Q & A with Bludso's BBQ Kevin Bludso, Part 2: Old Hickories, Business, and Barbecue Alley
J.H. StarrKevin Bludso and his pit
When we left Part 1 of our interview with Kevin Bludso, he had been talking about barbecue tours, the merit (gasp) of food blogs, and how his 90 year-old granny is still drinking Hennessy, and still working the pit.
For Part 2, the man behind Bludso's BBQ in Compton talks a little about the history of barbecue in Los Angeles, what it takes to train a pitmaster, and the business of the restaurant business. We were also given some off-the-record information about a new menu item coming our way soon. We don't reveal what it is, but we do reveal how he managed to steal the recipe from his aunt. Turn the page.
SI: You only know your own barbecue...
KB: Yeah! So because of the Internet, it's a new age now. It's different. What I just try to tell people too is, they say, "L.A. don't have no good barbecue, this and that." You know what? L.A. does have some good barbecue places. People say, "what's L.A. known for?" But what I tell people is that back in the 50s and 60s, when blacks were migrating here from the South, they were bringing barbecue here. L.A. had just as good of barbecue as Kansas City or Memphis, back in the 70s. Woody's, Gadberry's, Mr. Jim's. They had a lot of barbecue places in L.A. that were -- you know what I mean. Now they say there's no whatever because, of course, Gates and all those big time places.
But L.A. had just as good of barbecue back in the day. In fact, Broadway and all that, it was like six or seven different places. I think they used to call that Barbecue Alley or something back in the day. There were all kinds of different barbecue stands, and I knew them all, because my dad is from Texas, my mom is from Texas, but they came out here and went to high school. And then my dad was the L.A.P.D., so he knew all the spots. So we went to a place in Watts called Smitty's, on Wilmington, that was legendary. But they just didn't keep on going. But even as a kid, I would love to go to barbecue shacks. I loved it. And when I went to Texas this last time, I said I'm gonna get some barbecue, I'm just gonna work my way down. I ate at like nine different barbecue places. Just to try it out.
Anne FishbeinMeat and sacuce
SI: You pick up any tricks?
KB: Just from my Auntie.
[Here, Kevin Bludso talks about a new menu item, but tells us to keep it off the record until he's ready to make it public.]
KB:So I just kept feeding her Hennessey, some Cognac. By the time she got buzzed, she gave me the whole recipe.
SI: Has it been weird having people suddenly down here taking pictures of your food?
KB: You know what? It is, but the way I look at barbecue, a lot of people are still looking at barbecue as a picnic. I met some of the nicest people ever. So I'm used to it now. We've done Kanye West, we've done and all types of celebrity things. And they want to take pictures with you! I'm like, damn! You know, they're our groupies like we're their groupies. It's cool.
Anne FishbeinBludso's sausages
SI: Was it tough getting the restaurant started up?
KB: It was. We started on a shoestring budget. I'm hands on. I'm just slowly right now being able to pull away and do some of the business of the restaurant business. You can have the greatest thing in the world, but if you're not taking care of the business of the restaurant business, it's tough. So that's what I'm trying to do now. My son's going to school, and he'll be graduating in a couple of years. I told him, "when you graduate, come on out here and run this." We've got aspirations of going to other spots, and blowing up like that. So you never know.
SI: We'd love to have that.
KB: I'd love to be in Hollywood or something, but I just want to be a figurepiece. [Laughs]
SI: Tell me about your barbecue pits.
KB: The big pit. The big one right there, that's the one I learned how to cook on. They surprised me with that one a couple years ago. My uncle, who drives trucks, brought that out here on a truck. But that used to be my granny's pit. So now I'm in the process of refurbishing it. Somebody has some thing on there from Palmdale, but I just said, "Well you go ahead and put it on there saying that you built it, but that pit is over 40-something years old." But he's refurbishing it for me. He put a new stack on it, and all that. But that pit and the other pit are the two toughest ones to work on.
Like I said, if I train somebody new, I train them on those first before I train them on the old hickories. Because when you get older, you want to work smarter, not harder. Hickory still puts out the same product, but it's less work. But you still have to monitor those, you still have to make sure your woods are right. But those right there...you have to work those things. You gotta work it to keep it at 250 degrees, in the heat.
Like I said, if I was ever to open up 4 or 5 more stores or whatever, this would be the training ground. Because you teach them on those pits, and then it makes them respect the old hickories way more. You gotta work those pits. Because if you do open something else, the worst thing you could ever hear is, "Oh it's good, but it's not as good as the one in Compton." I don't ever want to hear that.
Anne FishbeinSmoke and fire
SI: How long would it take you to train somebody?
KB: I think you can train a co-pitmaster in about, a solid three months if they want to. But then you still gotta oversee it. With the old hickories it makes it easier. But you gotta train somebody who has a love for cooking meats. And you can tell from right off the bat. I can tell if they're ready, because they're always worried about that pit.
When I learned how to swim in Texas, my uncle threw me into deep water when I was seven. I didn't know how to swim. The reason being, he wanted me to get the effect of drowning. And it worked. So here, you want them to be fearful of burning the meat up. So once they get that, then it's always in their mind. But even when they get the hang of it, even me after all these years, that fear is still in my mind. So you gotta get that in their mind.
SI: So you were able to turn a profit pretty quickly.
KB: It's cool, but it's still not -- it should be, but that's what I said as far as the business. Because when you start on a shoestring, you gotta get out that shoestring. So that's what my goal is for this year.
SI: You eat much barbecue outside of Bludso's?
KB: I don't hardly eat Bludso's. Because I know what mine is gonna taste like. But you know, I still like Jay-Bee's, I still like Woody's, and BigMista, I love his barbecue. And Phillip's. I still like some of the legends. In fact, a customer of mine, Tim, they have a barbecue thing now. And he placed at the Orange County thing. And man, I tasted his brisket and I said, "Don't you open no restaurant nowhere near me." But he's a customer of mine, and I kind of talked to him, and he asked a lot of questions...
SI: You helped him too much.
KB: Yeah, but nah, but he did real good. I've had his food and I said, "Man, I'm a fan of your barbecue now." I'm still a barbecue fan, I still like barbecue. People think you don't, but it's just like anything else. You don't want yours. I got my granny's old saying. Everybody has their different tastes when it comes to barbecue. Everybody. But just don't make bad barbecue, you know what I mean?
Get the Squid Ink'd Newsletter
Sign up for our weekly food newsletter, which features top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips and a link to our print review.