 hours, topped with their Kansas City-style barbecue sauce on a brioche bun. They competed for Chicago bragging rights and to move on to the GMA quarter finals against South Side chef Dominique Leach of Lexington Betty Smokehouse, who won the round.
This isn’t the first time Soul & Smoke has caught the attention of the media over the past few years. The BBQ had won praise from food critics in the Chicago Tribune and TimeOut Chicago. The former wrote that Carter’s was “the best [brisket] I’ve tried outside of Texas.”
It’s that very media attention that landed them on Good Morning America, which Carter considers the biggest media attention yet.
Bublick, who is also married to Carter, told the Roundtable that GMA producers said they found the duo’s restaurant by googling “Best Barbecue in Chicago.”
“We kept on coming up on all the links,” she said.
The recent coverage provides a great opportunity for the RoundTable to not only salivate but also revisit how the local barbecue business quickly gained regional and national attention.
The business’ history
Before there was Soul & Smoke, there was Feast and Imbibe.
Carter and Bublick met in 2013, while working on the now-defunct fine-dining restaurant Moto, where they began preparing “underground dinners,” private five-course tasting menus with wine pairings, from their apartment, under the name Feast and Imbibe.
Eventually, they started to cater larger private parties and weddings under that name. A couple of months into it, different corporations caught wind of the growing buzz and asked the duo to drop off several pounds of food at a time for Tuesday lunch.
Carter said eventually that business turned into Soul & Smoke, because it gave birth to the more easy to transport comfort food barbecue menu.
“The food that we used during Feast and Imbibe had to be assembled,” and it couldn’t just be dropped off like these corporations requested. Soul & Smoke, however, makes food you can reheat easily. “We’d do our fine dining thing, and then one of the corporations call, and then we just drop a couple of pounds of food off to them,” Carter said.
In 2015, the casual dining menu that served as the skeleton for Soul & Smoke was formed. The couple ran the two operations side by side. Soul & Smoke as an informal carryout restaurant operating out of their apartment for private requests.
Their original S&S menu featured mac and cheese, pulled pork, herbed chicken, mashed potatoes and salads.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Carter said Feast and Imbibe went on the back burner since no one was gathering anymore.
But Soul & Smoke stepped up “because that’s just everyday comfort food,” Carter said. The two started offering individual pick-up and delivery options to the general public.
By May of 2021, Carter invested in bigger smokers and a bigger team. Not only does the couple operate their Evanston location at 1601 Payne St., but at the height of the pandemic, Soul & Smoke had opened up several ghost (or pop-up) kitchens in Chicago neighborhoods such as Avondale, the South Loop and the West Loop.
“So all those guys have a three-mile radius, so if all four locations [have a] three-mile radius, you got us pretty much covering the whole Chicago,” Carter said.
Once Nick Kindelsperger of the Tribune wrote his first review as a food critic about Soul & Smoke in May 2021, “that really exploded everything,” Bublick told the RoundTable.
Good Morning America experience
About two weeks before the live television appearance, the Good Morning America team called Soul & Smoke about the competition. Bublick said they started talking to the cashier, who answered the phone.
“They were just like, ‘No, we want to do, like, a barbecue contest. We want you guys to be one of them,’ ” Bublick said.
The GMA crew came to Evanston a week before the competition to film segments for the live show. They returned for the live competition, filming inside the Soul & Smoke kitchen.
Carter said he arrived at the store at 4 a.m. on the day of the show to check the briskets he had been smoking since the night before.
Each of the two restaurants competing was asked to invite 25 guests, and the camera crew totaled about 30, he said. The mascots for the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Cubs were also there to give the event some more Chicago flair. So, it was crowded.
“I’ve always been … [a] shy person,” Carter said. “But … I was pretty ready and confident and … I really believed that we’re just gonna win.” Carter said that he spent a lot of time making sure he had the right description for his food because he knew everyone would be listening.
Overall, Carter says the event had “a real fun vibe” and “it wasn’t stressful,” mainly because he had a lot of confidence in his dish, and he was prepared to win – even though he didn’t.
“‘You should’ve won,’ that’s what [customers] were saying,” Carter said.
What’s next for Soul & Smoke?
The Evanston-based restaurant managed to grab the attention of the Chicago barbecue scene. And the two co-owners are working on two more dine-in restaurants, one in Evanston, the other in Avondale, hopefully turning the ghost kitchen into a brick-and-mortar place.
Besides that, the restaurant is releasing a new Belgian-style ale called “beer for the soul,” coming to Sketchbook Brewery in Evanston. The beer pairs well with barbecue, Carter said.
But if there’s anything you should know about the Evanston-based restaurant, it’s that their influence has surpassed just the city. “Anytime somebody from the outside looking in does some research,” Carter said, “They gon’ see us.”
Watch the full competition video here.